The Digital Piranesi

Temple, commonly called the Temple of Janus

The Temple of Janus has long been noted as a unique architectural marvel, as it is the only four-way arch to survive from antiquity. Given the enormity of the structure, the view in the engraving is impossible. The scena per angolo is theatrically introduced by the figure on the left, as if Piranesi were gesturing to the importance of perspective and ways of seeing. Commenting on these issues, Piranesi declared, “you will see how much Perspective has contributed to my approach, because I wanted some parts … to be seen by the Observer more than others” (Dedication Letter, Prima parte delle architetture). Here, what we see before all else is the stocky and highly decorated Arch of Janus—its architectural features and numerous scalloped niches. 

Perspective allows viewers to see three of the four arches as well as a full view of two complete sides through two-point perspective and exaggerated scale. The perspective reveals the characteristic barrel vaults of triumphal arches, seen in the Arch of Constantine for example, as well as the robust rectangular stone blocks used to construct the base. These show the “solidity [gravezza]” of Roman construction methods, a central point in Piranesi’s intervention in the Graeco-Roman debate as well as the basis for his own ideas about the construction of modern buildings. Further demonstrating the “symmetry” and stylistic integrity of the ancient design are the numerous niches that adorn the four facades of the arch (AR, Volume I Map Index). In his discussion of the monument in the Antichità Romane, Piranesi explains that the lower level and upper level were composed of different orders. He also makes disparaging remarks about the “Barbarians of the dark ages [Barbari ne’ tempi bassi]” that “disfigured” and “stripped” the Temple of its decoration including “columns, cornices, and … various forms of ornament [le colonne e le cornice ed … altri suoi ornamenti].” Some of the decorative friezes can be seen on the left side, the only part of the print that is illuminated. He further remarks that, during the medieval period, the Temple was transformed into a tower, signaled by the crumbling ruins on top of the main building. The contrast between ancient and medieval could not be more visually evident. 

While the former magnificence of the arches still manages to shine through the dilapidated façade, the medieval additions are hardly distinguishable from the vegetation that has since taken it over. The articulation of strokes, shadow, and perspective purposefully obscure that which does not belong to the original building.  Indeed, from the oblique perspective, it seems as though this area is occupied solely by ancient buildings. Yet in other depictions of the Temple, the church San Velabro and other modern surroundings are given prominence, as in the print below. Artists of these views notably employ difference perspectival strategies than Piranesi, demonstrating the significance of his choices in the print above. Perspective further permits Piranesi to situate the Temple cartographically and temporally in relation to the other buildings annotated in the key: the Arcus Argentariorum (1) and Cloaca Maxima (2). The Arch was, like its Latin name, a ianua, a gateway, serving as an important threshold between the Forum Boarium and the location of the Arch of Janus. It was a site of encounter where the important areas of the ancient city interconnected. The structures that Piranesi insists we see in the print are not only important markers of the city’s topography but also prominent examples of the magnificence of Roman urban and architectural design. 

To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.

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