We are standing outside what in Piranesi’s day was the customs house and is today the stock exchange. At its entrance, the coaches of Grand Tourists queue up. Their uniformed servants are obvious. Some can be seen directing the coaches; others can be seen bowing obsequiously to their master, who seems to be holding a conversation with two of his equals who have their backs to us.
Some visitors made their passage past the customs officials quite easily. The diaries of some other visitors to 18th-century Rome tell stories of frustrating delays as officials searched through all their possessions, trying to find some way of making charges for them to pay. It was often easiest to pay a bribe. Perhaps this is what is happening to one individual on the right. His luggage is being unpacked from its extended wrappings, and he stands on part of the wrapping. Is he confident that he has ‘nothing to declare’? Or is he perhaps resigned to paying a bribe to get it over with? Behind him, against the wall of the customs house, to his right and left, are reminders of the more ordinary daily life of Romans. A man loads or unloads a wine barrel onto a cart. Presumably the wine has passed the customs regulations. To the left, under an awning, prints are being sold from a street stall. At east one print, hanging from the awning, looks like a popular devotional image. However, these are unlikely to be the kind of prints that Piranesi and similar printmakers sold from their own studios, or through good book sellers. Lastly, in the foreground to the left, a figure is dimly visible behind the wooden palings of a temporary gaol guarded by soldiers. Is he a thief who has tried to steal from goods being held by the customs office? At this point, we can only guess.
Piranesi treats the facade of the building behind all of these people almost as though it was a theatrical backdrop, but it is a fascinating and extraordinary work in its own right. The Greek marble columns are the remains of a temple built in honour of the early-2nd-century emperor Hadrian just after his death. Almost sixteen hundred years later, in 1695, a baroque architect, Carlo Fontana, wove a new building in between the surviving columns. The effect is almost surreal.