The Digital Piranesi

View of the Arch of Constantine

This is the last of Piranesi’s three depictions of the Arch of Constantine. Though the Arch is ostensibly the subject of all three, suggested by their titles "Veduta dell'Arco di Costantino," the earlier renditions are actually more concerned with its proximity to the more famous Colosseum. In the earliest print, the monument is portrayed sketchily and at an oblique angle. Viewers are placed at an elevated vantage point, looking down at the monument through an arch of the Colosseum, which visually and symbolically frames the Arch. In a later print in the Views of Rome, the Colosseum takes up the entire background, and annotations orient the viewer within the Roman Forum. Such annotations are characteristic of Piranesi's more archeological or “topographical” engravings (Wilton Ely 1994, 28-9), whereas this view adheres more to the genre of the veduta in its portrayal of a single monument, attention to ornament, and romanticized, almost gothic, depiction of ruins and overgrown vegetation. Subtle gradations in tone and depth of the sprawling façade of the Arch reveal the simplicity, order, and solidity of ancient triumphal architecture while also emphasizing the rich ornamentation of the bas-reliefs. Piranesi seems to have finally given the Arch his full attention. Indeed, there are no annotations, and the title is seamlessly integrated into the landscape as a piece of stone. The monument here is seen head on, and not from above. If anything, the four statues in imperial garb atop the Corinthian columns look down upon the viewers in their regal monumentality. There is nothing to distract viewers from the Arch's imposing façade.  

Attention to the rich ornamentation in the roundels, friezes, and undulating architrave are reminiscent of the other views of the Triumphal arches, in particular the Arch of Septimius Severus. Piranesi was fascinated by these two arches because of his interest in ancient inscriptions and particularly lettering techniques. As Heather Hyde Minor observes, the detail Piranesi here affords to the inscription on the Arch of Constantine "displays enthusiasm for the graphic and formal aspects of inscriptions while calling attention to printing" (21). As an engraver, Piranesi experimented with various fonts and methods of reproducing letters on the printed page. Moveable type, the technique used in early modern printing, was created with metal characters, recalling how metal letters, often in bronze, were affixed to ancient monuments, as one still visible on the Pantheon. The ancient method consisted of carving grooves in stone so that metal letters could be fitted to the surface. Piranesi’s chosen method of etching similarly involved carving out letters into a metal plate that was then filled with ink and pressed onto paper. Indeed, in this close up of the inscription, Piranesi’s interventions and his mastery of the art of engraving are apparent.

Marks including lines, dots, curves, and in particular the lines that strike through and overlap the text on the left reveal Piranesi's hand in the creation of the letters on the metal plate. Piranesi's presence is further underlined by the repetition of the same type of letters in both the Arch and the title as it appears in the stone slab in the lower right. This repetition, illustrated in the close-ups above, deliberately blurs the line between ancient and modern, plate and paper, and reality and representation. Here, lettering provided a way for Piranesi to transcend the boundaries of the page and expand the expectations of his beholders for the print medium. (ZL)

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

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