mistake


1999.05.17

Vincenzo Fasolo, in his essay "The CAMPOMARZIO of G. B. Piranesi", makes the almost inexcusable mistake of referring to the 'Equiria' axis within the Ichnographia as a body of water. That the Equiria was indeed ancient Rome's premier race course dedicated to Mars is not exactly common knowledge, but a 20th century architectural historian such as Fasolo should have been well aware of the Equiria's true character, especially since modern Rome's Via del Corso follows the same path as the ancient Equiria.

As much as this mistake more or less proves a certain lack of research on Fasolo's part while analyzing Piranesi's Ichnograpia of the Campo Marzio, it also sets an uncanny precedent whereby subsequent analysts of the great plan make similarly reprehensible errors, particularly errors of an inverted nature.

Like Vincenzo Fasolo, Manfredo Tafuri made numerous mistakes regarding Piranesi's Campo Marzio. Tafuri's mistakes manifest a more severe gravity, however, because they involve an overall gross misinterpretation of Piranesi's large plan, and, moreover, because Tafuri utilizes his (mis)interpretation of the Campo Marzio as the foundation for his theory of contemporary architecture. Tafuri's mistakes appear within two texts: Architecture and Utopia - Design and Capitalist Development and The Sphere and the Labyrinth - Avant-Gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s.

The first mistake appears on page 14 of Architecture and Utopia: "Here [in the Ichnographia] the order in the details does not produce a simple "tumult in the whole." Rather, it creates a monstrous pullulation of symbols devoid of significance."

The reality is that the Ichnographia is NOT an abundant breeding of "symbols devoid of significance," but rather a cleverly delineated and labeled narrative of ancient Rome's own Imperial history. Both the many individual building plans and the Latin labels thereof act as a readable text which delivers an accurate historical (and at times even an accurate archeological) account.




Tafuri's second mistake appears on page 15 of Architecture and Utopia: "History is here invoked as an inherent "value," but Piranesi's paradoxical rejection of historical, archeological reality makes the civic potential of the total image very doubtful."

It is not true that Piranesi outright rejects historical and archeological reality with regard to "reconstructing" ancient Rome's Campus Martius. In fact, most the buildings labeled within the Ichnographia not only represent buildings that once existed within ancient Rome, but they are for the most part positioned in their respective proper locations. This is not to say, however, that the entire map is "accurate." Many of the individual plans, although designating buildings that once existed, are nonetheless Piranesi's own design creations. As to those portions of the Ichnographia that are purely imaginative and/or inaccurate, it is within these that Piranesi is also the most astute, because it is Piranesi's superficial "mistakes" that signal precisely where to look for a deeper message or meaning regarding ancient Rome's (and particularly the Campus Martius') overall history.




Tafuri's third mistake appears also on page 15 of Architecture and Utopia: "The archeological mask of Piranesi's Campo Marzio fools no one: this is an experimental design and the city, therefore, remains an unknown."

It seems clear that it is precisely the "archeological mask" of the Campo Marzio that fooled Tafuri. Piranesi never intended the Ichnographia to be read as an archeological reconstruction, but as a wholly new reenactment of the Campus Martius. Piranesi's "experiment" is not in the design of the Campo Marzio per se, but in his Promethean delivery of historical (and architectural) narrative. As for the city delineated within the Ichnographia remaining an "unknown", this too is false because all one has to do is read (or translate) ALL the Latin labels within the Ichnographia to know the "city" it depicts.

[I cannot help but think that Tafuri was, like most who subsequently come to interpret the Ichnographia Campi Martii, too lazy to READ Piranesi's large plan completely.]




Tafuri's fourth mistake appears on pages 15 and 16 of Architecture and Utopia: "This colossal piece of bricolage conveys nothing but a self-evident truth: irrational and rational are no longer to be mutually exclusive. Piranesi did not possess the means for translating the dynamic interrelationships of this contradiction into form. He had, therefore, to limit himself to enunciating emphatically that the great new problem was that of the equilibrium of opposites, which in the city find its appointed place: failure to resolve this problem would mean the destruction of the very concept of architecture."

First of all, after reading Piranesi's Campo Marzio properly, the notion of irrationality does not come into play. Piranesi's narrative method is indeed unprecedented, but his message does not carry an overt irrationally, nor even a covert irrationality. This latching on to the notion of irrationality within the Campo Marzio is perhaps Tafuri's most critical mistake because all subsequent reference (within Architecture and Utopia) to the presence of irrationality may be ostensibly based on a misguided and insubstantial premise. Unfortunately, it is Tafuri himself that "did not possess the means for translating the dynamic interrelationships" between plan forms and Latin labels which Piranesi used to "present" his historical narrative.

Interestingly enough, Piranesi did "equate" opposites, but not the opposites of rational and irrational. Piranesi looked to ancient Rome's own history and there recognized the opposites of Paganism and Christianity.




