Giovanni Battista Piranesi


Self-portrait of Piranesi.

Self-portrait of Piranesi.
Born (1720-10-04)4 October 1720
Mogliano Veneto
Died 9 November 1778(1778-11-09) (aged 58)
Nationality Italian
Education Matteo Lucchesi
Known for Etching
Notable work Le Carceri d'Invenzione and etchings of Rome
Movement Neoclassicism

Giovanni Battista (also Giambattista) Piranesi (Italian pronunciation: [dʒoˈvanni batˈtista piraˈneːzi]; 4 October 1720 – 9 November 1778) was an Italian artist famous for his etchings of Rome and of fictitious and atmospheric "prisons" (Le Carceri d'Invenzione).


Piranesi was born in Mogliano Veneto, near Treviso, then part of the Republic of Venice. His father was a stonemason. His brother Andrea introduced him to Latin and the ancient civilization, and later he was apprenticed under his uncle, Matteo Lucchesi, who was a leading architect in Magistrato delle Acque, the state organization responsible for engineering and restoring historical builings.

From 1740 he had an opportunity to work in Rome as a draughtsman for Marco Foscarini, the Venetian ambassador of the new Pope Benedict XIV. He resided in the Palazzo Venezia and studied under Giuseppe Vasi, who introduced him to the art of etching and engraving of the city and its monuments. Giuseppe Vasi found Piranesi's talent was beyond engraving. According to Legrand, Vasi told Piranesi that "you are too much of a painter, my friend, to be an engraver."

After his studies with Vasi, he collaborated with pupils of the French Academy in Rome to produce a series of vedute (views) of the city; his first work was Prima parte di Architettura e Prospettive (1743), followed in 1745 by Varie Vedute di Roma Antica e Moderna.

The Pyramid of Cestius, etching

From 1743 to 1747 he sojourned mainly in Venice where, according to some sources, he often visited Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, a leading artist in Venice. It was Tiepolo who expanded the restrictive conventions of reproductive, topographical and antiquarian engravings. He then returned to Rome, where he opened a workshop in Via del Corso. In 1748–1774 he created a long series of vedute of the city which established his fame. In the meantime Piranesi devoted himself to the measurement of many of the ancient edifices: this led to the publication of Le Antichità Romane de' tempo della prima Repubblica e dei primi imperatori ("Roman Antiquities of the Time of the First Republic and the First Emperors"). In 1761 he became a member of the Accademia di San Luca and opened a printing facility of his own. In 1762 the Campo Marzio dell'antica Roma collection of engravings was printed.

The following year he was commissioned by Pope Clement XIII to restore the choir of San Giovanni in Laterano, but the work did not materialize. In 1764, one of Pope's nephews, Cardinal Rezzonico, appointed him to start his sole architectural works of importance, the restoration of the church of Santa Maria del Priorato in the Villa of the Knights of Malta, on Rome's Aventine Hill. He combined certain ancient architectural elements,trophies and escutcheons, with a venetian whimsicality for the facade of the church and the walls of the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta. This was the only time he expressed himself in actual marble and stone.

In 1767 he was made a knight of the Golden Spur, which enabled him henceforth to sign himself "Cav[aliere] Piranesi". In 1769 his publication of a series of ingenious and sometimes bizarre designs for chimneypieces, as well as an original range of furniture pieces, established his place as a versatile and resourceful designer.[1] In 1776 he created his best known work as a 'restorer' of ancient sculpture, the Piranesi Vase, and in 1777–78 he published Avanzi degli Edifici di Pesto (Remains of the Edifices of Paestum).

He died in Rome in 1778 after a long illness, and was buried in the Church he had helped restore, Santa Maria del Priorato. His tomb was designed by Giuseppi Angelini.

The Views (Vedute)

The Colosseum, etching, 1757

Even though the social structure by an aristocracy remained rigid and oppressive, Venice revived through the Grand Tour as the center of intellectual and international exchange in the eighteenth century. The idea of Enlightenment by theorists and artists traveled all over the Europe including Paris, Dresden, and London. New forms of artistic expression emerged, veduta, capriccio, and veduta ideata, topographical view, architectural fantasy, accurate renderings of ancient monuments assembled with imaginary compositions in response to the demand of increased visitors.

The developing center of the Grand Tour was Rome. Rome became a new meeting place and intellectual capital of Europe for the leaders of a new movement in the arts. The city was attracting artists and architects from all over the Europe beside the Grand Tourists, dealers and antiquarians. While many came though official institutions such as the French Academy, others came to see the new discoveries at Heraculaneum and Pompeii.

Piranesi was not only aware of the engineering of the ancient buildings but also the poetic aspects of the ruins from his experience in Venice. One distinctive feature of Piranesi's work is based on the interpretation of Classical antiquity by adding his imagination to increase the originality. Through the works of Marco Ricci and particularly Giovanini Paolo Pannini, Piranesi became familiar with the architectonic values as well as the ruin fantasy.

