The Discovery of Piranesi's Final Project
Stephen Lauf




Mausoleum of Valerius Romulus, remains of ancient dining hall, Circus of Maxentius, plans, detail of 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 Antichitā Romane vol. 1 (Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg), 1787.


Bustum Hadriani, plan, detail of 'Ichnographia Campus Martius' (first state) in Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Il Campo Marzio dell'Antica Roma (Princeton University), 1762.


Other than the accurate plan formation of the circus, the 'plan of the remains of an ancient Villa, its buildings, and the circus commonly known as Caracalla outside Porta S. Sebastiano' offers further inimitable information. Fully unawares, Piranesi recorded the munus,8 the funeral games site, in honor of Valerius Romulus, the young son of the emperor Maxentius, who died in 309 at around the age of fifteen. Valerius Romulus was buried in the cylindrical structure surrounded by the rectangular arcade, and the rest of the ruins are very likely the remains of the dining hall where the munus came to an end. This whole complex of tomb, circus and dining hall is nothing less than a gigantic "machine" which facilitates the passage from this life to the next. What Piranesi did recognized however, is that he had already inventively reconstructed a similarly programmed group of buildings, the Bustum Hadriani within the 'Ichnographia Campus Martius,' hence finding an actual munus site along the Appian Way positively confirmed the veracity of Piranesi's own reconstructive design intuitions with regard to the proper architectural manifestation of a munus--correct and proper in all respects except for, of course, the dysfunctional symmetry of the circus plans.

19 June 2022
Having made several Piranesian discoveries now myself, presuming to have at least some idea of Piranesi's reaction to discovering the intricate plan geometry of the circus, commonly known as Caracalla,9 feels grounded enough. Without doubt, Piranesi was thrilled by this shocking information, indeed brand-new knowledge of Rome's ancient circuses. And, again, the 'Pianta degli avanzi di un 'antica Villa, sue Fabbriche, e Circo volgarmente detto di Caracalla fuori di porta S. Sebastiano' plate is Piranesi's expeditious summation of that brand-new knowledge. Etched in the plate are two richly rendered fragments, an inscription and a brick stamp, and, over the complex site plan, Piranesi simply positioned these rendered fragments directly above the spots where "he" found them. Ample copies of the "Caracalla" plate were then printed to facilitate further site survey work, henceforth led by Francesco. Piranesi was particularly anxious for exacting circus dimensions, and the brick stamp saying, "work of Claudius II"10 suggested, hopefully, an indubitable imperial attribution of the circus remained forthcoming.



Rendered fragments, detail of 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 Antichitā Romane vol. 1 (Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg), 1787.



8. "For formerly, in the belief that the souls of the departed were appeased by human blood, they were in the habit of buying captives or slaves of wicked disposition, and immolating them in their funeral obsequies. Afterwards they thought good to throw the veil of pleasure over their iniquity. Those, therefore, whom they had provided for the combat, and then trained in arms as best they could, only that they might learn to die, they, on the funeral day, killed at the places of sepulture. They alleviated death by murders. Such is the origin of the 'Munus'." --Tertullian, De Spectaculis
9. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Caracalla, Roman emperor from 198 to 217.
10. Marcus Aurelius Claudius Gothicus, Roman emperor from 268 to 270.




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