The Digital Piranesi


Piranesi’s use of perspective can be arresting, imposing, or distorting. His thwarted career as an architect is often noted in biographical approaches to his works. Beyond that, the fundamental challenges of rendering three-dimensional space on two-dimensional paper, which by their nature make representation itself an issue, should also be seen to animate the use of perspective in his Vedute di Roma. In individual views that adopt a dramatically lowered vantage point, he seems to favor the aesthetic category of the “picturesque,” which William Gilpin theorized in the English context that shaped the perception of his images for much of Piranesi’s audience. But he also exaggerates the massiveness of the monuments whose magnificence he values over the “quiet simplicity and noble grandeur” of Greek aesthetics that Wincklemann praised, in keeping with his own aesthetics of magnificenza. His perspectival distortions have long been a subject of comment, from eighteenth-century tourists disappointed upon seeing that Rome’s monuments are, in reality, less imposing than Piranesi’s versions of them, to twenty-first century scholars who have documented their spatial inaccuracies (Rapp). Finally, the vantage points his images adopt echo while expanding the compositions of his predecessors, such as Giovanni Antonio Canaletto or Giuseppe Vasi, by amplifying the dramatic possibilities of sharp diagonals and sunken viewpoints (Dining Room of Nero’s Golden House, Ponte Salario, Port of the Ripetta).

In Piranesi’s hands, visual perspective often relates to verbal information. Many of his views of Renaissance palaces follow a harsh diagonal that ends, at the vanishing point, with an annotation. These distant annotations extend the visual effects of dramatic one-point perspective by making verbal information the destination for a viewer’s eyes. Other subjects are presented in ways that elaborate on this relationship between visual perspective and verbal information. In different etchings, Piranesi often depicts the same structure from many vantage points. In these views of  the same subject (such as the Colosseum, Antonine Baths, or the Baths of Titus), one view often enumerates architectural details in its captions while other views of the same structure aggrandize, from sunken perspectives, hulking, ruined shapes that have no annotations. Looking at one image and then another, viewers shift their perspective—from exterior to interior, from elevated to sunken positions—in ways that relate to Piranesi’s presentation of information. His Vedute di Roma, when they are seen as informational images in the sense James Elkins proposed, “can present more complex questions of representation, convention, medium, production, interpretation, and reception than much of fine art” (4-5). Piranesi’s correlation between, on one hand, shifting and dramatic perspectives and, on the other, the display of information returns to the connections between perspective and knowledge that Erwin Panofsky identified in his famous “Perspective as Symbolic Form” and that Hubert Damish explores in The Origins of Perspective. In this way, his use of alternating perspectives, in conjunction with his captions, can be seen as reflections on the display and acquisition of information, the situatedness of historical conjecture, and the limits of knowledge rather than mere demonstrations of geometrical skill. (JB)

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