From the Archives: Giovanni Battista Piranesi and "Le Antichità Romane”

From the University of Iowa Museum of Art Bulletin, 1976


The first issue of this bulletin is dedicated to Owen and Leone Elliott whose generous gifts have not only made the Museum possible, but whose continuing support has greatly enhanced the character and quality of its collection.

An important function of the Museum is to offer the opportunity for studying works of art in its collection, and to make information obtained from this research available to a wider public. The Bulletin, to be published twice a year, will be the occasion for reporting new studies on individual works as well as on areas of specialization within the permanent collection. Future issues may be devoted to one theme, artist, medium or period. Information on new acquisitions will appear, as in the coming fall issue. Through increased familiarity the collection becomes, quite literally, more meaningful.

The Bulletin, from time to time, will also document small loan exhibitions. News about the Museum activities will be included, such as the fall opening of the new wing made possible by a generous contribution from Roy J. Carver.

In recognition of the variety of resources that exist in the University, it is hoped that the Bulletin will serve as a forum for Museum staff members, University professors and students, and outside authors, and will allow readers to share in their interests. The variety of articles in this first issue is indicative of the intended scope of the new Bulletin.

Sincere thanks are due to the Graduate College which provided the Museum with a grant to finance the publication of this first issue. Their recognition of the project is greatly appreciated. Special thanks are also given to the three authors represented here. Virginia Myers, Associate Professor of Printmaking, not only wrote the informative essay on Piranesi but also created the dedication plate to Mr. and Mrs. Elliott. Stephen Foster, Associate Professor of Art History, set aside other commitments to write the long-awaited article on Jackson Pollock’s Mural. Finally, Debra Gabrielson, Graduate Student, Department of East Asian Languages and Literature, and one of our valuable research assistants, wrote the essay on Sengai’s scroll.

 Jan K. Muhlert, Director


Virginia A. Myers, As Piranesi, n.d., A dedication plate made by Virginia Myers to honor the Elliotts in the tradition of those made by Piranesi.



Virginia A. Myers


In addition to more than 1,500 original prints by masters such as Schongauer, Dṻrer, Rembrandt, Goya, and Daumier, Mr. and Mrs. Owen Elliott gave to the University Museum collection 250 etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), the greatest of the eighteenth century Italian etchers.1  These etchings compose Piranesi’s outstanding archaeological work Le Antichità Romane (The Antiquities of Rome) (1756) contained in four enormous folio-sized volumes which, if I may so put it, were among the coffee table books of eighteenth century northern European aristocracy. During the last stable years of the Ancien Régime, artists and craftsmen knew good times, while an ample patronage demanded perfection and extravagance in all the fine arts. The result was a tremendous achievement in quantity and quality. “Never before or after [the baroque period] were there so many supremely accomplished artisans, each filled with pride and ambition.”2

Piranesi was intimately bound to the history and traditions of his times with roots thrust deeply into his Italian heritage, and further distinguished because of his Venetian birth during the time Venice was experiencing a renascence. The most vigorous school of painting moved from Rome,3 the cradle of baroque art,4 to the city of light and color inspiring “vedutists,” like Antonio Canaletto and Francesco Guardi,5 and that fabulous fresco painter of church ceilings and rococo palace walls, Giambattista Tiepolo. Italy became the ultimate goal of tourists excited by excavations begun in 1738 at Herculaneum and soon after at Pompeii and Paestum. The English lords who visited Italy soon found Piranesi’s work. As testimony that they had seen and done all things befitting personages of their status, they eagerly acquired his sumptuous volumes of pictures handprinted on heavy handmade paper. Viewers of Piranesi’s prints, especially those depicting bridges, aquaducts, tombs, sepulcres, and some extraordinary frontispieces, became involved in his obsession with architectural detail and with all things Roman. Le Antichità Romane and Le Vedute di Roma (The Views of Rome) (1748-1778) have been described as being “more picturesque than exact.”6  Plates from these works captured imagination and interest even more than the actual ruins. It is said that some returned to their homelands disappointed that Italy was not as grandiose as Piranesi had visualized.”7 

Piranesi scholarship has had a late beginning. The enormity of Piranesi’s total works is enough to stagger the most able scholar.8  Arthur M. Hind described the difficulties of cataloging Piranesi’s work: “But I would strongly advise any other Piranesi enthusiast against diving into further sections of the master’s work with the aim of continuing the detailed catalogue, unless he is prepared for athletics in addition to research.”9  During the 1940s and 1950s there was a dramatic renaissance in the field of printmaking. In the wake of this renaissance, commencing in the late 1950s and continuing into the 1970s, there has been a Piranesi revival. This revival has been undisturbed by the coming and going of the various art movements emanating from New York and sweeping the art world with the regularity of moon rocket launchings. In 1962, Smith College hung an important Piranesi show. There have been other exhibitions in Turin (1961-1962), Paris (1962), Bologna (1963), Rome (1967-1968), and London (1968). In the United States exhibitions have been held at Princeton University (1970) and Columbia University (1972). A circulating exhibition has been organized cooperatively by the Avery Architectural Library, New York, The International Exhibitions Foundation, Washington, D.C., and the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, New York (1975-1978). This exhibition is scheduled at the University of Iowa Museum of Art June 3 through July 18, 1976. Some definitive catalogues issued in conjunction with these exhibitions have documented fresh investigations by Piranesi scholars. Recently twenty-three important drawings of plans for a sanctuary for S. Giovanni in Laterno done by Piranesi have been brought to light.10 

