Finding Rome in Piranesi’s Rome

Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s views of Rome form a dramatic repository of the city’s ancient monuments. The crumbling palaces, ruined gardens, modified arches, broken aqueducts and patched-up bridges, with their labeled parts and explanatory legends below, have been a reference point for how Rome looked in the 18th century, and a guide to how to look for ancient Rome in its modern form. But looking for Rome in Piranesi’s etching of the Ponte Fabrizio1 I have chosen to ignore his obvious guidance and instead lose myself in the flotillas of lines, thick and long, that swim parallel to the text at the bottom of the image. Wormlike dashes flow together and drift apart as they loop around brick and stone. They rise up like the whorls of a colossal fingerprint pressed inky and hard at the edge of the second arch of the massive stone bridge, whose dignity, artifice and engineering are declared through the even, upright hatching that shades its underside. In certain places, however, these regularly spaced lines of shadow, which separate and come together in ever-varying combinations, take on a different character. They become cages for forms that move inside them: spirals shape limbs and torsos, and undulating cylinders show us a muscled arm extending its force through a straight diagonal stick that pokes at a pile of barnacled bricks. These shape-catching lines signal human presence, darkening the edges in a curving frame that flirts with, but stays clear of, the popular form of the picturesque vignette.

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  1. Veduta del Ponte Fabrizio oggi detto Quattro Capi, Plate XVI, from vol. IV of Le antichità romane (Rome: 1756). []