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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.2 (2001) 161-180

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Piranesi's Double Ruin

Richard Wendorf


Perhaps it is in the very nature of Rome to be read as a palimpsest, as the site of perpetual double-exposure. 1 Throughout the centuries, the modern eye finds its vision of the eternal city constantly undermined by--and therefore superimposed upon--visual reminders of a monumental past, a past so present that contemporary sensibility must accommodate rather than attempt to obliterate it. In November 1786, during his very first days in Rome, Goethe noted that "I find it a difficult and melancholy business, I must confess, separating the old Rome from the new." 2 In the stillness of an autumnal evening two decades earlier, the historian Edward Gibbon found in the juxtaposition of the old and the new not only the inspiration for, but also the central thesis of what would become his magnum opus. Here is how he recalled that moment years later in one of the six versions of his memoirs: "In my Journal the place and moment of conception are recorded; the fifteenth of October 1764, in the close of evening, as I sat musing in the Church of the Zoccolanti or Franciscan fryars, while they were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter on the ruins of the Capitol." 3 Gibbons's great historical project was originally "circumscribed to the decay of the City," he notes, but it soon extended to the Empire itself.

No one is more closely associated with this double vision of ancient and contemporary Rome than Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the Venetian-born printmaker and sometime architect in whose "strange linear universe," as Marguerite Yourcenar has nicely phrased it, "all the eighteenth-century angles of incidence [End Page 161] and reflection intersect." 4 Piranesi's views of Rome had such a profound influence on the cultural imagination of the late eighteenth century, in fact, that the images themselves became yet another superimposition with which the modern eye would have to contend. Writing in his Italian Journey, Goethe confessed that his first sight of the ruins of Rome had failed to measure up to Piranesi's views of them, 5 and Horace Walpole urged his contemporaries to "study the sublime dreams of Piranesi, who seems to have conceived visions of Rome beyond what it boasted even in the meridian of its splendor . . . Savage as Salvator Rosa, fierce as Michael Angelo, and exuberant as Rubens, he has imagined scenes that would startle geometry, and exhaust the Indies to realize. He piles palaces on bridges, and temples on palaces, and scales heaven with mountains of edifices. Yet what taste in his boldness! What grandeur in his wildness! what labour and thought both in his rashness and details!" 6

If we look closely at Piranesi's first published book, the Prima Parte di Architteture e Prospettive of 1743, we discover that the aspiring architect, then literally scraping together a living as an engraver in Rome, also found his early encounter with the ancient city to be a transforming experience, one that significantly shaped his highly personal work as an architect, etcher, and designer. The sheer virtuosity of the thirteen etchings in this volume is matched only by Piranesi's learning and bravado. Both of his modern editors, Andrew Robison and John Wilton-Ely, agree that it is a truly extraordinary collection of prints, a publication that demonstrates how quickly and deeply the young artist had absorbed, and in many ways transcended, the graphic and architectural models available to him during the early 1740s. 7 It is also, I argue, a remarkably proleptic event in Piranesi's long and contentious career, revealing not just his growing mastery of subject and style, but the beginning, as well, of his lifelong attempt to inscribe order--legibility--on what remained of the Roman past. My focus in this essay is therefore trained on the fate of writing within these early prints, and--most importantly--on the affinity Piranesi sensed so early in his career between the medium of etching and the nature of the ruins he depicted. Beginning with...


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