In spite of the considerable popularity Piranesi enjoyed during his lifetime, his etchings lost favor in the nineteenth century11 and early in the twentieth century, historians were less than kind. Joseph Pennell, a printmaker and author of status in his day, wrote of Piranesi’s prints:  “The original designs became quite unimportant as etchings. . . . His compositions are fine, but he never, even in the Carceri (Prisons), his best work, depends on the vital line,12 and technically . . . should be avoided by etchers. Piranesi’s prints make a good frieze, or line a stairway well, but they are not good to set before students; he has not even the grandiose feeling; his perspective is as poor as his industry is great. Of course, he is far better than the hacks of today, but he is not a great etcher by any means.”13  Frederick Wedmore, a noted art critic, wrote: “Piranesi’s prints are very large, hence unfit, often, for the folio or hand. But framed and hung together in a moderate-sized hall, they imply, albeit a little monotonously, that we find ourselves in the dwelling of a cultivated person of the older type. I am not sure that they do not suggest that most respectable of Pasts, the early Past or your great-great grandfather, and his return from the grand tour.”14  Such criticisms reveal the nineteenth century view that prints should be small enough to fit easily into modest-sized books and folios, that successful etchings ought to depend on “the vital line.” These critics and teachers felt that, technically, Piranesi had sufficient failings, and they discouraged students from viewing his prints. Although one cannot expect history to be kind because one has worked hard, produced much, and been popular in one’s time, I would say they dismissed Piranesi too hastily and that there is genuine value and inspiration to be discovered in his prints. 

A single volume from Le Antichità Romane would have made Piranesi a memorable etcher of eighteenth-century Italy. Besides three additional weighty volumes of this work, there are twenty-four volumes under other titles containing about 1,700 etchings.15 Most of these etchings are by his hand, but a few are by his two sons Francesco and Pietro, and a daughter, Laura.16  Piranesi’s total oeuvre would occupy several substantial library shelves, while the copper required to make the plates would probably weigh a ton or two. Besides the many volumes and editions printed during Piranesi’s lifetime, numerous others continued to issue from presses in Rome and Paris in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The various papers bear, as one scholar has reported, sixty different watermarks.17  Perhaps we shall never know how many volumes were divided or prints cut out and sold singly. The number of prints made from each individual plate over the years, especially those of the Colosseum, Foro Romano, and Pantheon, will probably never be determined. Sometimes, as in the instance of the frontispiece portrait prints in Volume I of Le Antichità Romane, new plates replaced older ones, thus altering the contents of later editions. Travellers also made up their own collections and had these bound together in books.18 

Piranesi was a favorite of popes, especially of Clement XIII, formerly a Venetian doge. Forming close ties with Piranesi while his title was Cardinal Rezzonico prior to his elevation to the papacy in 1758, he frequently used Piranesi prints and volumes as special gifts to foreigners visiting Rome.19 With the steady demand for his prints, Piranesi responded by issuing hundreds of etchings. Thousands more were editioned after his death so that overexposure of Piranesi’s work to the public undoubtedly contributed to his diminishing popularity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

Even worse than the over-exposure was the fact that as the plates became badly worn20 from overprinting, the quality of the prints themselves changed. In repeated attempts to enrich the compositions, the plates were re-etched or reworked using a burin or gravure. With the encouragement of Napoleon's government, the Piranesi brothers and Laura moved to Paris in 1799, taking with them all their father’s plates and reissuing the twenty-four large folio volumes during the first decade of the nineteenth century. After Francesco died in Paris in 1810, the plates were acquired and editioned again by Firmin-Didot (1836-1839) before being returned to the Regia Calcographia in Rome, where more than 1,000 of the plates are still being printed to this day.21 

I have examined a print, “Vedute de Tempio della Sibilla in Tivoli”22 from Le Vedute di Roma, bearing the embossed imprint of the Regia Calcographia in the lower right-hand corner. The imprint would indicate an edition after 1870; prior to that year the printing house was known as the Calcografia Camerale.23 When compared with similar first edition prints in the Vedute series, astonishing differences are noted. The earlier prints are made exquisite by innumerable sensitivities in drawing and etching which lend an air of crispness and clarity of line characteristic of good intaglio prints. The later prints, however, are made heavy and muddy by a brown gravy-colored ink dulling tonalities in the dark areas so that these are monotonous and without life, but which an untutored eye might regard as richness of tone or even mystery. Piranesi, with his love of clarity, would surely be upset. Further, an examination with a magnifying glass reveals many new lines never drawn or etched by Piranesi’s hand but made to strengthen dark areas. In those areas remaining essentially light or delicate, a foreign hand has imposed other lines over the last vestiges of Piranesi's own etching, and one is saddened by the sight of it.24 The men who printed the later prints were commercial men as Piranesi had been but with the notable difference that they were only craftsmen and technicians, while Piranesi was an artist. These technicians were not driven and obsessed as Piranesi was, to prove to the world that Roman architecture in its every manifestation was an original art form stemming directly from Etruscan sources; it was certainly not a derivation from the Greeks!

