The gardens of aristocratic villas were important areas in their own right, and Piranesi reminds us of this in his view of the villa of Cardinal Alessandro Albani. A powerful figure in the Vatican hierarchy, Albani announced the election of three popes and played a leading role in the Vatican’s international relations. However, well-to-do visitors to Rome from everywhere in Europe pressed for invitations to his home in order to see his collection of antique Roman sculptures and other classical remains. It was one of the most important in the city. Much of it was on display on the ground floor of the villa in a space looking out onto the gardens.
Just to the left of the villa, we can see a group of well-to-do visitors. Undoubtedly they have come to admire the Cardinal’s collection; perhaps they have even arranged to meet his librarian, one of Rome’s leading classical authorities, Johann Winckelmann, a German scholar who pioneered research into the arts of classical Greece. Other visitors are dotted singly or in small groups around the grounds. The sculpture and statuary that also decorated gardens like these gave viewers an additional dimension of aesthetic enjoyment. However, the figures closest to us in the foreground are not the cultured visitors, but the ground staff. They gesture animatedly like the Romans in many of Piranesi’s streetscapes. In the centre foreground, two groundsmen clean a fountain. To the side of another fountain, on a different level of the grounds, we can see another gardener with a full wheelbarrow-load. Two look as relaxed as the aristocratic visitors. In another view, Piranesi similarly showed the gardening staff at their work in a particularly famous garden in the hillside country at Tivoli, outside Rome.
Piranesi’s refusal to treat the groundsmen and gardeners as an invisible army is probably no coincidence. In 1752 he had married Angelica Pasquini, who was ten years his junior, after a whirlwind courtship. (There were only five days between his first sighting of her and their marriage.) Her father was a gardener to Prince Corsini.
Piranesi created this view just after the completion of extensions to the villa. To him, and to those who visited it, it was an example of contemporary, not ancient, Roman magnificence.