The Digital Piranesi

View of the ancient structures built by Tarquinius Superbus called the Bel Lido

With this view, a group of images in this volume of the Vedute di Roma devoted to water—ports, bridges, and the Tiber Island—concludes. Piranesi’s most supple etching is devoted to the stone just above the river, while the surface of the water is depicted with repeated straight lines that have only slight variations in texture. The receding diagonal leads viewers towards the horizon; indeed, the final three annotations are all located near the vanishing point. But this diagonal line is interrupted by the darker vertical line created by the boats in the foreground, which constitute a visual boundary across the length of the image. Below this visual boundary, in the caption, an uncommon annotation method hints at Piranesi’s priorities and production method. In the caption, the term “substructure” is marked with an asterisk added above the text rather than another alphabetic indication, which suggests that pointing his audience to this location in the image was, in the composition process, something of an afterthought, albeit one that justified this irregular method of inclusion. The long title acknowledges the uncertainty, which continues today, about whether the Cloaca Massima [Cloaca Maxima, or “Great Drain”] was built during the reign of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the final king of Rome, or that of Marcus Agrippa, and thus during the Early Republic. “A,” the first standard annotation, indicates the outlet of this drain, an underground tunnel through which a stream of the Tiber was rerouted under the Forum, allowing it to flourish.

This engineering feat repeatedly drew Piranesi’s attention and some of his most inventive visual methods. In his Antichità Romane, this straightforward illustration emphasizes measurement. In the Vedute di Roma, his view of the Temple of Janus, which is also called the Arch of Janus, points out the path to the Cloaca Maxima in an annotation. The Arch of Janus may have been constructed to mark the boundary that the drain created between the Palatine (home to the early Romans) and the Quirinal (home to the Sabines). Most strikingly, in Della Magnificenza ed Architettura de’ Romani, complex images in which paper seems to lie unfurled over the drain itself suggest the layered exposure of the drain’s buried details that these images reveal. Compositionally, the image above compels viewers to look into the distance but also restricts full visual access. As a text, Piranesi’s caption directs his audience to look in all directions, and as a visual image, it is a broad, contemporary view of an underground structure whose buried layers Piranesi elsewhere exposes through playful representations of his paper medium. (JB)

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

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