  Fig. 1

Piranesi himself reworked plates to strengthen or darken portions of the compositions. In the Carceri he introduced new elements and redefined others. Dr. Andrew Robison, noted Piranesi scholar, suggests that “Piranesi . . . was a much more experimental and creative technician than is generally recognized continually returning to his plates to change their effect through rework in their images and alterations in their printing.”25 The Elliott edition of Le Antichità Romane contains a frontispiece plate in Volume I honoring Gustave III, King of Sweden (Figure 1). Henri Focillon indicated that this version printed about 1784 was at least the fourth time the plate had been changed since its creation, the original dedication having been made to the Irish Lord Charlemont in 175626 (Figure 2). The frontispiece was never again changed after its dedication to Gustave III;27 however, this information alone is not adequate to assure that ours is a second edition. I have observed that the quality of the prints is high, and many are positively superb if one overlooks the water stains on the edges of some of the pages. Plate VI of Volume II of our edition, “Pianta d'un sepolcro fuori di Porta S. Sebestiano sulla Via Appia,” compared with the same plate in the first edition of Le Antichità Romane (Ryerson Collection, Art Institute of Chicago) is far more brilliant, the lines crisp and clear, the nuances of tone and texture excellent and in perfect balance, the blacks rich, luminous, and sensitive, quite in keeping with Piranesi’s love of careful definition and atmospheric light. These observations might tempt us to believe our edition to be an especially early one, but Dr. Robison has written: “Since one has long heard the rule that the earlier is the better, what is remarkable . . . is that when there is a definite choice between two impressions of the same plate, then the Paris edition has the better quality fully half the time. In a number of cases, the French impressions are more carefully and evenly wiped, showing up more of the linear work on the plate, and thus enhancing not only the basic legibility of the components in the image, but also the play of light on their surfaces and textures. Strangely enough, considering their materials, with a few plates the early Paris printing is even finer in impression tone and more brilliant in contrasts.”28

 Fig. 2

I have noted that the paper used to print the first edition owned by the Art Institute is warm off-white, ribbed with delicates lines, and has a rather hard dry surface typical to this day of some Italian papers.29 The whiter and somewhat softer surfaced paper used in the Elliott volumes is more characteristic of papers30 and would seem to indicate a printing sometime between 1800 and 1839. Robison states, while describing an edition of Piranesi’s Antichità d’Albano e di Castel Gandolfo (1764): “The prints from the late 1760s or early 1770s are on a luxurious Italian paper which has a creamy white color and a well-sized surface. . . . The French impressions, on the other hand, use . . . a chalky white paper with a much more pulpy surface.”31  Hind notes that “All editions of Piranesi’s work until that of Firmin-Didot (Paris: 1835-1839) are printed on thick laid paper (i.e. showing parallel wire lines). The Firmin-Didot editions and most modern impressions are on wove paper,”32 which suggests that the Elliott volumes might have been printed by Firmin-Didot. But there seems room to argue so late an edition because the tonal variations in the Elliott prints are clear and logical, and the plates do not appear to be badly worn. It is a characteristic of well-worn plates, especially if these have been reworked, to yield prints with exaggerated contrasts, that is to say, with much that is excessively dark or peculiarly light but with little interesting variation between the two. The Elliott prints definitely do not fall into that category. 

Every intaglio printmaker knows that substantial variations can occur in wiping and subsequently in the finished print itself, even when the plate is wiped by the same hand using the same ink. Further modifications occur when different papers or inks of varying composition and grind are used. Preparation of these materials and condition of the printing presses are absolutely crucial to the finished product. Nor does a first-rate printmaker ever learn all there is to know about wiping a plate. Even a plate made with one technique, such as line etching, in the example of Piranesi, has differing requirements to assure the pulling of superb prints. A successful intaglio printmaker becomes a connoisseur of inks, papers, and presses, as well as an expert in wiping the inked surface of the copper. Surely Piranesi did wipe some of the plates himself although his immense total production indicates that others assisted him, especially in the late works. Piranesi’s children, Francesco, Pietro, and Laura,33 are known to have helped him during his lifetime and to have printed his work after his death. Recalling that Le Antichità Romane was produced over a period of four years, variations from plate to plate are understandable. I suggest that these variations add charm and an intensity lacking in machine-made facsimiles, no matter how faithful to the originals these facsimiles appear. A special warmth and a wonderful connection to all of humanity is conveyed by a lovely handmade product, while the machine or an unthinking mind can only guarantee a result “untouched by human hands.”

When he was twenty-three, Piranesi published his first work composed of twelve plates, Prima Parte di Architetture e Prospettive (1743). A translation from the original text reveals a clear statement of purpose: 

Therefore, having the idea of presenting to the world some of the images, but not hoping for an architect of these times who could effectively execute them—whether it is the fault of the architecture itself, having fallen from the highest perfection to which it had risen in the period of the greatest splendor of the Roman Republic and in times of the all-powerful Emperors who succeeded it; or whether it is the fault of those who should have been patrons of this most noble art, the fact is that in our time we have not seen the buildings equalling the cost of a Forum of Nerva, or an Amphitheatre of Vespian (Colosseum) or of a Palace of Nero, therefore, there seems no recourse than for me or some other modern architect to explain his ideas through his drawings. . . . For this reason . . . I have tried to unite with the knowledge that I have acquired of architecture, the art of drawing not only my own designs, but also to engrave them on copper.34

Piranesi was stating that he saw and felt a need to make something using his special talents, that lacking money and proper architects to effectively construct Roman buildings, he could fulfill himself by leaving careful permanent records of these prints. Whatever it is the creative person does not have and feels he vitally needs, he can make it somehow, regardless of an abundance or lack of money. 

