On the right is the Ospizio di San Michele, or Hospital of Saint Michael, which served many purposes. As Piranesi details in a long annotation, it was a house for invalids and an educational and correctional institution for children, convicts, and “Donne delinquenti.” Such Enlightenment-era institutions are today often understood as agents of oppression more than recuperation. Piranesi’s composition here embodies the conflict between order, whether it be visual, civic, religious, or moral, and disorder, whether it be visual, natural, or human. While this image seems to forge a tenuous balance between the dramatic chaos of the river and the order of visual composition and civic authority, it is worth noting an episode from later in his life that resonates with the visual tensions and verbal detail of this image. Robert Adam reported in 1762, a decade after this image, that Piranesi was “distressed with the irregular conduct of his wife, who, as we say in Scotland, has been too great with another man and so he has put her in a convent for her amusement” (cited in Fleming 374). Piranesi’s composition visually and verbally underscores the effort to contain of disorder that was, in many ways, characteristic of his work and perhaps his life. (JB)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 16 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.