Italian 18th-century master-printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi was famous for his images of classical and baroque Rome. This video series, 'Piranesi's people', reveals the details and meaning behind the figures depicted in prints featured in the Library's exhibition
Rome: Piranesi's vision.
In this video, exhibition curator Dr Colin Holden discusses how the ruined villa in this print,
Avanzi d’un portico coperto, o criptoportico in una Villa di Domiziano (Ruins of a Covered Portico in a Villa of Domitian), represents the folly and delusive nature of unrestrained ambition and power.
Watch the other videos in this 11-part series:
Read the transcript
We are in open countryside, out of the city. It is a warm day, and in the almost relentlessly clear light, the distance fades into a shimmering haze. It is the kind of weather that doesn’t encourage too much effort. Between the remains of what was once a massive covered way, two men walk in a leisurely fashion. Close to us, on the right, are two rural men. One is seated on the ground; he might be playing some kind of folk instrument. Near him on our left, another man appears to be in conversation with him. Other rural peasants can be seen further over – one propped up against monumental remains, armed with a staff; and a little further back, another man also armed with a staff, herding goats.
Eighteenth-century visitors to Rome commented on the poverty of rural people living in surrounding hill country. They were generally totally illiterate and uneducated. Once on a rural sketching trip, Piranesi was nearly killed by people like these, who were convinced that he was a wizard, performing magic rituals involving paper.
But this is far more than simply a snapshot of rural life. Piranesi and his contemporaries believed that these remains were part of a villa built for the emperor Domitian. Identified as a ruthless, if effective, and cruel ruler; he died in 96 AD. Although this villa was actually built several decades later, when Domitian was dead, its identification with this emperor made its ruins into a powerful symbol of the folly and delusive nature of unrestrained ambition and power. The man on the right may be conversing with his musical companion, but as he gestures towards the massive ruins, he is like a human question mark. He seems to be asking: what price glory? Instead of just giving us glimpses of rural life, this and many other prints by Piranesi ultimately raise moral questions.