The Digital Piranesi

View of the Port of Ripa Grande

Following the previous view of the Porto di Ripetta, this image, also produced in 1753, moves to the other side of the Tiber and provides a different angle on the issues of order and disorder suggested in that image. This is a more ordered composition, with a distinct vanishing point and two clear diagonal lines, made by the roof on the right and the foliage on the left, that spatially contain the ship masts and organic growth that are dramatically etched in deep shadow. Despite this general pattern and its suggestion of containment, each side of the river is a busy jumble of people, ships, and, as Piranesi points out, ruins. The two columns of annotations below the image, which appear in many of his views of Rome, here parallel the banks of the river and the division of the image. The eighth and final note identifies building remnants that would almost certainly be overlooked in the heavy shading and activity of the left foreground: ruins of medieval walls falsely supposed of the ancient Ponte Sublicio or Pons Sublicius, a wooden bridge that was repeatedly rebuilt in antiquity. (The sixth annotation points out actual remains of this bridge.)

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 delinquent women. Such Enlightenment-era institutions are today, following the work of Michel Foucault in particular, 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 his biography that might disrupt that balance. Robert Adam reported in 1762 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” (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, it might be said, his life. (JB)

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

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