View of the Arch of Constantine
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 is 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 details 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.