Romance Under the Arch of Constantine

Timmy is a junior at Syracuse University. He is from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and is majoring in Art Photography in the Transmedia department. Timmy spends most of his time finding new music to enjoy while creating Art.

Envision yourself journeying through Italy as a European aristocrat in the 18th century. Your next stop is the renowned city of Rome, the center of the once great empire that ruled most of Europe and Northern Africa. Surrounded by the grandeur of classical monuments, you come across the triumphal arch probably built between 312-315 CE by the Roman emperor Constantine and you request a work of art from an established artist to show your friends and family back home of what you saw. An elaborate etching of the arch is what you receive. Not only is it an accurate depiction of the arch, it also contains details of peasants and goats wandering in the scene. Constantine’s arch stands tall even as plants and shrubs grow upon it. When you display the work, it is recognized as an etching by none other than Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the acclaimed Italian graphic artist from the 18th century.

   Giovanni Battista Piranesi went beyond the formalistic qualities of architectural sketches to incorporate visual details that relied on his vibrant imagination. Piranesi began to develop a style that resurrected classical architecture as romantic relics (Thompson). Romantic in this context refers to the passage of time, wanderlust, and scenic imagery. At an early age Piranesi received structural and engineering training from his maternal uncle. He started in Venice then later moved to Rome in 1740 to work as an apprentice to Giuseppe Vasi, an acclaimed engraver and architect known for his vedute or views of Rome (Thompson). It was during this apprenticeship that Piranesi began to make prints and develop an appreciation for Roman architecture. Piranesi began to create etchings of Roman landmarks and later started the project Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome), an expansive body of work produced between 1748 to 1778 in which classical architecture was infused with romantic tropes like ruins and people roaming among ancient monuments (Thompson). Piranesi’s images had begun to display a style that focused on serene scenes in which nature appeared to take over classical Roman buildings. At the same time, however, his prints emphasized both the architectural integrity and appeal of ancient buildings.

   That being said, Piranesi was not the first to develop these types of fantastic architectural scenes. The melancholy scenes of ruins in a landscape can be traced back to Venetian artists such as Giovanni Antonio Canal, also known as Canaletto, an Italian painter known for his paintings of cities like Rome, London, and Venice (Murray, 17). These Venetian traditions would leave lasting impressions on Piranesi, long after he had moved to Rome. Then, under Vasi’s mentorship, he was able to translate these artistic influences into an aesthetic language of commerce and romance.

   Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma can be split into two phases. In the first phase, Piranesi focused on the more modern architecture of Rome. The Veduta dell’Arco di Costantino (View of the Arch of Constantine) was produced in the second phase where Piranesi devoted his time to measuring and drawing the ruins of ancient Rome (Murray, 44). In this second phase, there was a subtle shift in how he composed and framed architectural structures and ancient sites. By then, Piranesi had developed a taste for nomadic scenes of travelers and commoners juxtaposed with the grandeur of ancient Roman architecture (Murray, 44).

   Such compositional techniques accentuate the mortality of life against the lasting architecture of ancient Rome. Piranesi created these scenes by framing a dramatic perspective in order to accentuate scale and size. He also emphasized the surrounding plant growth to show nature reclaiming the land, a visual motif that simultaneously draws attention to the passage of time (Kirk, 240). It is also important to understand that the main focus in Veduta dell’Arco di Costantino is the arch itself and the surrounding scene is primarily a figment of the imagination based on a real monument. Piranesi was accurately documenting the architecture of Rome. However, by emphasizing romantic tropes like the passage of time alongside a dramatic perspective, he managed to showcase the vestiges of ancient architecture as unique story-telling devices in contemporary Rome.

   Besides the overall romantic tenor of his work, the Veduta dell’Arco di Costantino serves as an accurate documentation of the arch. Piranesi carefully studied and measured the arch to a critical point where his architectural drawings became plausible records of existing roman architecture (Cordaro, et. al., 43). The Venetian artistic style and traditions found in his etchings resemble those encountered in Venetian paintings. In his earlier body of work, Piranesi reproduced common moments of human interactions amongst the lower class and used atmospheric impressions rendered by chiaroscuro in order to create perspective (Cordaro, et. al., 37). However, it is his mastery of perspective and line work that began to round out his mix of Venetian traditions and Roman architectural artistry.

