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The Digital Piranesi

View of the Monument Erected by the Emperor Titus Commemorating His Restoration of the Acqueducts of the Anio and Claudia

Known as the Porta Maggiore or Porta Prenestina, this magnificent gate lies at the convergence of eight aqueducts and two ancient roads. In the full title of the image, Piranesi explains that this monument was erected by Titus Vespasian to commemorate the restoration of two aqueducts—the Anio [Aniene nuovo] and Claudia, which, along with the two ancient roads identified in the captions (the Via Labicana and Via Prenestina), can be seen in the close-up from his Topographical Map of the Roman Aqueducts (Roman Antiquities, vol. 1) below.
Filling the height of the plate, but neatly contained by its margin, this gate resembles a triumphal arch that celebrates the control of nature rather than the dominance over people. Piranesi vividly renders the rusticated style of the monument’s travertine, using sharp relief to create seemingly undulating surfaces of stone. People peek out from a door, draw water from the fountain, and gesture beside and, it seems, in tandem with, the annotation that points to Via Prenestina.

A complex intersection in antiquity, this site becomes in Piranesi’s rendition an intersection of different media. The text of the monument’s inscription, when joined with that of Piranesi’s caption, draws attention to the significance of inscription itself. In this image, the visual appearance of the heavily-shadowed and carefully rendered inscription reinforces an ambiguity that Renaissance antiquarians appreciated about inscriptions and that Johanna Drucker identifies in typography: the visual word, whether inscribed or printed, is both visual and verbal (Barkan 27; Drucker 1994, 4). If Piranesi’s vedute [views] often ask to be experienced verbally and visually, the dramatic detail, lengthy inscription, and substantial caption in this word-image composite virtually make it an assault on its beholders’ interpretive methods. Piranesi’s Italian caption, which includes a long title and key, condenses the Latin inscription and highlights its materiality, noting of the monument that carved into it is the name of Claudius, who built it, and Vespasiano, who restored it (“… scolpito in esso il nome, di Claudio, che lo edificò, e di Vespasiano che lo restaurò”). As a piece of three-dimensional stone, the caption takes on illusionistic materiality, and Piranesi seems to reinscribe the construction and renovation of the aqueducts, arches, and gate into their natural setting.

Piranesi’s captions are often embedded in the scenes his images depict: banderols curl around and between pedestrians, a woman stands atop a stone slab, or a weary man rests on a weighty mass. Additionally, his renditions of inscriptions, especially his own fictive inscriptions in title pages or dedication pages, manipulate and transform the method of ancient epigraphy in order to call attention to the media of engraving and print (Minor 2015, 84-93). In one of his views of the Tomb of the Plautius family, where a skewed perspective obscures the tomb’s inscriptions, he questions the legibility of the ancient past despite the clarity of preserved inscriptions. In a different but not unrelated context, literary theorists have said that the inscription on glass in Victor Hugo’s poem “Écrit sur la vitre d’une fenêtre flamande” [“Written on the glass of a Flemish Window”] suggests that the meaning and significance of an inscription, or indeed any written text, cannot be assured (Culler 95). In this image, even with its magnificently legible inscription, Piranesi seems, though the content and appearance of his caption, to attend to the ways that inscriptions can call into question relationships between materiality and meaning (Bachner 4). Piranesi’s captions—engraved in copper but also inscribed into metal before being inked and printed—amplify such interrogations of media and historical interpretation.

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

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