The Digital Piranesi

View of the Temple of Hercules in the City of Cori

Following the sequence of Didot’s Opere, this image leads virtual tourists further southwest of central Rome, beyond the subjects of the previous three images in the Cafarella gardens. This image, dated 1769, presents the Temple of Hercules in the ancient site of Cori as a site of contestation between natural overgrowth and architectural magnificence. The full title of this image indicates that Cori is ten miles from Velletri, which is itself about 40 km from the center of Rome. Lacking annotations, this image orients itself as a part of Piranesi’s tourist-market views rather than his archaeological studies. In this volume’s previous view, of the fountain and grotto of Egeria, the boundary between nature and culture is an explicit issue. Here, Piranesi’s predilection for depicting nature’s reclaiming of architectural structures is on vivid display, with plants sprouting from the temple’s roof and foundations. This first-century BCE Doric temple is the most prominent monument in one of the most ancient cities of Italy. Piranesi emphasizes its topographical elevation—it is at the top of a hill—with this image’s perspective, and his careful attention to its fluted, crumbling columns contrasts with the smooth surfaces of the modern belltower behind the cella, which transformed the temple into a church of Saint Peter.  

The temple is the subject of many plates in Piranesi’s archaeological volume, Antichità di Cora, printed five years earlier in 1764, in which elevations, plans, and detailed studies present a totalizing view of this structure. In that volume, this temple is a site of archaeological inquiry and scholarly debate: Piranesi speculates about its builders, materials, and design by citing and (especially) interrogating classical and contemporary sources.
In the image above, from that volume, Piranesi zooms in on the contemporary structure’s ancient pronaos, omitting the modern belltower from this darker, more overgrown view. The volume’s most striking plate is a study of the ancient city wall, which was constructed by what is now known as polygonal masonry. This wall, he claims, demonstrates that “a quegli antichi questa costruttura fu insegnata a fare dalla natura(Antichità di Cora 2). In this later image from the Vedute di Roma, two human figures suggest a different presentation of the natural and, perhaps, the antique.  The human figures in Piranesi’s images tend to be down-trodden, contorted in their broad gestures, and hastily-etched. In the sunlit foreground, an upright man with a walking stick looks down on a man who stands out even in Piranesi’s cast of haggard characters (detail 1 above). He is dressed in rags, kneeling or crawling, and a sinister smile emerges from his pointed beard. A figure with similar features sits on the material that serves as the illusionistic caption, his gaze apparently directed towards the other two men (detail 2 above). Given Piranesi’s dedication to capturing the street life of eighteenth-century Rome in its activity, squalor, and elegance, the confrontation between the two men that is front and center in this image is difficult to overlook and explain. Is this the meeting of a modern man and a noble savage? Is this a confrontation between the present and the past? Standing before a supremely ancient structure that has been modernized by Christian consecration and humbled by botanical overgrowth, these two human figures suggest parallel confrontations between nature and culture or past and present. (JB)  

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

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