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Piranesi, Giovanni Battista [Giambattista]locked

(b Mogliano, nr Mestre, Oct 4, 1720; d Rome, Nov 9, 1778).
  • John Wilton-Ely

Italian etcher, engraver, designer, architect, archaeologist and theorist. He is considered one of the supreme exponents of topographical engraving, but his lifelong preoccupation with architecture was fundamental to his art. Although few of his architectural designs were executed, he had a seminal influence on European Neo-classicism through personal contacts with architects, patrons and visiting artists in Rome over the course of nearly four decades. His prolific output of etched plates, which combined remarkable flights of imagination with a strongly practical understanding of ancient Roman technology, fostered a new and lasting perception of antiquity. He was also a designer of festival structures and stage sets, interior decoration and furniture, as well as a restorer of antiquities. The interaction of this rare combination of activities led him to highly original concepts of design, which were advocated in a body of influential theoretical writings. The ultimate legacy of his unique vision of Roman civilization was an imaginative interpretation and re-creation of the past, which inspired writers and poets as much as artists and designers.

1. Life and work.

(i) Formative years in Venice, 1720–40.

The son of Angelo Piranesi, a mason and master builder, Piranesi was apprenticed to his maternal uncle, Matteo Lucchesi, a leading designer and hydraulics engineer. Apparently, after quarrelling with Lucchesi, he continued his studies under the Palladian architect Giovanni Antonio Scalfurotto (c. 1700–1764). He may well have been involved in the final stages of Scalfurotto’s principal commission, the church of SS Simeone e Giuda (built 1718–38), Venice. The vigorous debates in Lucchesi’s circle over the Etruscans as the founders of Classical architecture led Piranesi to acquire a taste for controversy combined with archaeological enquiry. Equally stimulating were the provocative teachings of the Dominican friar Carlo Lodoli, who challenged the entire validity of Classical canons of design. Piranesi may also have assisted Scalfurotto’s nephew, Tommaso Temanza, whose survey of the Roman arch and bridge at Rimini in 1735 for his book Delle antiquità di Rimini (1741) may have initiated Piranesi’s sense of vocation.

Piranesi’s remarkable imaginative faculties were also encouraged over these years. He was instructed by Giuseppe Valeriano and his brother Domenico Valeriano (d before 1771) in the discipline of stage design, then dominated in northern Italy by the Galli-Bibiena family and their followers, and he mastered elaborate systems of perspective composition under the engraver Carlo Zucchi. Venice itself provided a vigorous theatre of architectural experiences, which Piranesi was later to exploit in the topographical view or veduta (see Veduta, §2), an art form then being developed in the city by Joseph Heintz the younger, Gaspar van Wittel, Luca Carlevaris and, above all, Canaletto. The most potent of Venetian influences was the combination of elements of Baroque stage design and of the topographical view in the Capriccio, or architectural fantasy, a genre perfected earlier in the 18th century by Marco Ricci and to be extended stylistically in the 1740s in Canaletto’s etched vedute ideate.

(ii) Early vedute and fantasies, 1740–47.

The visual potential of the capriccio had its full impact on Piranesi’s imagination in 1740, when he went to Rome while employed as a draughtsman in the retinue of the Venetian ambassador Marco Foscarini (1696–1763). Rome, already the goal of the Grand Tourist, was becoming one of the intellectual centres of Europe, and Piranesi encountered there the new ideas and radical questioning of the past that characterized the Enlightenment. For an imaginative designer, however, the experience was as frustrating as it was exhilarating. Opportunities for new commissions were few, and the general character of contemporary Roman architecture uninspiring. Piranesi turned to the production of souvenir views of the city for a market already served by the painter Giovanni Paolo Panini and the engraver Giuseppe Vasi. After learning the rudiments of engraving techniques from Vasi, Piranesi contributed to a series of small vedute, many of which were etched by young artists at the Académie de France in the Palazzo Mancini–Salviati (now the Banca di Sicilia), then a lively centre of artistic research. These were used to illustrate guidebooks to Rome until the mid-1760s. Piranesi eventually produced some 50 plates, the earliest of which were published together with those of other artists, such as Jean-Laurent Legeay, in Fausto Amidei’s Varie vedute di Roma antica e moderna (1745); they range from tentative efforts to considerably sophisticated compositions.

Piranesi concentrated chiefly, however, on devising a variety of architectural fantasies as vehicles for formal experiment and as a means of creative release. In 1743 he published a selection of these visionary compositions in the 12 etched plates of the Prima parte di architetture e prospettive. He already showed in these views of monumental structures and awesome ruins the chief ingredients of his art—an unorthodox combination of classical motifs, the manipulation of superhuman scale, powerfully receding diagonal perspectives and the modulation of space by skilled lighting. The influence of his bold conceptions, using columnar forms and austere surfaces to powerful effect, was soon strikingly evident in the festival designs of Louis-Joseph Le Lorrain and the architectural fantasies of Michel-Ange Challe, both pensionnaires at the Académie de France. With the subsequent dispersal of these young designers, Piranesi’s innovative conceptions gradually entered the mainstream of European Neo-classical architecture.

