Piranesi’s 300th anniversary: 1 Antiquities

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), Interior View of the Pantheon (date not known), etching, 54.5 x 77.9 cm, Opere di Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Francesco Piranesi e d'altri, Firmin Didot Freres, Paris, 1835-1839. Wikimedia Commons.

Three hundred years ago tomorrow, one of the most famous and prolific print makers of Italy was born: Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778). In this article I look at his career and work generally, and tomorrow I concentrate on his remarkable series of prints showing imaginary prisons, which has proved so influential on art.

Piranesi was born in a town near Mestre, the city on the mainland adjacent to Venice. He developed an early interest in classical architecture and remains: his brother introduced him to the Latin language, his father was a stonemason, and he was indentured as an apprentice with his uncle, an architect responsible for restoring historical buildings.

He started to learn to etch and engrave when in Rome, where he initially worked as a draughtsman. His first independent print-making started in 1743, when he made views of the city of Rome in conjunction with students at the French Academy in Rome. In the mid-1740s, he worked in Venice, where it’s thought he became friends with Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), A Battle of Nude Men (1744-45), pen and dark brown ink with brown and gray-brown wash over red chalk on laid paper pasted down on the remains of the artist’s original mount, 25.8 × 18.4 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

A Battle of Nude Men is a pen and ink drawing which Piranesi made in 1744-45, possibly when he was in Venice.

In the late 1740s, Piranesi returned to Rome, where he started work on a major series of views of the city and its classical ruins.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), The Skeletons (1747-49), etching, drypoint, burnishing on paper, 39.5 x 54.5 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

The Skeletons from 1747-49 is an etching and drypoint with burnishing which already declares his interest in the ‘ghoulish’. In this fantasy, the ruins appear to have come alive with the remains of the dead. At the upper right is the zodiac, showing Sagittarius and Cancer. By this time, Piranesi had started work on the series of prints which depict his imaginary views of prisons, which I look at in tomorrow’s article.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), The Temple of Diana (1748), etching on laid paper, 34.9 x 46.7 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

The Temple of Diana, etched in 1748 for Piranesi’s first major series of views of Roman ruins, shows the remains of one of the oldest temples, by legend claimed to have been built during the initial rule of Rome by kings.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), Side View of the Trevi Fountain, formerly the Acqua Vergine from Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome) (1747-48), etching, 51.6 x 69.7 cm, Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ. Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve ever visited Rome, you’ll surely recognise the famous sight of a Side View of the Trevi Fountain, one of the prints included in Piranesi’s hugely successful Views of Rome, in 1747-48. The largest fountain in the city, it dates from 19 BCE, when it was built at the end of the Acqua Vergine aqueduct. Work to create the modern version had started in 1732, but had been interrupted, and wasn’t completed until 1762. That accounts for some of the sculpture being incomplete.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), Veduta with the Temple of Jove (c 1750-58), etching, 37.5 x 59.5 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Piranesi continued to make prints of Rome and other locations in Italy with classical remains throughout the rest of his career. Veduta with the Temple of Jove from about 1750-58 is a finished etching which shows the lesser of the two temples to Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. This lies between the larger and more important Temple to Jove Capitoline and the Forum. It’s seen here in a state of ruin, with trees growing nearby, and livestock.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), The Pantheon (exterior) (1762), etching, dimensions not known, Opere di Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Francesco Piranesi e d’altri, Firmin Didot Freres, Paris, 1835-1839. Wikimedia Commons.

Piranesi’s later collection of views published under the title of Campus Martius in 1762 included this fine etching of the exterior of the Pantheon.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), Interior View of the Pantheon (date not known), etching, 54.5 x 77.9 cm, Opere di Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Francesco Piranesi e d’altri, Firmin Didot Freres, Paris, 1835-1839. Wikimedia Commons.

He also made several beautifully lit interior views, including this undated Interior View of the Pantheon.

In 1763, Piranesi was commissioned by Pope Clement XIII to restore the choir of the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano, which had been a favourite of a succession of popes. After that failed, he was responsible for restoring the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato on the Aventine Hill, the only architectural work which he completed in Rome.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), View of the Main Face of Trajan’s Column (1774), etching, 297.8 x 77.5 cm in 6 parts, scan from dioscorides.ucm.es via Wikimedia Commons.

Another familiar landmark for those who have visited Rome is Trajan’s Column, erected in its own forum in 113 CE to commemorate the victory of the emperor Trajan in the Dacian Wars. One of Piranesi’s last major projects, in 1774, was to document this in painstaking detail, for example in this View of the Main Face of Trajan’s Column.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), The Tomb of the Istacidi, Pompeii (c 1777), pencil, reed pen, black ink, 51.5 x 77.5 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst (Den Kongelige Malerisamling), Copenhagen, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

The buried city of Pompeii was rediscovered and excavated during Piranesi’s career, starting in about 1763. The artist visited the site late in his life, making drawings such as this of The Tomb of the Istacidi, Pompeii (c 1777).

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), The Octagonal Room in the Small Baths at the Villa of Hadrian (Tivoli) (c 1777), red chalk over black chalk or charcoal with partly ruled construction, sheet glued onto secondary paper support, 39.4 x 55.3 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Although relatively few of Piranesi’s original drawings are now accessible, this chalk study of The Octagonal Room in the Small Baths at the Villa of Hadrian (Tivoli) was made in about 1777.

By 1777, Piranesi’s health was failing, and died in Rome the following year.

In all, it’s thought that Piranesi made about two thousand prints, overwhelmingly of classical ruins in the city of Rome. They remain a reference, extensively used by other artists, invaluable to archaeologists and antiquaries, and now widely available from the Internet.


Wikipedia, which has a good directory of other resources too.