This page was created by Aniruth Sivakumar.  The last update was by Jeanne Britton.

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Remains of the Forum of Nerva (2 of 2)

This image suggests a visual argument against the theatrical stage designs from which Piranesi adopted his unique rendering of perspective, indicating that he continued to engage—through the composition of his images and their alternations between foreshortening and extending space—in debates about the role of architecture in the theater well into the 1760’s (Robison and Jarrard). In contrast to the previous view of the Forum of Nerva, all the details of the ornate colonnade flanking the Temple are fully visible in this engraving in pronounced chiaroscuro. Piranesi's characteristic oblique perspective is strangely foreshortened so that viewers directly confront the monument almost head-on. The only sense of depth is created by the shadow of the half-buried columns, which precariously support the architrave and frieze above them. The flattened perspective of the monument contrasts with the steep diagonal line of the modern street on the right. The seemingly endless row of houses draws viewers deep into the city, but the action of urban life around the monument also leads the eye back to the foreground. Such multiple layers of depth created by perspective and the placement of figures in Piranesi’s etchings are often compared to the architectural style seen in eighteenth-century theater productions, and in particular the designs by Filippo Juvarra and Giuseppe Bibiena (Robison). However, in a recent study, Alice Jarrard demonstrates that Piranesi was largely critical of the Bibiena style, particularly on the point of perspective, where he returned to the more classical studies by Vitruvius and Sebastiano Serlio. 

Although they likely relate to the tradition of the vedute rather than the theater, figures that enter and exit from the various windows, doors, and balconies do indeed give the scene a theatrical effect (Jarrard and Nevola). Notably, sixteenth-century architect Sebastiano Serlio, whom Piranesi often cites, writes that the architecture for a tragic scene should be decorated with figures that are not only “well organized” throughout the stage, but should reflect the way characters act in “real life [il vivo],” appearing “on a balcony, in front of a door, with some sort of animal…or some person that sleeps” (Serlio, “Della Scena Tragica,” Libro d’Architettura II.29). The woman peering out the modern window, built directly into the center of the temple, in addition to the dog, reclining figure, and gesturing actors in the foreground, suggestively evoke Serlio’s words. In a similar fashion, the pile of fragments at the edge of the image act like stage props, enhancing the drama between antiquity and modernity brought out by the Forum's ruins: the ravages of time, increasing urbanization, architectural style, and archeological restoration.
In Serlio’s frontispiece to his third book of architecture on the monuments of ancient Rome, in the gallery above,  broken pieces of an ancient building are displayed before a classical architectural backdrop, similar to the stage-like perspective of the Temple’s façade in Piranesi’s etching. (ZL) 

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

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