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View of the Arch of Constantine
Veduta dell'Arco di Costantino
ITALIAN: Title: VEDVTA DELL’ARCO DI COSTANTINO. Signature: Cavaliere Piranesi del(ineavit). ed inc(idit). ENGLISH: Title: View of the Arch of Constantine Signature: Designed and engraved by the Knight Piranesi.
To see this image in Veduta di Roma, vol 17 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.
Piranesi depicted the Arch of Constantine a total of three times. The engraving above was produced toward the end of Piranesi's career and differs markedly in appearance from the previous views of the monument. 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 a vantage point from above, looking down at the monument through an arch of the Colosseum. In this instance, the Colosseum visually and symbolically frames the Arch of Constantine. In a later print of the Arch in the Views of Rome series, seen here, the Colosseum takes up the entire background and the annotations in the key provide reference points in order to the orient the viewer to the Roman Forum. Such annotations are characteristic of Piranesi's more archeological or "topographical" engravings (Wilton Ely, 28-9), whereas the view seen above 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.
However, what is obscured in the other prints, is revealed here in the latest engraving, seen above. Subtle gradations in tone and depth of the sprawling facade 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 key 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 facade.
Attention to the rich ornamentation, for example in the roundels, friezes, and undulating architrave, are reminiscent of the other views of the Triumphal arches, in particular the Arch of Septimius Severus, seen here. Piranesi was particularly fascinated by these two arches because of his profound interest in ancient inscriptions, and in particular about lettering techniques. 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 see today on the Pantheon. The ancient method consisted in carving out grooves in the stone so that metal letters could be fitted to the surface. The process of etching, Piranesi's method of choice, similarly involved carving out letters into the metal plate, that was then filled with ink and pressed onto page. The detail afforded to the inscription on the Arch of Constantine, "displays enthusiasm for the graphic and formal aspects of inscriptions while calling attention to printing" (HHM, 21). Piranesi deliberately calls attention to his mastery of the art of engraving. Indeed, in this close up of the inscription, viewers can see Piranesi's interventions.
From the different marks - 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 fact that the stone slab containing the title in the lower right corner, contain the very same type of letters of the Arch, seen above, making the line between ancient and modern, plate and paper, and reality and representation, deliberately blurred. Here, lettering provided a way for Piranesi to transcend the boundaries of the page and push the expectations of beholders as far as what could be achieved with the print medium.