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 the 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 its shadow further separate the title and annotations in the textual key. Piranesi’s use of oblique perspective visually supports this rupture. 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: annotations “1” and “2” appear to the left and the rest appear 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. Even though Piranesi provides copious and detailed annotations in the key, the corresponding numbers in the image are difficult to find. Rather than facilitating the identification of the ruins, the effect is more one of disorientation. Piranesi’s manipulation of perspective, composition, and light require a deeper commitment from viewers. An extremely close examination of the visual evidence provided in the image, seems necessary in order for viewers to uncover the archeological details Piranesi elaborates in the key. For example, the medieval biforate windows, labeled “5,” are were built on top of the remnants of ancient arches, some of which are still visible on the lower level of the wall, labeled “3.” The windows are further distinguished from the round ancient arches by Piranesi's note that they were made in the “gothic style.”

Though the arches themselves are labeled, they are mostly obscured, having been superimposed by the two larger Renaissance porticoes (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. Perhaps both the visual and verbal caesura formed by the wall and cornice call attention to the 'legible' limits of antiquity through its incomplete and hidden "remains" (Wendort, 162). 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 Vedute di Roma, vol 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.

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