History has documented Piranesi’s passionate nature in numerous ways but his most fervent acts created the prints defending his beloved Rome before the Greek revival. When his theory that Roman architecture was an art form originating from the Etruscans rather than from the Greeks35 was attacked by such able men as Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Johann Wolfgang Goethe,36 Piranesi responded by making more prints and by composing his polemical writings. His zeal and obsession drove him inexorably to prove in hundreds of ambitious and beautifully executed plates that Roman art was unsurpassed and would remain so forever. One entire volume, Della Magnificenza ed Architettura de’ Romani (1761), includes a lengthy text written by Piranesi to expound his views. John Wilton-Ely in his book The Polemical Works of Piranesi writes of Piranesi’s thesis: “Piranesi based his defense of Rome upon a series of rational and utilitarian principles. His main arguments concerned the Etruscans as founders of Roman civilization. According to his thesis, not only were they an older race than the Greeks, but they also perfected painting and sculpture as well as mathematics and the technical arts long before the Greeks, and were for some time the sole teachers of the Romans.”37 At the height of the conflict, Piranesi amplified his verbal statements with a special visual one. He revised Plate XVI of the Carceri in 1761, etching a Greek Doric column in the middle of the prison scene to emphasize that such an offensive subject ought to be fit only for the filth and terrors of a dungeon!38 One ought to question the artistic necessity for that Doric column even though Piranesi had to have it. He was quite prone to make plates or to revise these to support his crusade for Roman art, but his passions sometimes transgressed his judgment as an artist (Figures 3 and 4).

 Fig. 3

 Fig. 4         

After eight years of intense study of Roman ruins at numerous sites, Piranesi began work in 1751 on his great archaeological treatise, Le Antichità Romane, the most ambitious and extensive work of his lifetime.39 He purchased the copper for the first plates with his wife’s dowry of 150 piastres.40 He also had been assured support from Lord Charlemont (Jacob Caulfield), an Irish earl. Lord Charlemont, while making the Grand Tour at age twenty-one, visited Greece and the islands, Constantinople, Egypt, and finally Rome,41 where, through his agent Parker, he met Piranesi.42 With Charlemont’s assurance of patronage and his agreement to pay for four dedications,43 Piranesi expanded the far more modest volume of studies of sepulchral monuments, urns, and carvings planned at the beginning44 into a definitive four-volume work on the antiquities of Rome. However, a colossal series of misunderstandings developed between Charlemont and Piranesi, and the result was that the promised patronage never materialized.45 As an artist, I find it easy to take Piranesi’s part, but history does not seem to have given Charlemont a bad report, either of character or of personality. While in many ways Charlemont was typical of the prerevolutionary aristocracy visiting and living in Rome, his biographers made him seem unusually mature and sensitive.46 

In Italy, Charlemont became fluent in the language, feeling so much at home in Rome that rather than residing in lodgings, he kept a house for himself while exploring the ancient ruins in the city and environs.47 He constantly sought and purchased art, employed sculptors to make copies of antiquities, bought pictures, statues, and a wide variety of artifacts of his own choosing.48 In Sir Joshua Reynolds’ painting of 1752, “School of Athens,” he appears playing a clarinet.49 

In 1752, Piranesi approached John Parker asking to dedicate Le Antichità Romane to Charlemont. Piranesi reports that he had to wait a year before Parker replied, but as Charlemont’s biographer states, “But this, like all Piranesi’s statements, is to be received with caution.” Nevertheless, Piranesi and Charlemont had a satisfactory meeting, and the day was arranged on which Piranesi was to bring the dedication plates for his approval. 

When the day arrived, Piranesi was refused admittance by Parker to Charlemont’s house. He continued to call daily at all hours without more success. We have only Piranesi’s word for all the allegations, and here, as always, he is careful to absolve Charlemont from all responsibility for the action of his agents. . . . Charlemont, it appears, paid at least one visit to Piranesi’s house. The latter would have us believe that his patron had been kept in complete ignorance of Piranesi’s own visits. . . . But he had been induced by Parker to hand over the dedication-plate designs, ostensibly to show to Charlemont. At this point matters stood when Charlemont left Rome in March, 1754.50 

There followed a series of altercations, misunderstandings, delays, protests, grievances, and hostilities towards Piranesi on the part of Parker. Yet no money was forthcoming from Charlemont, and Piranesi apparently all but dissolved in the conflict.51 In spite of the problems, Piranesi somehow managed to complete Le Antichità Romane at his own expense, and it was immediately acclaimed a brilliant success.52 

About forty impressions53 of the major dedicatory plate from Volume I were printed and circulated before the desperate Piranesi sought to recall them. Upon the great cracked stone from antiquity had been etched a Latin inscription, of which a liberal translation follows: “To James Caulfield / most noble man / born to the public good / viscount of Charlemont / peer of the Kingdom of Ireland / because / while dwelling in Rome / he was / a patron of genius and furthered the arts / Johannes Battista Piranesi dedicates these vestiges of ancient buildings of Rome / all engraved by hand in metal / dedicated with eager devotion. Piranesi—Architect.”54 

