The Digital Piranesi

View of the fountain and the Grotto of Egeria outside the Porta Capena

Here, Piranesi depicts the sacred fountain grotto associated with Egeria, the water nymph thought to have advised Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome. The previous view presents the fountain at a distance, in its picturesque setting, behind the Tempio delle Camene. 
In this view, Piranesi highlights the grotto’s successive interior spaces with alternating light and shade on the ceiling of the apse, drawing viewers’ eyes into the central depths of the image. At the same time, though, the large, pronounced caption pulls readers towards a textual source and mythic history at the image’s margin. The fountain is enveloped by natural overgrowth, which hangs from the grotto and extends from the sloping ground into which it is built towards the sky. In the upper right, clouds and foliage that are engraved with similar strokes almost seem to merge in a place where a work of art blends into the natural landscape.

A similar blurred boundary is the subject of Piranesi’s caption, which is unique in the Views of Rome for identifying a structure primarily through the citation of a classical author. The illusionistic scroll cites a lament from Juvenal’s Satires that this grotto, so unlike nature, would be more faithful to its spirit if it were fringed by grass and if its marble hadn’t corrupted the natural tufa. The citation begins with the deictic statement that “this is where” [Hic ubi] Numa met Egeria. This geographic indication is reinforced with bibliographical specificity when Piranesi identifies and again cites his source: “Così Giovenal nella Satire 3. ove pur dice …” [So says Juvenal in Satire 3, where he also says … ]. Especially for subsequent generations of artists and writers, the grotto represented the return to a natural state after neglect and decay overpowered the effects of man and art that Juvenal had originally lamented (Pinto, in Sitelines, 2016). While Piranesi’s caption includes an asterisk to indicate the Tempio di Bacco, the subject of two earlier views, its other indications emphasize physical and bibliographical presence instead of identifying architectural structures or features: it is here that Numa met Egeria, and it is here in his Satire that Juvenal describes the grotto. In light of Juvenal’s lament, nature’s reclaiming of this site is, Piranesi suggests, notable. “How much more beautiful would the grove be if fringed by grass,” Juvenal complains. “How beautiful it is,” Piranesi’s image seems to respond, “now that it is overtaken with foliage.” Similarly, the textures of the grotto’s built surfaces appear rough and irregular, with little suggestion of the smooth marble that Juvenal found to spoil the natural tufa. A misquotation—he writes “umbras” [shadow] for Juvenal’s “undas” [water]—betrays Piranesi’s preference for the indistinct. But the image is quite clear in its emphasis on the present state—the deictic “now”—of the grotto. Between this view’s words and its image, Piranesi shifts from the past of antiquity to the current moment and the passage of time.

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

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