Fascination with Rome is as eternal as the city itself. “Antichità, Teatro, Magnificenza: Renaissance and Baroque Images of Rome,” at the Michael C. Carlos Museum through November 17, chronicles how the city was mapped and pictured in three dramatically different centuries. The maps and prints selected by curators Sarah McPhee, the Winship distinguished research professor of art and architectural history at Emory University, and Margaret Shufeldt, former Carlos Museum curator of works on paper, brilliantly cover both the eras and the medium of printmaking.
The new curiosity about ancient civilizations that typified the Italian Renaissance is spectacularly evident in its exacting studies of ancient Roman architecture. Mapmaker Pirro Ligorio’s “Anteiquae Urbis Imago,” or “Image of the Ancient City,” placed buildings and monuments not just where ruins were still visible but where ancient texts indicated they had been. Ligorio further filled in missing information with images gleaned from the tiny pictures on ancient coins of the Roman Empire.
As the religious wars of the early 17th century came to an end, the popes continued to remake Rome — the financing of which through the sale of indulgences had been one of the reasons for Martin Luther’s call for reformation. This exhibition contains prints showing successive stages in the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica, and of the transfer there of one of the obelisks seen in Ligorio’s map. Prints depicting the processions on formal occasions that created moments of drama in the city streets fully justify the naming of public space in Rome as itself a theater, teatro.
The “magnificenza” or magnificence of the new Rome, as pictured in Giovanni Batista Falda’s monumental and elaborate 1676 bird’s-eye-view map, became an attraction on the Grand Tour taken by young European gentlemen wishing to receive an education in tasteful aesthetics before taking up the tasks befitting their elevated social station. Thus the 18th century finds Rome’s printmakers, such as Giuseppe Vasi, producing elegant souvenir images of the city’s most memorable buildings, in etchings that are well represented in this exhibition.
The star of this part of the show, though, is Giovanni Battista Piranesi. His vedute, or views of the ruins of ancient Rome, outstrip his competitors, bringing an eerie perspective to scenes in which the ruins dominate the foreground while the additions of more recent times recede into insignificance, as in a 1757 print called “The Arch of Titus,” in which the adjacent buildings seem almost as withered as the trees that lean vertiginously next to the ancient structure.
The most widely discussed work in the exhibition is Piranesi’s 1762 map of the Campo Marzio. Though based on the newest archaeological evidence of his day, it conflates successive eras of construction into a hallucinatory overlay of impossible architectural splendors. The document, like Piranesi’s other famous work the “Carceri” series, has a long history of provoking fascinated responses, and each inquirer has derived some different lesson from it. Most recently, this map was the subject of Peter Eisenman’s “The Piranesi Variations,” his contribution to the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.
The Carlos offers its own inquiry. Seventeenth-century Rome comes to digital life in “Virtual Rome,” an interactive, “walkable” version of Falda‘s map that is a collaborative effort of the Carlos, curator McPhee and Jordan Williams and Erik Lewitt of plexus r+d. This navigable ground-level reconstruction of the buildings and piazzas is detailed enough to distinguish deciduous trees from evergreens.
Taken together with the aforementioned other contemporary responses, this project demonstrates that the Rome we think we see is inevitably an image constructed from the Rome that others have first imagined.
On our home page: Piranesi’s “View of the Piazza Navona”