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PREFACE In 1757 Giovanni Battista Piranesi published the final edition of his collection of etchings of the ruins of ancient Rome, Le antichità Romane. The frontispiece to that edition shows a palimpsested inscription: the original letters have been erased and over them a new text, announcing the book to the reader, has been carved. Piranesi explains this unusual illustration and its prominent position at the beginning of the book in great detail in another of his works, a polemic entitled the Lettere di giustificazione.1 An Irish nobleman, James Caulfield, Lord Charlemont, had promised a substantial subvention for the publication of the book, but at the last moment had reneged on his guarantee. The work was already complete, and Piranesi had commemorated Charlemont’s name and patronage in inscriptions strategically placed in the various etchings throughout the volume. When Charlemont declined to provide the promised funding, Piranesi went through the engravings of the book, eradicating his onetime patron’s name almost everywhere. The inscription on the frontispiece of Le antichità Romane had at first borne a text dedicating the entire work to Charlemont. Piranesi reproduces the unblemished original in his Lettere di giustificazione. In eliminating the dedication, Piranesi might have tried to make his modifications unnoticeable : for example, he might have made an entirely new plate; he might have utterly erased the text of the old inscription and incised a new one on the tabula rasa. Instead, inspired—as he himself says—by Caracalla’s famous erasure of his detested brother Geta’s name from the arch of Septimius Severus, Piranesi created on the face of the inscription an obvious erasure, superimposing over it a new inscription. Piranesi is not here attempting to forget the wrong done him by Charlemont, to ‘‘put it into the past.’’ To the contrary. Imitating the ancient custom of the Romans, he has created his own damnatio memoriae for Charlemont. His purpose is not to anesthetize the public’s knowledge of the man, but to make a grand and eloquent gesture of dishonoring : to place a black mark over his name that will last as long as the inscription —or book—will endure. Here Piranesi shows that he has a solid grasp of the basic political principles and goals that ‘‘under-write’’ the ancient Roman damnatio memoriae. The ancient damnatio memoriae was a set of more or less formal and traditional strategies for attacking the memory of a dead public enemy. These were in use throughout the period of the republic and empire, from the fifth century b.c. through the sixth century a.d. In broadest outline techniques of the damnatio memoriae included the eradication of visual representations of the person, a ban of the name, and a prohibition of the observance of the funeral and mourning. Roman authors of all periods describe the damnatio memoriae as an attempt to eradicate memory. Despite such pretensions (as I argue in Chapter 4), the procedure was not invoked with that intent and could not have had that effect. Certainly it may be possible (as some contemporary totalitarian regimes have come close to proving) to obliterate tradition itself, by destroying all trace of the existence of a person or thing. The procedures of the damnatio memoriae, however, worked to produce traces of their own operation—ostentatious erasures and noticeable omissions—which confound their apparent purpose. To use a phrase from the Theodosian Code (15.14.9), the damnatio memoriae was an ‘‘interdict of silence,’’ not one of thought. As such it should be understood as a productive gesture, not as an abstract annihilation. The Roman damnatio memoriae worked like Piranesi’s: to dishonor memory, not to destroy it. The key to the argument is a consideration of the semantic character of the silences and erasures that are produced by the damnatio memoriae. To be sure, such things pretend to be the opposite of signs, the negation of representation —just as the damnatio memoriae purports to be the destruction of memory, and not its dishonoring. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that silences and erasures are themselves signs. So much is shown by the mere act of noticing them: what is recognized is always, by virtue of the operation of perception itself, a thing that refers and connotes. The damnatio memoriaedoes not work to negate the evidence of the past, but to produce new signs of it. The silences and erasures are themselves significant, and they tell against the professed purpose of the purge...


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