This page was created by Alexis Kratzer.  The last update was by Jeanne Britton.

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Fountainhead of the Acqua Paola

People dominate the foreground and subject of this view, the fourth and final of a group of views devoted to fountains. Piranesi, who designed only one built structure, commonly signed his prints as “architect,” most emphatically in the title page of the Vedute di Roma. This is the only view of a fountainhead with this signature. In the two views of the Trevi fountain, he includes “architettura di Nicola Salvi” in either a small caption or the image’s title, and the view of the Fountain of Acqua Felice does not indicate its architect, Domenico Fontana (1543-1607). While the Catholic church hovers, figuratively, in the background of other views of fountains, and while inscriptions of course name the popes responsible for their construction, the dome of St. Peter’s is here a visual indication of the urban order and civic authority that fountain views otherwise convey  less explicitly. In a view that also includes Saint Peter’s in the distance, Piranesi’s frequent self-designation as “architect” takes on additional significance.

Built in 1612 on the Janiculum Hill, the Fontana of Acqua Paola was designed by Giovanni Fontana (1540-1614), the brother of Domenico, who designed the Fountain of Acqua Felice, and Falminio Ponzio (1560-1613). It is the first monumental fountain to be constructed on the right bank of the Tiber, a less developed area of the city that offers Piranesi more opportunities than the three preceding views to include what seems to be unrestricted plant growth and crumbling ancient ruins. Fragments of the Aurelian wall, somewhat indistinctly marked by “4,” are etched with curved lines that resemble those of the surrounding foliage and clouds, and they contrast notably with the smooth lines of the fountainhead’s five arches and large entablature. Marked by “1,” the Casino Farnese (which no longer exists) was part of Villa Farnesina, the Farnese family’s suburban villa that was across the Tiber from their urban palazzo, the subject of the following engraving. Other annotations draw our attention away from the fountainhead to the edges of the image: “2” identifies the Basilica of Saint Peter’s, and “3” indicates, to the left of the fountain, botanical gardens. While the image’s left and right margins stretch to include details of these elements of the fountain’s surroundings, the upper margin somewhat uncharacteristically cuts off what is, from the image’s perspective, the fountain’s highest point. The foreground is dense with disproportionately large and dramatically gesturing human figures whose open hands, like half of the image’s annotations, seem to point to the left and right. Piranesi’s human figures have been said to serve a range of purposes: they establish or exaggerate scale, suggest pervasive decay (Hyatt Mayor 16), hinder identification (Verschaffel), gesture towards a monument, gesticulate towards nothing in particular (Wilton-Ely 1994, 361), or, by pointing to an image’s caption or title, amplify its “deictic power” (Stewart 172). Here, they minimize the size of the large fountain, which is popularly known by precisely that name (“Il fontanone”), and draw a viewer’s and reader’s attention to the margins of the image. There, Piranesi includes the church, the source of the fountain’s power, and, opposite, cultivated nature. If, as Rose Marie San Juan has argued, fountain prints “unsettle readability” through the tensions between urban authority and natural vitality that they depict (137), then this view, particularly with its annotations, might almost make that tension legible by identifying its elements.

To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 16 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.

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