Piranesi hastened to scrape the now-detested dedication from the plate, but, at the same time, he was determined that posterity should forever remember the odious neglect of Charlemont. After first cancelling the stone and leaving it empty, he etched a new dedication: “Aevo Suo Poster” (To those who come after and to the public good). There is a rare intermediate state of the print in Madrid in which the first nine lines referring to Charlemont were destroyed and cancelled with lines, while the coat-of-arms was covered with a leaf whose veins were drawn with a pen to imitate the cracks in the stone. Piranesi made certain that these would have a permanent home in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. Also in the collection are three special dedication volumes luxuriously bound and bearing Charlemont’s coat-of-arms emblazoned on rich leather covers. These are probably the special editions Piranesi prepared to personally present to Charlemont for his support of the project.55 

The most important dedications to Charlemont were prepared for the first and fourth volumes, but there were dedications in the second and third volumes also, and an observant eye aided with a magnifying glass may find remnants of these in the Elliott edition. One may be seen in Volume II, second frontispiece, where a two-page etching, 15-3/4 x 25-1/8, picturing a fantastic salmagundi of Roman antiquities, sculptures, tombs, urns, and Egyptian obelisks is found. In the right center of the print, from behind a bust and a generous puff of incense, one may see remains of a partial inscription on a tombstone! The lines forming the puff serve as a partial smoke screen to the original dedication (Figure 5).

 Fig. 5

Piranesi also etched a special plate reproducing in miniature (compositional elements) fragments of the four dedicatory frontispieces which had borne praiseworthy statements to “Milord Vice-Comiti Charlemont.” From Volume I, he copied the great headstone as though it had been violently torn from the original plate and etched in the new plate as the major component; from Volume II, he lifted the rectangular stone; from Volume III, he uprooted the short rostrum column which had borne the inscription, “Nobilissimo Viro” (Most noble Gentleman . . . vice comiti de Charlemont), while from the last volume, he removed the architrave which had been supported by four Corinthian columns. These separate elements were arranged and etched on the new plate showing the inscriptions removed, the stones absolutely blank. These are labeled in Piranesi’s usual style: “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” with each letter under the element: A. “Stone of the first frontispiece with the erasures of the inscription which betoken the withdrawal of the dedication to My Lord.” B. “Stone of the second frontispiece with the same erasures.” C. “Rostrum column of the third with the same.” D. “Architrave of the fourth, [also with these erasures].” He then printed an edition of this plate to advertise the defaming of Lord Charlemont. As soon as this edition had been printed he again worked on the plate, etching in new dedications and disfiguring Charlemont’s coat-of-arms in figure “A” by removing the entire center section; a new dedication was incised upon the headstone: “Remains of the Eternal City recovered from the ruins and the injuries of time / engraved upon metal tablets / G. B. Piranesi, the Venetian living in Rome / dedicates to those after him and to the Public good” (Figure 6).56  The stone designated as “B” remained blank and was explained “. . . che resta anonima.” The uprooted rostrum column “C” then bore the words “To Mars the Avenger,” and the explanation for “C” and “D” included the words “Mutazioni delle inscrizioni.”57 The two editions of the plate, together with three of the original letters Piranesi had written to Charlemont during the negotiations, are included in Piranesi’s pamphlet Lettere di Giustificazione scritte a Milord Charlemont (Letter of Justification written to My Lord Charlemont). Piranesi printed a shortened form of a much longer letter he had dispatched to Charlemont, and this printed version was attached to every copy of Le Antichità Romane sold thereafter. Finally, “On the 13th of June, 1757, the Governor of Rome, Mgr. Caprara, summoned Piranesi and formally enjoined him under severe penalties not to publish anything, whether in writing or print concerning in any way the person or the honor or the convenience of the most excellent Milord Charlemont.”58  After Piranesi’s death in 1778, the dedicatory plate of Volume I was scraped for the last time, and a new inscription and coat-of- arms was etched by Francesco dedicating Le Antichità Romane to Gustave III,59 the young King of Sweden. The following is a translation of the dedication in- cluded in the Museum volume which the Elliotts gave:

 Fig. 6

These remains of the Eternal City once in metal tablets engraved by Sir Johannes Battista Piranesi and now adorned and enlarged by those which survived and newly discovered and must be edited, Sir Francis his son dedicated to Gustave III, King of Sweden, King of the Goths, of the Swedes, and of the Vandals, who is wise, strong and the most excellent and munificent patron of archaeology and the good arts, in token of deference and gratitude. 

The four volumes reaffirmed and broadened Piranesi’s reputation as an antiquarian par excellence. Never before or after have any collections of Roman antiquities as comprehensive as Antichità been made. On February 24, 1757, less than ten months after publication, Piranesi was made an honorary member of the Society of Antiquaries in London.60 The recognition was well deserved. He had wanted to learn as much as he could about every edifice, how it was constructed, the kind of materials used, the purposes it served, and what Roman names might still be found chiseled into precisely formed stones.61 Since Piranesi’s lifetime, many monuments he so carefully depicted have further deteriorated or have all but disappeared.62 The wide dissemination of Piranesi prints gave European architects important models to suggest the form and style their modern buildings should take. There are some examples in Paris reflecting this influence, including Jacques-Germain Soufflot’s Church in St. Genevieve, now the Pantheon (1764), and Constant d‘Ivry’s plans for the Church of La Madeleine (completed 1842).63 

If all or even half of Piranesi’s works were set before a layman or good student, he would certainly be overwhelmed and wonder where to begin looking. But that situation hardly ever occurs. Museums gladly show Piranesi’s most famous prints, the Carceri, and it is always wonderful to see them exhibited. Most print historians and artists usually agree it is Piranesi’s best work. The notable William M. Ivins, Jr., Curator of Prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1916 until his retirement in 1946, wrote of the Carceri

