Ancient Circus of Mars with Neighboring Monuments Viewed at the Via Appia



Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Italian, 1720 - 1778


Ancient Circus of Mars with Neighboring Monuments Viewed at the Via Appia






15 5/8 x 23 1/2 in. (39.7 x 59.7 cm)

Object Number



Piranesi here has let his imagination run wild to create a capriccio, or fantasy, of ancient Rome, but it is a fantasy with a basis in archaeological fact. Although he has labeled the subject as the "ancient Circus of Mars," it is clear from the reference to the Via Appia and the general topography that he has the Circus Maximus in mind. The Circus Maximus, one of the most ancient sites in Rome, lay in a low valley between the Palatine and the Aventine Hills. It had been used for chariot races since at least the fourth century BC. Other activities like gladiatorial games and beast hunts also took place there before the construction of the Colosseum. In imperial times the circus could seat at least 150,000 people (and could have comfortably contained twelve Colosseums).

At the top of the image imperial residences are piled up on the Palatine overlooking the racetrack. The central barrier of the racetrack is depicted in detail with two obelisks amid elaborate statuary and other architectural elements. While the obelisks, one now at the Lateran and the other in the Piazza del Popolo, are the only two objects that have been recovered from the Circus, it is known from ancient historians and the imagery on artifacts that the barrier the chariots raced around was decorated with a rich array of monuments, including the three conical metae, or turning posts, at the end. The objects in the foreground (sarcophagi, altars, funerary urns, statues, etc.) are the types of things that would have been seen along the Via Appia in ancient times, but perhaps not in such tumbled profusion.
From "Le Antichita Romane", Volume III, Frontispiece

Credit Line

Museum purchase


Discovering Rome: Maps and Monuments of the Eternal City, Michael C. Carlos Museum, September 16, 2006 - January 14, 2007|
Old Masters: Highlights of the Works on Paper Collection, Michael C. Carlos Museum, August 15 - December 6, 2009|
Antichità, Teatro, Magnificenza: Renaissance and Baroque Images of Rome, Michael C. Carlos Museum, August 24 - November 17, 2013
MCCM Newsletter, September - November, 2009.|
Michael C. Carlos Museum: Highlights of the Collections (Atlanta: Michael C. Carlos Museum, 2011), 140.|
Antichita, Teatro, Magnificenza (Atlanta: Michael C. Carlos Museum, 2013), 61 (checklist only).


© Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University. Photo by Bruce M. White, 2006.
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Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Italian, 1720 - 1778, “Ancient Circus of Mars with Neighboring Monuments Viewed at the Via Appia,” Michael C. Carlos Museum Collections Online, accessed February 20, 2019,

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