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.