"If one is to look for the Piranesis in which the artist’s defects are less patent, in which his good qualities are most beautifully exhibited, one undoubtedly must turn to the Carceri. . . . Gigantic in conception and tremendous in execution, the work of the much-prized architectural etchers of the day look puny and anaemic in comparison with them. Where their work is distinguished, his is overpowering, where it is full of petty finesse, the Prisons are direct and smashing, full of an endless untiring energy and vitality."64

The Carceri make an impressive exhibition. A complete first edition will number sixteen plates and are approximately the same size, the compositions being part of a single mood, perspective, and scale. If these were mounted unmatted upon a wall in a tight row, one could view a panorama of a mysterious prison world with not a single plate dominating. That kind of arrangement applied to Le Antichità Romane with its 250 plates of greatly varying size and scale would not yield a similar unity. Yet a problem arises in not seeing these plates hung, in having always to view them bound in heavy, oversized volumes. When placed flat on a table, important perspectives are foreshortened. Subtle variations in tone and texture are somewhat obscured. Good etchings like line engravings tend to project the ink beyond the surface of the paper leaving an embossed pattern, but when the light source is directly overhead, subtleties are flattened. An etching hung upon a wall will catch the light obliquely, and the embossed ink will yield a more striking image. 

I cannot imagine that there exists a single Piranesi scholar who has not seen the entire Carceri exhibited as pictures hung in galleries. But wherever has Le Antichità Romane been exhibited in its entirety? How unwieldy it would be to handle or to hang and perhaps, once hung, how beyond the stamina of most viewers. Yet wouldn’t such a show offer new and interesting insights into Piranesi, the artist, the architect, the archaeologist, the antiquarian, the precursor of future styles? I have raised the question of displaying Le Antichità Romane prints to suggest a technical reason why perhaps the Carceri prints have long been favored as Piranesi’s best work. These are conveniently showable in their entirety while Piranesi’s larger works, Vedute di Roma and Le Antichità Romane, are usually represented in exhibitions by only a few plates. A series of wisely selected shows could display Piranesi’s larger works to the world in a more comprehensible manner demonstrating the many interesting facets of his personality. The year 1978, the 200th anniversary of Piranesi’s death, may inspire such projects. 

Aside from the differences in size, technique, and imagery in the way Piranesi approached the Carceri and Le Antichità Romane, the two works convey different ideas. It has been suggested that the genesis for his great archaeological work Le Antichità Romane was to certify the uniqueness and beauty of Roman art based on Etruscan origins as opposed to Greek models. We cannot deny that these rich fragments of ancient civilization decaying with age, and etched with fervent zeal into the copper, are meant to remind us that Roman art had origins other than Greek and was more beautiful.

What do the Carceri say? They tell us, here is the mockery of an infinite space utterly confined in man-made filth and cold, a place where the sun and stars are never seen, where survival is reduced to bare existence, where the fine line between existence and death is indistinguishable. Thus, even the Carceri go beyond a mere political statement. In the same way Antichità goes beyond mere documentation or the defense of Etruscan influences over Greek influence in Roman art. 

Piranesi’s records of monuments pay tribute to a past that in artistic, linguistic, religious, and political developments brought a savage world closer to civilization. He could draw the hardness of rock emerging from an ancient civilization and with his scintillating light reveal the history of those who had planned or built handsome walls and functional aquaducts. His warmth for humanity does not let us forget the builders or engineers in any detail or lose a single Roman name he could permanently record upon his copper plates. Yet this is not just a record of decaying past. Resembling operatic scenarios, Piranesi’s records of Rome convey the same kind of timeless inspiration.  What he had learned of the power of the past in Etruscan art, he would teach us by recording the power of Roman art. Immersed in a tragedy of decay, his work soars with a dream for the future.


Figs. 1, 5
Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Italian, 1720–1778)
Le Antichità Romane [Roman Antiquities], Volume I, 1756, printed 1784
Period bound volume of etchings
16 5/8 x 12 1/4 in.
University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art
Gift of Owen and Leone Elliott, 1969.346A
Fig. 2
Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Italian, 1720–1778)
Le Antichità Romane [Roman Antiquities], Volume I, 1756
Fig. 3
Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Italian, 1720–1778)
The Pier with Chains, plate 16 from Imaginary Prisons, c. 1750
Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1941.1243
Fig. 4
Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Italian, 1720–1778)
The Pier with Chains, plate 16 from Imaginary Prisons, 1761
Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1922.5605
Fig. 6
Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Italian, 1720–1778)
Le Antichità Romane [Roman Antiquities], Volume I, 1756


1.  The only eighteenth century Italian etchers who may be mentioned in the same breath with Piranesi are Giovanni Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768) and Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770); with the latter Piranesi studied painting. Although Canaletto and Tiepolo are best known for their paintings, not a single painting by Piranesi’s hand has been positively identified.

2.  Julius S. Held and Donald Posner, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Art (New York: Abrams, Inc., 1971), p. 76.

3.  Ibid., p. 337.

4.  Ibid., p. 21.

5.  Ibid., p. 350.

6.  Mm. Le Bazan Roger Portalis and Henri Béraldi, Les Graveurs du Dix-Huitième Siècle, vol. 3. (Paris: Damascène Morgaud et Charles Flatout, 1882), p. 315.

