View of the Arch of Constantine
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 in this image to have finally given the arch his full attention. 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 is reminiscent of his 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” (2015, 21). As an engraver, Piranesi experimented with various fonts and methods of reproducing letters on the printed page. The metal characters of moveable type, the technique used in early modern printing, recall the metal letters, often in bronze, that were affixed to carved grooves in ancient monuments such as the Pantheon. Piranesi’s chosen medium of etching similarly involved carving out letters into a metal plate that was then filled with ink and pressed onto paper. Indeed, the close-up of the inscription below (detail 1) demonstrates Piranesi’s attention to this ancient method and his mastery of the art of engraving.
Marks including lines, dots, curves, and in particular the lines that strike through and overlap the text on the left (detail 1) 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 that appears to be integrated into the landscape in the lower right (detail 2). This repetition 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.