The remains of Rome kindled Piranesi's enthusiasm. He was able to faithfully imitate the actual remains of a fabric; his invention in catching the design of the original architect provided the missing parts; his masterful skill at engraving introduced groups of vases, altars, tombs that were absent in reality; and his broad and scientific distribution of light and shade completed the picture, creating a striking effect from the whole view. Some of his later work was completed by his children and several pupils.

Piranesi's son and coadjutor, Francesco, collected and preserved his plates, in which the freer lines of the etching-needle largely supplemented the severity of burin work. Twenty-nine folio volumes containing about 2000 prints appeared in Paris (1835–1837).

The late Baroque works of Claude Lorrain, Salvatore Rosa, and others had featured romantic and fantastic depictions of ruins; in part as a memento mori or as a reminiscence of a golden age of construction. Piranesi's reproductions of real and recreated Roman ruins were a strong influence on Neoclassicism.

One of the main features of Neo-Classicism is the attitude towards nature and the uses of past. Neo-Classicism was prompted by the discoveries at Herculaneum and Pompeii. Rediscovery and revaluation of Greece, Egypt, and Gothic was also active as well as the various expeditions of unfamiliar Roman empire. The view of a Golden Age was changing from static to mutable inspired by Rousseau and Wickelmann in response to the dynamic growth of society.

The wider and flexible perspective on past not only generated the new interpretation of the present, but also the demand of a new way of expression. There was a phenomenon of growing self-conscious in artists and inventive genius over limited authority of ancient world. Piranesi developed one of the artistic self-discovery of ancient world, which triggered the studies of many scholars and visionaries. In the perspective of historian, there was a growing interest in civilizations, destiny of nations, and Piranesi was especially interested in Graeco-Roman debate in 1760s, founded by the Etruscans and completed by the Roman, believing in which Italian civilization is rooted from. The belief that artists have a right to have their own original ideas and that he regarded Rome as the cultural destiny became the backbone of his creative work. His work is the result of his imaginative mind combined with the spirit of the Eternal City.

Throughout his lifetime, Piranesi created numerous prints depicting the Eternal City, these were widely collected by gentlemen on the Grand Tour. The Lobkowicz Collections, housed at the Lobkowicz Palace, contains a group of twenty six 18th-century engravings of views of modern and ancient Rome created by Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

Carceri Plate VI – The Smoking Fire.
Carceri Plate VII – The Drawbridge.
Piranesi, Carceri Plate XI – The Arch with a shell ornament.

The Prisons (Carceri)

The Prisons (Carceri d'invenzione or 'Imaginary Prisons'), is a series of 16 prints produced in first and second states that show enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and mighty machines.

These images influenced Romanticism and Surrealism. While the Vedutisti (or "view makers") such as Canaletto and Bellotto, more often reveled in the beauty of the sunlit place, in Piranesi this vision takes on what from a modern perspective could be called a Kafkaesque distortion, seemingly erecting fantastic labyrinthine structures, epic in volume. They are capricci, whimsical aggregates of monumental architecture and ruin.

The series was started in 1745. The first state prints were published in 1750 and consisted of 14 etchings, untitled and unnumbered, with a sketch-like look. The original prints were 16" x 21". For the second publishing in 1761, all the etchings were reworked and numbered I–XVI (1–16). Numbers II and V were new etchings to the series. Numbers I to IX were all done in portrait format (vertical), while X to XVI were landscape format (horizontal+). Though untitled, their conventional titles are:

Thomas De Quincey in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1820) wrote the following:

Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi's Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist ... which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever: some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr. Coleridge's account) representing vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, etc., etc., expressive of enormous power put forth, and resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls, you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further, and you perceive it come to a sudden abrupt termination, without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him.

An in-depth analysis of Piranesi's Carceri was written by Marguerite Yourcenar in her Dark Brain of Piranesi: and Other Essays (1984). Further discussion of Piranesi and the Carceri can be found in The Mind and Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi by John Wilton-Ely (1978). The style of Piranesi was imitated by twentieth-century forger Eric Hebborn.


It is important to look his contribution as an archaeologist, which was acknowledged at the time as he was elected to the Society of Antiquaries of London. His influence of technical drawings in antiquarian publications is often overshadowed. He left explanatory notes in the lower margin about the structure and ornament. Most ancient monuments in Rome were abandon in field and garden, Piranesi tried to preserve them with his engravings. To do this, Piranesi pushed himself to achieve realism in his work. A third of the monuments in Piranesi's engravings had been disappeared, and the stucco and surfacings have been often stolen, restored and modified clumsily. Piranesi's work allows people to experience the atmosphere in Rome in the eighteenth century through his precise observation. Piranesi may have recognized his role in the sites of excavation of ruins to disseminate the remarkable information through meaningful images. He became the Director of the Portici Museum in 1751.



Further reading

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Opere di Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1835–1839)
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