Set in Stone

Piranesi

Campo Marzio – Giovanni Battista Piranesi 1762

This is one of my favourite architectural drawings of all time. It was etched by the renowned Piranesi no less, and it depicts a slice of Rome, the city he dedicated many years to documenting. He was fascinated by the architecture of antiquity, the grandeur of the past, and in particular its beauty in ruinous decay.

In a way Piranesi was like a storyteller, painting the picture of an overlooked greatness of an unrivaled past, shining the spotlight on melancholic structures, in awe of the successes of a civilisation that was now over. Perhaps he saw an opportunity for his work to speak as a metaphor; a fading memory of what society had devolved from, the best was over and the skill and care that he offered in his own work could only be found in the masters of the past.

This feeling of nostalgia for antiquity is of course not exclusive to Piranesi, history reaches and grabs all of us, directly or abstractly, consciously or subliminally, we are never separated from that has gone before, especially in the city. However, the weight of the renaissance and its cultural impact in Rome was as unavoidable then as it is commodified today.

The city is a palimpsest layered with past legacies and it doesn’t take Time Team to uncover Rome’s historic inheritance. In a way I think this is why I like this drawing so much, as it represents these complex issues and conveys them with great depth. Its tones almost demonstrate an overlapping of eras, some areas more dense in its detail. It is drawn as a retrospective map, as it was a discovery dug from the rubble around the Colosseum, but as if it once stood proud in the corner of the Piazza San Pietro.

As we know, maps convey many things not just layouts and routes, they show selected information in order to organise and catagorise, whether that is public/private space, density or travel times. To me this city plan captures a moment in Rome’s history, documenting both inside and out, but also is drawn with pensive precision, dedicated to a time when things were -at least in the eyes of the creator- done properly… Please find more of Piranesi’s catalog of Rome here.

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