7.  Frank and Dorothy Getlein, The Bite of the Print (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1963), p. 339.

8.  In addition to being “able,” that scholar ought to have a classically oriented background, Latin and Italian, and a firm grasp on the history of western civilization with an emphasis on Italy, and access to the great collections of Piranesi works.

9.  Arthur M. Hind, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923), p. iv.

10.  The drawings were exhibited for the first time as part of the showing of Piranesi drawings and etchings at Columbia University, March 21-April 14, 1972. An important catalogue was issued and reported that “Nothing is known of the history of the drawings from 1767-1970.”  All of these drawings will be included in the forthcoming exhibition at The University of Iowa. Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Drawings and Sketches at Columbia University (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972), p. 13.

11. “When late 18th century French and German writers spoke of baroque taste, they clearly took it to be an equivalent of bad taste. In the violent attacks made bv Neoclassic critics on Italian art of the 17th and 18th centuries, ‘baroque’ occasionally describes an extreme of aesthetic aberration.” Held and Posner, p. 11.

12.  Mr. Pennell seems to forget that Piranesi was a Venetian and that “ever since the days of Titian and Tintoretto Venice had been the home not of line but of color.” David Ogg, Europe of the Ancien Régime, 1715- 1783 (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 295.

13.  Joseph Pennell, Etchers and Etching (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1924), p. 176.

14.  Frederick Wedmore, Etchings (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1911), p. 111.

15.  Arthur M. Hind, A History of Engraving and Etching (New York: Dover Publications, 1963), pp. 230-31.

16.  Laura Piranesi was perhaps the second woman printmaker whom we can identify with a first and last name. Dr. Harold Joachim, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, suggests that the first was probably Diana Scultori (known also as Ghisi, although incorrectly). Born in Mantua about 1535, she was the sister of Giovanni Battista Scultori, a sculptor. About sixty engravings are attributed to her name. Virgin and Child with St. John (after Raphael) at the Art Institute reveals that technically she had not mastered the burin, that she did not understand the power and inventive qualities possible with burin cuts. The sometimes primitive qualities with which she invests her images are stiff and do not please the eye. But she is important because she is perhaps the earliest woman printmaker who left a body of work and whom we can positively identify. Also note reference in Thieme-Becker-Kṻnstler-Lexicon, 1936 edition, s.v. “Laura Piranesi.”

17.  Andrew Robison, “Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Prolegomena to the Princeton Collections,” The Princeton University Chronicle (Spring 1970) 31:187.

18.  See footnote 30.

19.  Piranesi dedicated his important polemical work Della Magnificenza ed architettura de’ Romani to Pope Clement XIII by etching a substantial portrait frontispiece of the smiling Pope seated upon his throne, his right hand raised in a blessing. This was followed by a written dedication in which the special characteristics of the BEATISSIME PATER are extolled in Latin.

20.  When preparing an intaglio plate for printing, it is necessary to use a heavy paste-like ink which is forced into the crevices etched below the surface of the copper while the plate is warm. After the ink on the surface of the plate has been evened with a brayer, the printer wipes the warm plate using a soft tarlatan cloth. The action of the tarlatan and the abrasiveness of the ink cause the surface of the plate to become worn, reducing, in time, the depth of the lines and their capacity to hold ink.

21.  Hind, A History of Etching and Engraving, pp. 230-2.

22.  Focillon, p. 764.

23.  Hind, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, p. 5.

24.  The print examined was kindly loaned to me by Stanley Wiederspan, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

25.  Robison, p. 167.

26.  Focillon, p. 297.

27.  M. C. Isola, A. Mezzetti, S. Zamboni, “Pianta d’un sepolcro fuori di Porta S. Sebastiano sulla Via Appia,” Giovanni Battista Piranesi, catalogue for an exhibition, January 27 to February 24, 1963, Palazzo di Re Enzo, Bologna, Italy (Bologna: Edizioni Alfa, 1963), p. 55. Editions of Antichità printed after Piranesi died in 1778 contain a portrait of him derived from a painting by Giuseppe Cadres and etched on a new plate by Piranesi’s son, Francesco. It replaces the Polanzani portrait which appeared in all editions printed during Piranesi’s lifetime.

28.  Robison, p. 191.

29.  Fabriano, for example.

30.  Arches or B. F. K. Rives, for example.

31.  Robison, p. 191.

32. Hind, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, p. 5.

33.  Prints signed by Laura Piranesi are rare. A. M. Hind reported in The Burlington Magazine (November 1923): “The only 19th century binding labeled ‘Views in Rome’ contains 18 plates by Laura Piranesi, the remaining prints being 47 of the small views by G. B. Piranesi in Volume I of Le Antichità Romane. The volume was evidently a chance collection, not a regular set. . . . They all measure 5-1/2 x 8, 17 being copies of G. B. Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma. . . . None . . . are slavish copies, details of the foreground and figures being frequently changed. Laura must have had a wonderful gift for etching as she reflects so exactly in small the touch of her father’s work, with an almost equal spirit in drawing the fantastic figures which haunt the plates.”

The author saw an original print by Laura at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and would enthusiastically concur with Hind’s observation regarding her “gift,” and would add that Laura’s print, compared to any of those seen by Francesco Piranesi, demonstrates much greater sensitivity and understanding of the copper plate and the etching process.

34.  Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Drawings and Etchings at Columbia University, p. 117.