Tafuri's fifth mistake appears on page 34 of The Sphere and the Labyrinth: "We must verify our observations in the very heart of the structure of the Campo Marzio. It is immediately apparent that this structure is composed of a formless heap of fragments colliding one against the other. The whole area between the Tiber, the Campidoglio, the Quirinale, and the Pincio is represented according to a method of arbitrary association (even though Piranesi accepts the suggestions of the Forma urbis), whose principles of organization exclude any organic unity."

In composing the Campo Marzio, Piranesi did not utilize a "method of arbitrary association." What Piranesi did was to carefully link and sometimes even align seemingly individual buildings so that as a result certain groups of buildings generate distinct narratives or meanings. As one penetrates Piranesi's Campo Marzio, it becomes ever clearer that Piranesi rarely positioned building plans within the Ichnographia arbitrarily. As mentioned before, if the building plans do not represent actual structures that once existed in ancient Rome, then they are there performing some part of a specific narrative.

It is indeed regrettable that Tafuri, especially since he, like Piranesi, was an Italian, was not sharp enough to recognize the Campo Marzio's true "organic unity."




Tafuri's sixth mistake appears also on page 34 of The Sphere and the Labyrinth: "Only the area of the northeast and the southwest, included in the double bend of the river, seem to be recomposed into structures in some way unitary and well defined: two orthogonal axes, roughly parallel to the course of the river's bend, guide the composition of the Sepulchrum Hadriani [Hadrian's Tomb], of the complex formed by the two circuses of Hadrian and Domitian (sic) [Circus of Domitia], which extend along the axis of the mausoleum, of the Circus Agonnalis, of the Circus Flaminius, of the Templum Martis, of the Gimnasium Neronis, of the Terme [Baths] of Agrippa. A second alignment, regulated by a rectilinear axis, is found in the northeast sector."

Through the above quotation, Tafuri demonstrates his inferior (or at least cursory) observational procedure in examining the Campo Marzio. Although he correctly recognizes the axis running through the Bustum Hadriani, Tafuri does not note that this is the axis of death. Moreover, Tafuri does not detect the much longer axis of life that runs perpendicular to the axis of death. Additionally, the axes of the "Circus Agonnalis, of the Circus Flaminius, of the Templum Martis, of the Gimnasium Neronis, of the Terme [Baths] of Agrippa" do not even align let along act in concert with the axis of Hadrian's tomb. Tafuri should have known better than to even write that sentence, especially since he was blatantly copying the mistakes of Fasolo's 1956 text on the Campo Marzio.

As to the so-called "secondary alignment," Tafuri should have plainly cited this "rectilinear axis" as the Equiria, which Piranesi clearly labels as such. Without making the effort to investigate the Equiria, it is then no wonder that Tafuri found Piranesi's Campo Marzio a "formless tangle of spurious organisms." In other words, Tafuri's lack of scholarly investigation led to a most unscholarly (and even fatal) conclusion.




After a series of repeated mistakes related directly to the mistakes already cited, Tafuri's penultimate mistake appears on page 38 of The Sphere and the Labyrinth: "The "great absentee" from the Campo Marzio, then, is language."

Here is where Tafuri puts himself most to shame because "language" is certainly present throughout Piranesi's Campo Marzio. First there is the presence of the Latin language with the close to one thousand Latin words that appear as labels throughout the Ichnographia. Secondly, there is the unique language (and syntax) of Piranesi's individual building plans, which quite often act as pictograms that in turn impart meaning. Taking the Latin labels and the language of the plans together, moreover, delivers the most complete rendition of Piranesi's message. Obviously, and sadly, it is a message that Tafuri missed entirely.




Tafuri's ultimate mistake appears on page 40 of The Sphere and the Labyrinth: "The swarm of theoretically equivalent forms--theorems constructed around a single thesis--makes it clear that Piranesi's intent in the Campo Marzio is to draw attention to the birth--necessary and terrifying--of an architecture bereft of the signified, split off from any symbolic system, from any "value" other than architecture itself."

Again, Tafuri is completely wrong because, in correct terms, Piranesi actually drew the birth of an architecture of reenactment.




At the very beginning of The Sphere and the Labyrinth, Tafuri quotes from a text by Carlo Ginzburg and Adriano Prosperi:
"There comes a moment (though not always) in research when all the pieces begin to fall into place, as in a jig-saw puzzle, where all the pieces are near at hand and only one figure can be assembled (and thus the correctness of each move be determined immediately), in research only some of the pieces are available, and theoretically more than one figure can be made from them. In fact, there is always the risk of using, more or less consciously, the pieces of the jig-saw puzzle as blocks in a construction game. For this reason, the fact that everything falls into place is an ambiguous sign: either one is completely right or completely wrong. When wrong, we mistake for objective verification the selection and solicitation (more or less deliberate) of the evidence, which is forced to confirm the presuppositions (more or less explicit) of the research itself. The dog thinks it is biting the bone and is instead biting its own tail."

HOW IRONIC!

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