This page was created by Constance Caddell.  The last update was by Jeanne Britton.

The Digital Piranesi

Plan of Rome and the Campus Martius

With his vedute, Piranesi instructs his audiences in the art of seeing. He does something similar but more expansive with his maps and the references they contain. This map serves as a kind of advertisement to Piranesi’s other works. But it also resembles an elaborate table of contents for distinct publications. Numbered items in the central map refer to the surrounding index, which includes over four hundred buildings and monuments. From this index, he then directs viewers to his other works, instructing them, often with abbreviated directions, such as “V.A.aR.e,” or “Vede Antichità Romane.” Piranesi’s system of references can be quite complex—certain buildings, such as the Pantheon, are glossed in the index with short essays, and many, such as the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, Castel Sant’Angelo, and Santa Maria degli Angeli, point to a series of images that spread, in some cases, across different volumes. These varied printed references guide viewers both within one image and across multiple volumes of Piranesi’s works.

His earlier Pianta di Roma” from his Antichità Romane also refers to an index that then points to individual engravings. This map, though, which is almost three times as large, includes its shorter index within the same visual field. To move from the cartographic image to its linked index means shifting a glance, not turning numerous pages. The visual appearance of the index emphasizes illusions that are fundamental to the ideals and assumptions of cartography itself. This map’s index begins near the top of the image, where it is simply ink on the page bound in the book. But, as the index proceeds down the left side of the page, it becomes part of a scroll that, at the bottom of the left side of text, seems to curl up onto itself. Below, a scene of architectural fragments includes a large slab bearing the name of Piranesi’s benefactor, Clement XIV (1705-1774). To the right, a second map shows only ancient structures that remain standing. Its curling corners, like the bottom of the index, call attention to the medium of print in ways that appear frequently in Piranesi’s works. Maria Grazia Lolla has argued that illusionistic images of this kind “celebrated paper as the ultimate technology of preservation” (20) while asserting their status as works of art instead of reproductive images. Here, Piranesi’s illusion of curling paper might also expose the fantasy that the entirety of Rome could be represented within the limits of a single piece of paper.

The limits of this map extend, though, far beyond those of this individual image. Its expansive scope and miniscule detail invoke the sublime, which, at least for the Irish author Edmund Burke, arises from either extremity of scale. With its index and references, this map is thoroughly embedded in Piranesi’s colossal body of work. Unlike the map from his Antichità Romane, this map refers to images in seven different volumes—the two volumes of the Vedute di Roma, Campo Marzio, the four volumes of Antichità RomaneDel Castello dell'acqua Giuliaand Della Magnificenza ed architettura de’romani. Following those references—either in the original volumes or, as the annotated digital image above allows, through hyperlinks—means repeatedly shifting perspectives from the bird’s eye view of the map to the close-ups, cross-sections, and interior and exterior views in those volumes. Although this map was more often sold individually, Piranesi did intend it to be bound with the other plates of the Vedute di Roma. According to Mario Bevilacqua, it is “a vast, elaborate, and summational map, a maturation of the topographical and architectural achievements that had pervaded the expressive economy of his entire œuvre” (58). Jessica Maier has claimed that Piranesi’s maps in general “provide the larger urban context” of his individual views (224). This map in particular represents a context that becomes, through its bibliographical references, so vast as to be disorienting.

Disorientation is usually not the desired effect of a map. Orientation, in the directional sense, was in flux during the eighteenth century, when the Christian tradition of pointing maps towards Jerusalem (and North appearing to the left of an image) gave way to the practice of positioning North at the top of a map. While Piranesi orients the earlier “Pianta di Roma” from his 
Antichità Romane with north at the top of the page, in this map, north lies at the bottom of the image. Giambattista Nolli’s “Nuova Topografia di Roma” (1748) had already established the convention of orienting maps of Rome with north at the top of the page; as a collaborator of Nolli’s, Piranesi was certainly aware of this shift away from the religious orientation towards Jerusalem. Its orientation and its speculative Campus Martius region have been said to “subvert rationalist Enlightenment cartography” (Bevilacqua 58). Additionally, its extensive cross-references enact this subversion: the various, inconsistent cartographic orientations of his maps mimic the navigational gestures that his references solicit from beholders of his images and holders of his books. By reorienting his viewers, Piranesi presents a different kind of itinerary—through books rather than terrain—along which one view persistently becomes another. (JB)

To see this map—printed across three pages—in the Vedute di Roma, volume 16 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here for the first half of the top image, click here for the second half of the top image, and here for the bottom.

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