We are looking onto a square generally known in Piranesi's day as 'the Square of the Horsetamers', named after giant statues that date from the beginning of the 3rd century. Two palaces overlook the square – one is the Palazzo della Consulta, then the Vatican's centre for international diplomatic relations. More important, on the far right, is the Quirinal Palace. This was the residence of the Pope, who then lived there with relatives and a large staff. (In his key to the print, Piranesi simply identifies No 1 as 'the pope's palace'). To the left, the Papal Guard can be seen drilling outside their barracks, the building just behind them.
Several grand coaches are stationed close to the palace. They undoubtedly belong to aristocrats having audiences with the Pope; or perhaps one belongs to a French or Spanish diplomat, who has come to press his nation’s interests in talks with Vatican officials at the Palazzo della Consulta. To the left of the statues, the two men in the foreground are undoubtedly members of religious orders, identifiable by their habits (clothing) and their distinctive shaved heads, or tonsures. In the middle ground, closer to the soldiers, well-to-do visitors find as much interest in the parading soldiers as do visitors today to Buckingham Palace.
Piranesi has also included some figures who represent a rather different layer of society. On the far right, the little group of men carrying long rods might well be pilgrims, perhaps hoping for a glimpse of the Pope coming or going from the palace. But the ones who raise the most interesting questions are the men seated on fragments of ancient columns, just in front of the statues. These ruins are imaginary, artistic additions – by Piranesi’s time, the square had been thoroughly cleared and levelled. So what are they and the men doing here? They invite us to make a comparison between the classical Roman world and that of Piranesi's day. In a number of views, such people carry on their daily lives, often highly animated in their gestures – but seemingly oblivious to the great classical heritage, which sometimes looks like little more than a grand theatrical backdrop. Is Piranesi suggesting that the world of his day is trivial, almost lost, in comparison with the grandeur of classical Rome? Or is he suggesting something about the vitality of ordinary life, and the decay of past grandeur?
Today, the Quirinal Palace is the home of the President of the Republic. Many sections of the palace were built in the first half of the 17th century, but extensions were still being made during Piranesi’s lifetime. Although we can’t see it in this particular view, new additions included a coffee house to cater for tourists.