35.  Other Italians before Piranesi supported such theories. An Etruscan Academy was established in Florence in 1726 and as eighteenth-century Frenchmen were eager to trace their origins to the Frankish conquerors of Gaul, Irishmen to the Celts, Germans to the Teutonic forebears, the Italians “at last found their original progenitors in the Etruscans.” Ogg, p. 243.

36.  “About the middle of the 18th century . . . the importance of Greek culture as the source of the essential spirit of the ancient world rose. J. W. Winckelmann is commonly placed at the beginning of the intellectual movement and acknowledged the initiator of a new epoch. He may rightfully be considered the founder of the scientific history of ancient art and more particularly of Greek art . . . which led to the . . . classicist taste of the early 1800’s and may be traced to his intense interest. . . . The direct successor to Winckelmann was Goethe. It might even be asked whether, without this apostle, Winckelmann’s fame and influence would have been . . . so great.” Encyclopedia of World Art (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co. Inc., 1963) 7:19-20.

37.  John Wilton-Ely, ed., Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Polemical Works, (Farnborough, England: Gregg International Publishers, Ltd., 1972), p. vi.

38.  Nikolaus Pevsner, Studies in Art, Architecture, and Design (New York: Walker, 1968) 1:204.

39. Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Drawings and Etchings at Columbia University, p. 99.

40.  Etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1720-1788, exhibition catalogue (London: P. and D. Colnaghi and Co., Ltd., 1973).

41.  Maurice James Craig, The Volunteer Earl (London: The Cresset Press, 1918), p. 58.

42.  Ibid., p. 85.

43.  The “four dedications” were the second frontispiece pages immediately following the title pages in each of the four volumes. These were made to honor the patron who had given substantial financial aid toward realization of the entire series.

44.  This volume was to have been titled Monumenta, Sepulcralia Antigua and would also have included urns (cippi e vasi cenerari). In 1778, Piraensi did publish two massive volumes titled Vasi, Candelabri, Cippi, Sarcophagi, Tripodi, Lucerne ed Ornamenti antichi (see Focillon, p. 324). Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Drawings and Etchings at Columbia University, p. 99.

45.  Etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi: 1720-1788, introduction.

46.  William Hogarth painted a portrait of Charlemont at age thirteen standing by his mother’s chair. The eighth Viscount Charlemont who owns the picture comments, “It is altogether rather an unusual face for a boy of 13 which was his age when the portrait was painted. It is the face of a man of 30 except that it has the rounded outlines of childhood,” Craig, p. 36.

A preponderance of evidence indicates Charlemont gave more than lip service to the arts. In his later years he built Charlemont House in Dublin which was “designed not merely as a dwellinghouse but as a depository for his books and pictures. . . . His collection of books was the finest private library ever brought together on this side of the Atlantic. . . . His pictures were commonly reckoned the best collection on Dublin and his attributions afford evidence of his tastes.” (p. 133).

Charlemont had been educated at Turin (1747-1748) (p. 40), making acquaintance of David Hume, a circumstance pleasing to Charlemont since it was considered a part of a young nobleman’s education to become acquainted with great men. Charlemont described Hume in his journal: “His face was broad and fat, his mouth wide, and without any other expressions than that of imbecility. His eyes were vacant and spiritless, and the corpulence of his whole person was far better fitted to communicate the idea of a turtle-eating Alderman, than of a refined Philosopher” (p. 41).  His education completed, Charlemont departed Turin and traveled east reaching Constantinople on his twenty-first birthday (p. 58). On the return to Italy, he visited the Aegean island of Micone. “Here they found themselves again on the track of a Dr. Askew, as a recorder of ancient inscriptions, who erased the originals after copying them, in order to keep the credit to himself. ‘Many of these erased Inscriptions have I met with,’ says Charlemont, and adds: ‘But every soil produces barbarians!’” (p. 63).

47.  Craig, p. 79.

48.  Ibid., p. 83.

49.  In the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.

50.  Craig, p. 86.

51.  For further details of the conflict read Craig.

52.  Etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1720-1788.

53.  Craig, p. 90.

54.  Professor Emeritus Gustave Bergmann made the translations from the original Latin inscriptions.

55.  Focillon, p. 298.

56.  See photographs of plates for Latin original. Translations are by the author.

57.  Good reproductions of these nine plates are extremely rare, and three long letters Piranesi included in his pamphlet are reproduced in Wilton-Ely.

58.  Craig, p. 91.

59.  Historians called Gustavus III “indisputably one of the greatest sovereigns of the 18th century,” and described him as “imaginative and humane.” The neoclassical style called “Gustavian” after him marks a period in the history of architecture and the decorative arts in Sweden. Shortly after the French Revolution, he fell victim to an artistic plot, of which the libretto for Giuseppe Verdi's opera Un Ballo in Maschera (1859) is a romanticized account. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed. rev., s.v. “Gustavus III,” and Encyclopaedia Americana, international ed., s.v. “Gustavian.”

60.  Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Drawings and Etchings at Columbia University, p. 99.

61.  Robison, pp. 185-86.

62.  Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Drawings and Etchings at Columbia University, p. 99.

63.  Louis Gottschalk and Donald Lach, Towards the French Revolution (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), p. 125.

64.  William M. Ivins, Jr., “Piranesi and ‘Le Carceri d’Invenzione’,” Print Collectors Quarterly (April, 1915), p. 218.