The Discovery of Piranesi's Final Project
Stephen Lauf




Giovanni Battista Piranesi (attributed), 'Pianta degli avanzi di un 'antica Villa, sue Fabbriche, e Circo volgarmente detto di Caracalla fuori di porta S. Sebastiano' first state, circa 1775-78 in Le Antichitą Romane vol. 1 (Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg), 1787.


Giovanni Battista Piranesi (attributed), 'Pianta degli avanzi di un 'antica Villa, sue Fabbriche, e Circo volgarmente detto di Caracalla fuori di porta S. Sebastiano' second state, dimensions added, 1778 in Le Antichitą Romane vol. 1 (Getty Research Institute), 1787.


The first questions raised by the two near identical circus site plans are, "Who drew them and why did Francesco append them to Le Antichitą Romane vol. 1?" It seems doubtful that Francesco would add any plate to Le Antichitą Romane that was not the product of his father or himself, and, if Francesco were the person responsible for the site plans, he would have signed them as such. Thus, given Piranesi's expressed curiosity and interest in the depicted circus4, it is then perfectly reasonable to attribute the site plans to Piranesi himself. And, with the attribution of Piranesi as the person responsible for this pair of site plans, the incompleteness and obscurity of the overall composition of the etching becomes much less inscrutable.

The undeniably intentional asymmetry of the Circus of Caracalla [sic] plan undoubtedly surprised Piranesi the most. Prior to this plan every other Piranesi-drawn ancient circus plan is strictly symmetrical for the whole length of the circus--see the Circus Maximus within the 'Pianta dell antico Foro Romano' first state5 in Le Antichitą Romane Vol. 1 (1756) and the Circus Agonalis sive Alexandri, Circus Apollinaris, Circus Caii et Neronis, Circus Domitiae, Circus Flaminius jam tum Apollinaris, and Circus Hadriani within the 'Ichnographia Campus Martius' first state6 in Il Campo Marzio dell'Antica Roma (1762). Although it is difficult to assert with any certainty, Piranesi nevertheless may well be the first person in modern times to discovery that "the carceres, or starting gates, had a distinctive, slanted, slightly curved, plan form, designed to compensate for what would otherwise be significant differences in the distances from the individual starting gates to the start of the first section of straight track on the right hand side of the spina (as seen from the carceres)."7 In any case, the asymmetrical form-follows-function design of the Circus of Caracalla was certainly new to Piranesi, as he meticulously delineated the geometry of the race-starting-formula within the Circus of Caracalla plan, and, subsequently, decided to redraw and correctly redesign all the circuses he had already drawn within the 'Pianta dell antico Foro Romano' and the 'Ichnographia Campus Martius.' The new intelligence Piranesi gathered at the Circus of Caracalla ultimately became the catalyst for the Ancient Circuses publishing project, and the 'Pianta degli avanzi di un 'antica Villa, sue Fabbriche, e Circo volgarmente detto di Caracalla fuori di porta S. Sebastiano' itself is the summation of all the extensive field survey work Piranesi carried out himself at the site--a rare type of etching within Piranesi's oeuvre for sure.



4. Two entries from Sir Roger Newdigate's 1775 diary are about Piranesi and "his plan of the Circus of Caracalla." On March 8 Piranesi brought his plan of the Circus of Caracalla to Newdigate's home in Rome and "explained it." On March 10 Newdigate went to Piranesi's workshop where Piranesi "lent his plan of Circus of Caracalla," and then Newdigate went to the circus site on the Via Appia where he "saw the Temple & Portico and examined the circus till past 4." See Francis Russell, "Piranesi and Sir Riger Newdigate: a footnote" in The Burlington Magazine (CL, August 2008), p. 547.
5. The author discovered two states of 'Pianta dell antico Foro Romano' online 27 December 2019. A first state printing of the Roman Forum plan exists within the University of Cologne copy of Le Antichitą Romane vol. 1. A second state printing of the Roman Forum plan exists within the University of Tokyo copy of Le Antichitą Romane vol. 1.
6. The author discovered two states of 'Ichnographia Campus Martius' at the Fine Arts Library of the Univesity of Pennsylvania 14 May 1999. A first state printing of the Campo Marzio plan exists within the University of Pennsylvania copy of Il Campo Marzio dell'Antica Roma. A second state printing of the Campo Marzio plan exists within the University of Tokyo copy of Il Campo Marzio dell'Antica Roma
7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_circus, accessed 13 June 2022.




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