   Piranesi’s renderings of Rome stylistically resemble paintings made by his predecessor Giovanni Paolo Panini. Fantastic Landscape with Ruins and Figures (1715) attributed to the School of Giovanni Paolo Panini and housed in the Syracuse University Art Galleries reveals a visual language that bears a striking similarity to what we encounter in Piranesi’s Veduta dell’Arco di Costantino. Both are images of ancient ruins dotted with figures that create a serene and melancholy atmosphere. The obvious differences would be the medium: one is an oil painting while the other is an etching. It can be argued that the oil painting is less focused on the architecture; instead, it emphasizes the interactions between the human figures seen in the composition. A golden light draws our attention to the fashionably dressed figures who appear to be enjoying life next to the coast and ruins of tall arches. By contrast, there is a clear indication of focus on architecture in the Veduta dell’Arco Costantino because the arch is centered and interwoven with other subtle details that the eye picks up as it wanders through the print. That said, both images reveal a taste for architectural precision and serene landscape settings.

   Turning now to Canaletto, the Venetian artist who influenced Piranesi’s later style, and who was a painter and printmaker renowned for his landscape views, we find a talented artist who understood the importance of patronage as well as the mastery of technique. Canaletto sold his work to highly regarded aristocrats and patrons (Baetjer, 3), something that Piranesi would also do in later decades. Piazza San Marco (late 1720s) by Canaletto is a perfect example of a casual public scene and particular tradition of tonal lighting. Again, we see subtle similarities in both Piranesi and Canaletto’s works. Both focus on scenic imagery with fine architectural depictions and both share strong contrasts in light and shadow. But, true to his style, Piranesi emphasized the details of architecture. The similarities between Piranesi and Panini may be obvious, but the differences between their works are subtle. We might speculate that Piranesi’s ability to build upon Venetian traditions of painting architectural scenes together with his proficiency in recreating architectural detail on paper, helped him create his famous views of Rome.

   Piranesi was a visionary printmaker who would influence later generations of artists. Even if it may not be immediately noticeable, there is a connection between the souvenir etchings of Piranesi’s Roman views and the views we see in contemporary postcards. Wealthy Grand Tourists who traveled throughout Italy sought to memorialize their visits to classical monuments by collecting souvenirs like Piranesi’s prints that reminded them of those grand edifices of the past in an otherwise contemporary city (Holden, 99). To this day, the tourist industry is still an enormous source of income for many cities and countries. Simple souvenirs like postcards offer similar views as those found in Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma because they are images that represent historic landmarks and views of scenic tourist spots. Tourists attractions like the Eiffel Tower or even the Colosseum continue to produce and promote similar monument iconic images that are sold as souvenirs. However, it can be argued that postcards are rather cheap and more accessible to everyone than a Piranesi print.

   Giovanni Battista Piranesi started out as an aspiring architect. He developed his pictorial skills in Venice, before mastering his technical abilities in Rome with its ancient and contemporary architecture. All of this culminated in Piranesi creating a unique style for serene scenes with accurate depictions of historical monuments. Eventually, Piranesi embarked upon the etching series Vedute di Roma, a body of work that depicted ancient Roman architecture in contemporary Rome but with fictional elements (Holden, 99). These etchings catered to the Grand Tourist who enjoyed collecting accurate portrayals of monuments in romanticized and melancholy settings. Like postcards, Piranesi’s works can be considered architectural documents, but with a strong preference for fantasy and fiction.


Further Reading

  • Baetjer, Katharine, and J. G. Links. Canaletto. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989.
  • Cordaro, Michele, Alida Moltedo, and Mario Gori Sassoli. Giovanni Battista Piranesi e La Veduta a Roma e a Venezia Nella Prima metà Del Settecento. Rome, Italy: Palombi, 1991.
  • Holden, Colin. Piranesi’s Grandest Tour: from Europe to Australia. Sydney, Australia: UNSW Press, 2014.
  • Kirk, Terry. “Piranesi’s Poetic License: His Influence on Modern Italian Architecture.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome. Supplementary Volume 4 (2006): 239–274.
  • Murray, Peter. Piranesi and the Grandeur of Ancient Rome. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1971.
  • Thompson, Wendy. “Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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