Yet for all the pomp and glory, there is perhaps a touch of irony in Piranesi’s visual emphasis on decay. The structure is imbued with both physical and metaphorical ruin. The scars and wounds of the façade in the exposed brick and stone are made visible by his forceful and jagged incisions onto the copper plate. The glory of conquest, retained only in the well-preserved bas-relief, is on the verge of destruction, surrounded by the crumbling, overgrown, and broken pieces of the architrave, central volute, and heavy fluted columns, of which only the base lower shaft is still standing. Lowly activities by the actors in the foreground now accumulate against the outcropping of medieval and Renaissance buildings that pile on top of one another in disorderly succession. John-Wilton Ely has noted the prominence of the gnarled, angular tree that provides a foil to the arch, further highlighting its ruinous state, and the jagged lines of the trees and branches that are reproduced in the plant-like veins of the exposed and rough stone; he describes the scene as a “veritable anthology of deterioration” (1978, 37). What is produced by nature and by art is deliberately blurred through Piranesi’s juxtaposition of light and dark and his depiction of different textures, almost as though man-made structures have become fused with their natural environment. Decay is additionally underlined in Piranesi’s text. He contrasts the “spoglie” brought back from war that are depicted in the reliefs with the current state of the arch itself, which he describes as “spogliato” after it has been stripped of its decoration and ornament in later periods. His repeated use of this term links imperial plunder and contemporary decay. (ZL)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.