The Digital Piranesi

Interior view of the Temple of Bacchus

From the previous view, which shows the exterior of this temple, this image leads us into its shadowy interior and, following its annotations, towards its architectural and decorative details. A shaft of light illuminates the floor and two human figures near the ancient altar in the foreground that is, along with the study by Francesco Piranesi, discussed in the previous essay. Francesco devoted a significant portion of his study of ancient temples (Seconda Parte de’tempj antichi che contiene il celebre Pantheon) to this structure, depicting it in an numerous views, an elevation, and a cross-section as well as providing studies of its details, such as the altar. Although the authorship of that volume has been contested, it is fair to follow the attribution of the images below to Francesco. While Giovanni’s atmospheric view of the interior resembles Francesco’s spaccato [cross-section] in its visual subject and its verbal annotations, more specifically, Giovanni’s methods for presenting information through annotation more resolutely combine visual and verbal evidence.

Francesco’s cross-section casts light into the otherwise darkened interior, clearly delineating the medieval images and ancient details that both he and his father label with annotations. In contrast to the crisp lettering throughout Francesco’s cross-section, Giovanni’s annotations are practically invisible in the shadowy temple, lost in the deeply-etched details of its walls. Viewers are encouraged to look, though, and also to read, by staffage figures whose postures seem to amplify the indexical function of the annotations. Two staffage figures—one standing on the left, the other seated on the right—gesture in parallel towards the center of the image and into the recesses of the temple. Other figures engage with almost all of the image’s annotated elements: two men look and walk down the stairs identified with “F,” and another two lean and apparently read on the table or altar marked “E.” From these ground-level details, we are encouraged to look carefully as our eyes move higher and deeper in the image, where the walls are, the caption tells us, the only ones that preserve their ancient architecture, however deprived of their stucco ornaments [“le uniche, che conservano l’antica loro Architettura, benche spogliate in parte de’ suoi ornamenti di Stucco”]. In contrast with Francesco’s illusion of the cut-away cross-section, Giovanni employs the illusion of the immersive interior that is dotted with informative annotations in order to combine a more realistic experience of the present with an educated portrayal of the past.

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

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