INKED IN THE MIND
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).