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The Digital Piranesi

View of the Temple of the Sibyl in Tivoli

The titles of Piranesi’s etchings of ancient structures often engage with problems of identification: monuments can be known by more than one name (“the colosseum,” for example, is also “the Flavian Amphitheater”), and there is sometimes no evidence of the deities to whom temples were dedicated. This image’s lengthy caption is entirely focused on identifying this temple, indicated in Piranesi’s title as the Temple of the Sibyl and now known as the Temple of Vesta. Within the image, visual access to the temple is somewhat blocked in terms of composition. In this first of Piranesi’s three renditions of the same monument, the temple itself is in the background, behind the rectangular temple to the right, a broken wall, and the “romantic anarchy” of natural growth, vagrant animals, and architectural rubble occupying the foreground. From the shadows cast by the second temple, dramatically demonstrative human figures emerge in bright light that illuminates what seems to be “a chain of kinetic gestures” that direct viewers in different directions within the image (Wilton-Ely 1988, 39).

Rather than pointing to features of the temple or identifying other monuments in the distance, Piranesi’s text here engages in and typographically visualizes the practice of attributing monuments based on historical sources and stone inscriptions. After observing that some have speculated that the temple was devoted to Hercules, he corrals three pieces of evidence to support its attribution to Tiburnus, the origin of the ancient name for the Etruscan town of Tibur (now Tivoli). The first author he cites, Cluverio, or Philipp Clüver (1580-1622), was an antiquarian and geographer whose first-hand accounts of geographical features and ancient architecture, combined with references to classical sources, revolutionized the practice of geography. Second, in his Italia Antiqua (1624), Clüver himself cites Stazio, or Publius Papinius Statius (c.AD 45-c.AD 96), a Roman writer whose poem Silvae describes two deities in lines that Piranesi quotes: “… illa recubat Tiburnus in umbra, / illic sulpureos cupit Albula mergere crines” [… there Tiburnus lies in shade, / there Albula wishes to wash her sulphurous hair]. Finally, Piranesi also cites what remains of an inscription on the temple’s architrave, which is visible in his third view of the temple. Based on this inscription, he observes that one of the two Roman consuls both named Lucius Gelliuses (the first held the position in the seventh century, the second in the following century) might have built or restored the temple. In light of this textual evidence, and particularly the deictic references of the Latin verse (“illa… Tiburnus… / illic … Albula” [there Tiburnus… / there Albula… ]), Piranesi concludes that the rectangular temple might have been dedicated to Albula, the Tiburtine Sibyl who joined the original nine Greek Sibyls.

This consideration of the Temple’s true identity overtakes Piranesi’s customary process of annotation, as the image contains only a “2” that indicates the other temple, leaving readers to infer that the Temple of the Sibyl must, although not designated as such, be “1.” The caption resembles a discursive footnote, with abbreviated references to sources (“Lib. 3,” etc.). It is also notable for its meticulous duplication of varied fonts: his own Italian is rendered in slanted italic, and Latin quotations from typeset text are transcribed in a rigid Roman style from which the temple’s carved inscription is differentiated by more generously spaced capital letters.

The emphasis on typography—produced by hand-engraved text—suggests a careful approach to the study and reproduction of evidence that is on striking display, as Heather Hyde Minor has argued, in the “visual citations” and elaborate footnotes of his Della Magnificenza ed Architettura de’ Romani, also published in 1761 (2015, 118-142). These references to inscriptions and sources both ancient and modern point readers in different directions, within and beyond the image, between languages and across centuries. Piranesi’s antiquarian references seem to resemble the image’s human figures, whose gestures suggest, on one hand, an effort to overcome the distance between past and present that the image foregrounds in its composition while mimicking, on the other, the frantic jumping from one citation to another in the caption, from print to inscription. (JB)

To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.

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