The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

Rome: Pi­ranesi’s Vi­sion

State Li­brary of Vic­to­ria, Mel­bourne, un­til June 22

IN the first of his youth­ful po­ems known as the Eclogues, Vir­gil has a shepherd telling an­other of his visit to the city of Rome. Ti­tyrus used to imag­ine the cap­i­tal, he says, as a big­ger ver­sion of the mar­ket towns of their own re­gion: sic parvis com­ponere magna sole­bam — com­pos­ing great things from lit­tle ones — but in re­al­ity it rises up like a great cy­press tow­er­ing over low hedge shrubs.

Yet Vir­gil him­self lived in Naples, prob­a­bly be­cause it was re­mark­ably beau­ti­ful, had a health­ier sea­side lo­ca­tion and Greek, the lan­guage that in­spired his own po­etic cre­ation, was spo­ken there.

He was far from un­aware that great cities could be de­stroyed. In his sec­ond work, the Ge­or­gics, he as­so­ciates Rome im­plic­itly with a ref­er­ence to king­doms doomed to per­ish — per­it­ura ... regna — and in the Aeneid, the epic of the foun­da­tion of Rome, he pre­sents in Book II the most vivid and mem­o­rable ac­count of the rape and de­struc­tion of a city in the his­tory of lit­er­a­ture. It is the refugees from the sack of Troy who are des­tined, un­der the lead­er­ship of Ae­neas, to found a new home in Italy, and this gives the poet, in due course, the op­por­tu­nity to imag­ine Rome be­fore Rome.

In Book VIII, Ae­neas ar­rives at the site of what is to be­come the big­gest city in the world, but is only partly oc­cu­pied by a small Greek colony, Pal­lanteum. He con­tem­plates sites still barely touched by hu­man hand yet which by the poet’s own day had been densely built up for many cen­turies, cov­ered with al­ready an­cient and ven­er­a­ble struc­tures. The most strik­ing pas­sage of all, to a mod­ern reader, is when he looks at what will one day be the Fo­rum but is still only a meadow for pas­tur­ing cat­tle.

The pas­sage would al­ready have been spinet­in­gling to a Ro­man, as it would be to a Lon­doner or a New Yorker imag­in­ing the prim­i­tive to­pog­ra­phy of the city whose ex­is­tence they now take for granted. But it is al­most breath­tak­ing to a mod­ern reader be­cause a cow pas­ture is ex­actly what the Fo­rum be­came once again af­ter the fall of Rome, and it was even known as the Campo Vac­cino. What had been the heart of the great­est em­pire the world had known was, by early mod­ern times, a collection of spec­tac­u­lar ru­ins in which il­lit­er­ate peas­ants watched over their beasts while the few sur­viv­ing build­ings had been turned into churches.

It was this poignant con­trast be­tween the ves­tiges of an­cient grandeur and the medi­ocrity of mod­ern su­per­sti­tion — as he in par­tic­u­lar saw it — that was in Gib­bon’s mind when he con­ceived the plan of his mas­ter­piece: “It was at Rome, on the 15th of Oc­to­ber, 1764, as I sat mus­ing amid the ru­ins of the Capi­tol, while the bare­footed fri­ars were singing ves­pers in the Tem­ple of Jupiter, that the idea of writ­ing the de­cline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”

I quoted this pas­sage two years ago in dis­cussing In Search of the Pic­turesque, an evoca­tive ex­hi­bi­tion at Gee­long Art Gallery. The same cu­ra­tor, Colin Holden, has now put to­gether at the State Li­brary of Vic­to­ria a fine sur­vey of the great 18th-century en­graver and etcher Gio­vanni Bat­tista Pi­ranesi. Pi­ranesi was au­thor of the most dra­matic im­ages made of Rome, in­clud­ing both its mod­ern ed­i­fices and the re­mains of its an­cient ones.

Coin­cid­ing with the State Li­brary ex­hi­bi­tion are two oth­ers that I have not yet had the op­por­tu­nity to see: The Pi­ranesi Ef­fect, de­voted to the in­flu­ence of Pi­ranesi on con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian artists, at the Ian Pot­ter Mu­seum at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne (un­til May 24); and A Trav­eller’s Dream, with pho­to­graphs of Pi­ranesi’s mo­tifs by Graziano Pan­fili at the Ital­ian Cul­tural In­sti­tute (un­til April 30).

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