The Digital Piranesi

View of the Bridge and Castel Sant’ Angelo

In his Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud describes a dream about one of Piranesi’s views—very likely this one—as a way to explain the layering of memories that characterizes his understanding of the human mind. Freud’s work contains accounts of many dreams that are “based on a longing to visit Rome.”  In one, he was looking out the window of a train at the Tiber and Ponte Sant’Angelo, only to have the train pull away before he could set foot on Roman soil.  In another, he actually got to Rome but was “disappointed to find that the scenery was far from being of an urban character.” In another, the Italian city is full of German posters, a sign, he thought, that it might be uncomfortable to be a German speaker in Rome. But his reference to an unspecified engraving in another dream strongly suggests the view above: “I once dreamt of seeing the Tiber and the bridge of St. Angelo from the window of a railroad compartment; then the train starts, and it occurs to me that I have never entered the city at all. The view which I saw in the dream was modelled after an engraving which I had noticed in passing the day before in the parlour of one of my patients (162-4). 

By identifying Saint Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican, the Papal Palace, and the Holy Spirit Hospital, the annotations in this view of the Bridge and Castel Sant’Angelo orient the viewer within Rome. But in the image’s first annotation, Piranesi exposes the city’s material layers of history in ways that resemble Freud’s own account of human memory. It describes the removal of materials and remains from Hadrian’s Tomb before the structure was reshaped as the Papal fortress. Under Constantine the Great, columns were removed and later used in the Papal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, and Hadrian’s ashes were transported, inside a metallic pinecone and along with metallic peacocks, to the Belvedere Garden Court. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud posits Rome not as “a human dwelling-place, but a mental entity with just as long and varied a past history: that is, in which nothing once constructed had perished, and all the earlier stages of development had survived alongside the latest.” “The observer,” he continues, “would need merely to shift the focus of this eyes, perhaps, or change his position, in order to call up a view of either the one or the other” (17-8). Piranesi’s images linger in the memory, and his annotations bring the buried past into the lived present.

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

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