Sunday, 1 April 2007

Piranesi's Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, Rome

Giovanni Battista Piranesi was born in Venice, and had hopes of patronage with the election in 1758 of a fellow Venetian as Pope Clement XIII, and he would be employed by the pope’s nephew, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Rezzonico, in his role as Grand Prior of the Order of the Knights of Malta. The crusading order, officially that of St. John of Jerusalem, had relocated several times as they retreated from the expanding Ottoman forces. An existing medieval church on the Aventine hill was given over to them and Piranesi’s task was not only to provide a new facade and redecorate the interior, but also create a more public face to the order in the form of a new gateway and ceremonial space which together form what remains one of the most unusual spaces in the city.

The piazza is defined by the gateway into the knights’ estate (today a sovereign territory within the Republic of Italy), and walls on two other sides. A spy hole in its doorway offers the excluded a famous and much viewed image of the dome of St. Peter’s basilica framed in a garden avenue. The motifs employed by Piranesi have a funereal sobriety in their organisation, creating an atmosphere of regularity and order, but any sense of convention is overturned when the detail of the forms is examined closely. Paired obelisks sit atop the stucco walls with a series of panels crammed with iconography providing clues to the inquisitive. The motif of the order, the eight-pointed maltese cross, and the heraldic symbols of the Rezzonico family, the castellated turret and the double headed eagle, are used as decorative items. These symbols are then accompanied by representations of shields, cannon, bows and quivers of arrows, swords, daggers and military standards. Perhaps incongruously garlands, medals, lyres and pan-pipes are also portrayed in low relief in the architectural frames which Piranesi provided. They imitate the type of capricci of fragmentary archaeological remains which he often produced in his engravings, with particular reference to the ancient carved representations of militaria from the base of the Column of Trajan and the Trophies of Marius. The decorative use of the severed heads of Turkish captives referred to the specific military history of the order, but as John Wilton-Ely has observed the exploitation of this iconography had a longer history since it referred to the ancient Roman ceremony of the Armilustrium which brought the fighting season to a close and had taken place on the Aventine hill. This history imbued the site, as it was developed by Piranesi, with the mise en scene for its elegiac and melancholy atmosphere. Those actions or at least the historical echo of past rituals, have been petrified into a series of permanent theatrical props. Marked by its obelisks and memorial tablets the piazza presents a form of anticipatory space, whose celebratory messages prepared the viewer for the sepulchral qualities of the church facade.

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