The Digital Piranesi

View of the Colosseum (1 of 2)

The Colosseum, constructed under the reign of Vespasian and inaugurated in 80 CE, defies visual representation. As the largest amphitheater in the Roman world, it is of a magnitude not easily rendered on paper. As a testament to architectural order and, by the eighteenth century, a plundered ruin, it presents an opposition between, on one hand, the regularity of the classical orders that ascend from ground level (Tuscan, Ionic, and two levels of Corinthian) and, on the other, the overgrown, ragged masses of travertine stone that appear at its severed points.  In this veduta, the first of five of the Colosseum in the Views of Rome, a largely intact exterior appears in an impossible span, with more arches visible than any actual 180-degree panorama would allow.  Piranesi’s use of the worm’s-eye view and his positioning of the damaged section of the exterior to the right of the image allow this view to include ruination and irregularity only to subsume both beneath the imposing magnificence of the largely intact northeast side. By contrast, an earlier veduta from Roman Antiquities fabricates what seems to be a fully intact façade from a similar position. While the vantage point grants a broad, expansive scope, looking closely yields copious detail: gnarled human figures lurk in nearly every archway; tricorns in the foreground signal wealthy tourists; vines hang from arches against the negative space of the sky. Each of these arches bears a number that indicated who could enter, from senators and knights to plebians, women, and slaves. Piranesi’s key begins by pointing out the arches of the “prim’Ordine” [“first order”] (Tuscan, a Roman version of the Doric), through which “il popolo” [the people] enter and ascend to their seats. This and other annotations, here and in following views of the Colosseum, emphasize social hierarchy (Zorach, 119); the captions in this image in particular insist on the connection between the architectural orders of the structure and the social orders of its visitors. At odds with the disorder of ruin, wild plant growth, and the human life depicted outside its walls, the Colosseum in this image and its accompanying text conveys the long-standing view that the orders of architecture parallel those of social rank (Tzonis and Lefaivre, 43). (JB)

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


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