The Digital Piranesi

View of the Temple of Cybele in the Piazza of the Bocca della Verità

Known since the nineteenth century as the Temple of Hercules Victor, this round Greek temple, or tholos, had also been attributed to Vesta, the virgin goddess of the hearth, home, and family. Its notable shape, as the only round temple in the Forum, led to this attribution. In the previous view, Piranesi includes it in the background and calls it “Tempio di Cibele, o come altri d’Ercole,” and in the following view, he identifies it as the Temple of Vesta. Here, the mystery of its attribution—which has not been conclusively resolved—recedes behind the composition’s focus on Rome’s daily life in the eighteenth century. Laundry hangs to dry in the sun, a group of people including tourists and children converse, wooden wheels lean haphazardly against the temple, and a large wooden cart is parked by the fountain that its owner is using. In the heavily-shaded foreground, men sit on architectural rubble. This shading stands in sharp contrast to the sunlit distance, where dwellings crowd around the Tiber, marked by an almost indistinguishable “3.” Other annotations mark out the temple’s restored columns (1) but otherwise emphasize its surroundings (2-6). The lengthy caption, though, which is not keyed to any specific feature in the image, takes readers into the past by detailing the temple’s original features and their reuse. It was once, Piranesi tells us, encircled by a most noble portico supported by numerous fluted columns which were decorated with pinecones; the marble of the frieze and architrave were removed, and one column was adapted to the use of a church dedicated to Santa Maria del Sole.

Throughout the Vedute di Roma, Piranesi’s combinations of image and text offer his audience different points of entry: we are of course invited to look first, but we are also urged to read, either by proceeding from an image’s annotations to its key or from the title, caption, and key to the image. Here, the caption provides historical details, while the annotations, like the visual composition, firmly situate the temple within contemporary street life. Scholars including Barbara Maria Stafford and Johanna Drucker have helped draw attention to graphical representations of knowledge, and Rose Marie San Juan has more specifically discussed the ways that the medium of print was used in illustrations of Rome to create new methods of “visual cognition” (140). In this image, Piranesi engages in these phenomena by using visual composition and verbal annotation—in caption and key—to present and contrast the historical layers of Rome. Reading the annotations as they are embedded within the image, Piranesi’s audience experiences the temple in its current moment and lived presence, but reading the caption, which stands separate from the image, we gain historical knowledge about what is now lost. Committed to conveying both historical information and contemporary detail, Piranesi also maintains their difference in his distinction between caption and annotation. (JB)  

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

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