The Digital Piranesi

View of the Ponte Salario

This ancient structure no longer exists; today’s Ponte Salario is a modern construction. Piranesi’s etching ensures the kind of preservation he hoped his work would be when, in the dedication to his Roman Antiquities, he remarked of ancient ruins that he wanted to “preserve them by means of print” (“conservarli col mezzo delle stampe”). This image captures variations in man-made and natural textures, between the stone of the bridge and the Aniene river (a tributary of the Tiber) and the sloping ground. Mingling with fragmented column shafts, men drag fishing nets from the river. His composition offers an imposing view under the bridge as well as a glimpse, on the right, of the contemporary traffic along the Via Salaria, as identified by one of this image’s copious annotations. These annotations also point specifically to evidence of restoration (1, 2, 3), details of construction (4, 5, 6), and locational information (7, 8, 9).

John Wilton-Ely observed that this image seems, at first glance, to resemble but in fact diverges significantly from a view by Piranesi’s mentor Giuseppe Vasi (1710-1782). In his Delle magnificenze di Roma antica e moderna, Vasi provides what seems to be “a more faithful if pedestrian record” (below). In Piranesi’s view, the heavily-shaded rubble that crowds the bridge’s entrance and descends towards the river blurs the distinction between architecture and nature that is strictly maintained in Vasi’s bright and expansive view.
Piranesi’s view also differs in the visual and verbal presentation of detail—surface textures are distinguished by evident differences in shape and texture and identified in his second and third annotations. “Where Vasi’s building is a picturesque encounter of little consequence on one of the consular roads to Rome,” Wilton-Ely writes, “Piranesi’s has become an eloquent symbol of Roman engineering genius” (1988, 36). As in Piranesi’s other views of bridges, his preferences for sunken viewpoints, imposing architectural spaces, and sharp diagonals are here on dramatic display. In this volume, the previous etching is also taken from a low vantage point that affords a view up into the arches of the Ponte Molle and casts the length of the bridge in a sharp recession. In the fourth volume of the Antiquities of Rome, views of the Ponte Sant’Angelo, the Ponte Fabrizio, and the Ponte Ferrato share these visual features.

This view in particular, especially as compared to Vasi’s, indicates Piranesi’s creative approach to both the genres of the landscape view and the architectural study and the aesthetic categories of the picturesque and the sublime. The view of a landscape from an elevated position is often associated with social or political power. While Vasi’s view does convey the softness and delicacy of the picturesque, its vantage point also evokes this kind of power for both artist and viewer. Piranesi, though, blurs the boundaries between both nature and art on one hand and, on the other, the distinctions between the landscape view and the architectural study. He takes the low vantage point and sense of confinement associated with the picturesque in a new direction, harnessing its perspective in order to impose the sublimity of Roman architecture, in all its magnificence and detail, on the audiences for his views. (JB)

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

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