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.
Here, exhibition curator Dr Colin Holden talks about the broad array of visitors Piranesi included in his detailed architectural portrait of a grand pilgrimage church,
Spaccato interno della basilica di S Paolo fuori delle Mura (Internal View of St Paul Outside-the-Walls).
Watch the other videos in this 11-part series:
Read the transcript
Here we are standing inside St Paul’s Outside-the-Walls, one of Rome’s great pilgrimage churches. It was founded in the 4th century by the emperor Constantine to honour St Paul, the companion of St Peter, separately martyred in Rome in about 65 AD in a persecution ordered by the emperor Nero. A visitor today sees a rather different church from the one in Piranesi’s view. In 1823 a fire destroyed the facade and some important interior features, while others survived, including significant mosaics. The reconstructed church was reopened in 1840, just under a century after Piranesi created his etching.
Visitors to the church come from the widest possible range of backgrounds and with a variety of motives. Some have clearly religious ones – two figures bless themselves with holy water from a large stoup; others pray, kneeling on the floor; and members of religious orders are easily recognised by their habits. Important though it is as a pilgrimage church, it is also a space in which people feel at ease socialising or are otherwise at ease, like the man seated near the roughly dressed group on the left, with children. These are more likely to be local Roman folk than visiting pilgrims. Men and women of aristocratic and gentry background stand out immediately as a consequence of their clothing – the women with elaborate hooped skirts; the men, wigged, with dress-swords and canes. In the centre foreground, three such people seem to have paused to admire the architecture and fittings, and others further on the right are clearly pointing to particular features of the building. The group closest to us appears to act out their own little scene of callous indifference. One well-to-do woman gestures grandly into the distance. She and those around her seem to deliberately ignore a beggar on crutches and others (amputees?) on the ground in front of them.
From an architectural point of view, Piranesi has used a perspective that highlights the timbered ceiling and the layout of this church, with its wide central nave and narrower aisles. These are characteristic features of basilicas – churches whose layout is modelled on that of classical Roman public buildings. English music scholar Charles Burney who visited Rome in 1770 wrote in his diary of how impressed he was by the interior of St Paul’s: ‘This church is remarkable both for its antiquity; for the richness of its marble columns, and for its size…There are few things in Rome which give one a higher idea of ancient grandeur.’ Many of the visitors shown by Piranesi in this view seem to have been similarly impressed.