The Digital Piranesi

View of the Port of the Ripetta

This view of the Porto di Ripetta offers a glimpse into the commerce and tourism that contributed to the active river life along the Tiber while attesting, both visually and verbally, to the energy and abundance of the river itself. Today the site of the Ponte Cavour, this location had long been used as a landing point when the port was built under Pope Clement XI in 1703. Within this volume of the Vedute di Roma, this etching follows three images of aqueducts or fountainheads and comes at the beginning of a group of images devoted to ports and bridges. While Piranesi’s images of ancient ruins often include obstructing rubble in the foreground, limiting a viewer’s imaginative entry into the scene, this view of a literal entry point for merchants and tourists produces a similar sense of limitation through the jumble of boats—the very means of entering the city at this point. By contrast, the prominent and unencumbered gentlemen on the right enjoy a commanding view of the buildings on the shore. The bulky stone fragments on which they stand frame this scene of modern commerce with hints of the ancient remnants that they, and probably other tourists alighting here, will likely seek out.

The river scene they survey is chaotic. Piranesi’s composition here deemphasizes the receding lines and sharp diagonals prominent in his other images; instead, the line separating water and land is positioned at a less acute angle and interrupted by a cluster of haphazard boats. By contrast, Vasi’s view of the same site (below) is orderly, with the boundary between land and river running nearly parallel with the borders of the plate and the few boats in the river more generously and evenly spaced.
Like Vasi’s, Piranesi’s annotations identify buildings along the shore—San Girolamo de’ Schiavoni, the Dogana di Ripetta, the Palazzo del Principe Borghese, and the Collegio Clementino—but Piranesi’s also pause in this list to mark the threat of the Tiber, a river with a long history of severe flooding. The third annotation identifies “Columns, or markers, that indicate the highest levels of the Tiber.” Indeed, zooming in reveals that Piranesi includes horizontal lines on their surface. In the previous etchings of ancient aqueducts and ornamental fountainheads, Piranesi’s visual composition often reinforces the civic, financial, and artistic power that controls the city’s water supply. This image, even with its inclusion of the wide view available to the gentlemen in the lower right, instead testifies to the energies of nature, commerce, and tourism that challenge such power. (JB)

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

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