The Digital Piranesi

View of the Mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian, now called Castel Sant'Angelo


In this second view of Castel Sant’Angelo, Piranesi expands upon the architectural history of the monument, showing its transformation from an ancient tomb into a papal fortress. In contrast to his other views of Hadrian’s tomb, Piranesi focuses not on the ancient structure below (labeled “A”), but its modern use as a military installation. The usual pile of ancient fragments often found in the foreground of Piranesi’s etchings have been replaced by neat pyramids of cannonballs, war drums, and flags. Looking above we see the cannons strategically positioned (“C”) below the highest tower (“G”) and adjacent to the prison (“E”). Further demonstrating the extent of the church’s military power, Piranesi visually and alphabetically cataloging every detail of the fortress. Heavily fortified walls (“O) are punctuated by robust bulwarks (“I), while armed guards survey the grounds and signal to the soldiers below. A drawbridge (“L”) is elevated, protecting the interior, and blocking access to the bridge (“K”) which leads directly to the Vatican, and the Pope by extension. Multiple armories (“P) and storehouses of gun powder (“M” and “R”) appear on opposite ends of the massive complex, which, taken in its entirety, barely fits into the frame of the etching. At the center of the image two large markers identify a ramp (“N”) from which one can either ascend to the ramparts or reenter the city. Piranesi positions viewers at the end of the ramp, ‘outside’ the physical and symbolic space of the papal fortress. From this oblique perspective, viewers are given visual access into typically restricted area, as the sequence of bridges, gates, barriers, and blockades close the space off from the rest of the city (San Juan, 180). The behemoth dimensions of the fortress, heightened by Piranesi’s use of the worm’s eye view, cast a long shadow across the city, reminding us that the military might of the papacy extends far beyond its walls. 

Many elements of the composition recall Piranesi’s Carceri d’invenzione, or Imaginary Prisons. Fallen wooden beams, cannons, ladders leading into darkness, impenetrable towers, and elevated drawbridges, turbulent clouds, as well as the thick and deeply etched lines are all prominent features of the Carceri (as you can see in the example below). Castel Sant’Angelo was of course an actual prison, though Piranesi’s manipulation of light and perspective evoke the dark, imaginative, and mysterious tone of the series. 

At the same time, the angel on the topmost tower of the fortress is illuminated by light, looking toward the bridge where prisoners were freed, and processions of the conclave would announce a new pope. The election of a pope was celebrated with a firework display called the girandola, showing a non-military use of the cannons in the foreground. The layers of architecture reflect the multiple histories and functions of the space: it was a tomb, papal residence, prison, citadel, meeting place for the conclave, and a place of spectacle. While the focus of the print may be its modern function as a fortress, Piranesi also captures the complicated web of memory exposed and contained in the tomb’s bricks and marble blocks, akin to Freud’s impression of the Castel Sant’Angelo, described in the previous essay. (ZL)

To see this image in Vedute di Roma, vol 16 of Piranesi's Opere, click here

16 Vol 328

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