Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Ancient Transparencies

Plan of the Temple of Isis by F. Piranesi
Accessible at bildindex
In the end, I have decided to use Piranesi’s plan as main reference mostly because of:
- the presence of the ekklesisterium
- the availability of Piranesi’ detailed drawings of the front and rear elevation of the temple and a longitudinal section of the entire Iseum (all expressed in the same unit of the plan).
However, I intend to use Soane’s plan to double-check the distance between the elements and, possibly, to derive the height of the purgatorium. Curiously, the latter has been ignored by the meticulous Piranesi and does not appear neither in the section or the elevations he drew (or, at least, it does not appear in the drawings I have found so far).

One additional reason is that I was really impressed by the visual code Piranesi adopted in his drawings. If Soane drew and recorded the appearance of the Temple as it was when he saw it, Piranesi tried to imagine how the temple might have looked like before ist destruction. In other words, Piranesi developed an interesting attempt of 2D visualisation showing fascinating similarities with modern applied visualisation research.

Of course, Francesco Piranesi was not the first person to draw an hypothetical restored version of the Pompeian ruins. But the stress should go on the word “hypothetical”. Many of his contemporaries (and many of his modern times successors as well) simply disseminated reconstructions of the damaged building, without giving the audience any means to distinguish between original remains, grounded hypotheses and artistic imagination. As many past and present reconstructions, they were misleadingly presented as “the image of the real thing”.
On the contrary, Piranesi shows a praiseworthy transparency making immediately recognisable the different status of the drawn elements.

Front elevation of the Temple of Isis by F. Piranesi
Accessible at bildindex
In my opinion, his code is simple and effective even if it is expressed in grey scale.
All the elements actually still present in situ when the Italian architect and engraver drew them are represented in a realistic and detailed style.
The missing elements or, in other words, the one virtually restored by Piranesi are represented in an essential, graphic style: few main lines, no shadows, no chiaroscuro.
Using this opposition, Piranesi produces a document that, at the same time, gives an idea of the original look of the building and witnesses its actual state, giving to an expert audience the opportunity to agree or disagree with the artist hypotheses.
The striking use of white for the restored elements underlines the concept of absence and their status of “ideas” and not “facts” within the visualisation.

My knowledge of Roman first century AD architecture does not allow me to evaluate the likelihood of Piranesi’s restoration. He does not mark the level of certainty of his hypotheses and do not motivate them. However, his concern about transparency and his scholarly attitude can be considered an early example of best practice and his basic code seems to me very powerful from a communicative point of view and definitely still valid.

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