This page was created by Aniruth Sivakumar.  The last update was by Jeanne Britton.

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Remains of the Forum of Nerva (1 of 2)

Interrupted by a large broken piece of an ancient cornice, the engraved cursive letters of this image’s title ostensibly indicate that the engraving depicts a “View of the Remains of the Forum of Nerva.” Placed at the center and at the point of intersection between title, image, and border of the plate, the cornice physically and metaphorically punctuates the space between visual representation and verbal description. The darkly etched and elongated lines of the block’s shadow further separate the title and annotations in the textual key, a rupture that Piranesi’s use of oblique perspective visually supports. Indeed, the “view” of the ancient forum is obstructed by an overwhelmingly large rusticated wall. Notably placed at the center of the composition, directly above the pile of ruins, the massive wall also separates the annotations in the image, with the first two appearing to the left and the rest to the right. Moreover, the majority of the annotations are in the background. Their numbers and the structures they refer to are almost completely hidden in shadow, hardly distinguishable from the wall itself. The copious and detailed annotations promise a clarity that contrasts with the obscurity of their indexical markers in the image. Rather than facilitating the identification of the ruins, the effect is more one of disorientation. Piranesi’s manipulation of perspective, composition, and light requires an extremely close examination of the evidence provided in the image in order for viewers to uncover the archeological details elaborated in the key. Annotations point, for example, to the medieval biforate windows (5), that were built on top of the remnants of ancient arches, some of which are still visible on the lower level of the wall (3). The windows are further distinguished from the round ancient arches by Piranesi’s observation that they were made in the “maniera gotica.”

Though the arches themselves are labeled, they are mostly obscured, since the two larger Renaissance porticoes were built over them (as seen above). The only clearly identifiable ancient structure, and the only structure rendered with light, is the Temple of Nerva on the far left of the composition. However, only its Corinthian capitals and broken architrave are visible. The visual and verbal caesura formed by the wall and cornice call attention to the limits of antiquity’s legibility. Yet Piranesi seems to suggest that through close observation, portrayed and documented with ink on paper, the fragments of ancient Rome can be partially preserved and seen, if not read. (ZL) 

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

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