In 1743–4 Piranesi travelled to Naples, attracted by the exciting discoveries being revealed at Herculaneum. These, by adding fresh dimensions to the knowledge and interpretation of antiquity, seem to have prompted him to consider ways of presenting archaeological material in visually compelling ways. By May 1744 financial difficulties had brought him back to Venice, where he is recorded as having produced interior designs for certain palaces. (There is a rare group of early Venetian designs in the Pierpoint Morgan Library, New York.) A dramatic transformation in his graphic style, shortly after his return to Rome in 1745 as agent for the print-seller Joseph Wagner, reflects the influence of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, especially in four exquisite etched fantasies, the Grotteschi (c. 1747). More significantly still, he produced 14 unsigned plates, the Invenzioni capric di carceri (first issue datable 1749–50), distinguished by an unprecedented imaginative breadth and fluent technique, which derived from his training in both Venice and Rome. These arcane and highly personal works constitute a sequence of brilliant improvisations on the theme of the prison. They are highly disciplined and exploit the mechanics of Baroque stage design to explore new dimensions of architectural expression.

(iii) Archaeology and the mature vedute, 1747–60.

After a further visit to Venice between July 1745 and August 1747, Piranesi was to be permanently established in Rome, and he began to record the ancient Roman achievement in all its aspects. By 1748 he had issued his first independent set of vedute, Antichità Romane de’ tempi della Repubblica e de’ primi Imperatori, after 1765 entitled Alcune vedute di archi trionfali, in which he used, within the compass of small plates, the full dramatic range of perspective, lighting and tone to illustrate his unrivalled understanding of ancient building science. Subsequently, helped by the dowry of his marriage in 1753, in his celebrated Vedute di Roma he changed over consistently to the larger format that he had already begun to use in the late 1740s. These 135 plates (e.g. View of the Temple of the Sibyl in Tivoli), issued individually or in groups from c. 1748 throughout the rest of his career, reflect almost every phase of his stylistic evolution and intellectual development.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi: View of the Temple of the Sibyl in Tivoli, etching, 610×432 mm; from his series Vedute di Roma (Rome, c. 1748–78) (London, Victoria and Albert Museum); photo credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Art Resource, NY

Meanwhile, in a further set of etched fantasies based on a detailed study of antique remains, Piranesi explored fresh approaches to design. Among those collected in the Opere varie of 1750, the Parte di ampio magnifico porto all’uso degli antichi Romani and Pianta di ampio magnifico Collegio made an exceptionally powerful impression on a new generation of students at the Académie de France, including Charles de Wailly and Marie-Joseph Peyre, and may also have influenced Jacques-Germain Soufflot, then on a study tour of Italy.

Archaeology had become increasingly important to Piranesi by the early 1750s, and at that time he gradually relinquished his French contacts in favour of visiting British architects, such as William Chambers, Robert Adam, Robert Mylne and George Dance, all of whom benefited from his interpretations of antiquity. He presented the results of his comprehensive antiquarian research in his four-volume Le antichità Romane (1756), which rapidly earned him an international reputation (as indicated by his election to an Honorary Fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1757). This magisterial work provides an innovative system of archaeological enquiry intended for the education of contemporary designers and their patrons as much as for conventional scholarship. It has over 250 plates, which embody highly original methods of illustration, frequently combining a formidable quantity of data in a single plate with considerable visual impact. Piranesi stressed his new interest in constructional techniques and the properties of materials, as well as the originality of Roman planning and the range of ornamental vocabulary. His intimate topographical knowledge of the city enabled him to coordinate many diverse and isolated remains within the broader context of its interrelated defensive and hydraulic systems, using maps and cross-references to the substantial text.

Controversy began to dominate Piranesi’s activities increasingly in the 1750s. In 1757 he published his Lettere di giustificazione, a witheringly critical pamphlet against the patron of Le antichità Romane, James Caulfeild, 1st Earl of Charlemont, who had failed to provide his promised financial support. Piranesi was soon caught up in the opening exchanges of a debate over the rival merits of Greek and Roman architecture: Abbé Abbé Marc-Antoine Laugier, Julien-David Le Roy and Johann Joachim Winckelmann claimed that Greece was architecturally superior. Predictably, Piranesi was passionate in his defence of Rome, and the new plates of the Vedute di Roma assume a visual rhetoric as well as a breadth of information that pushed his techniques of etching and composition to new heights of expression. These potent images of the decomposing fabric of heroic antiquity were to exert a powerful impact on the Romantic imagination, not only inspiring countless landscape features, ruins and monuments, but also in the more profound use of ruined architecture as a metaphor for the transience of human achievements. As Edward Gibbon was to recall: ‘it was at Rome, on October 15th, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind’ (Autobiography, 1796).

(iv) Polemical works, the ‘Carceri’, and architectural and design commissions, 1760–69.

(a) Polemical works.

After years of assiduous investigation supported by scholarly advice, Piranesi delivered his opening salvo in the Greco-Roman controversy in 1761, with Della magnificenza ed architettura de’ Romani. This handsome folio, dedicated to the new pope, the Venetian Clement XIII, combines a particularly ingenious sequence of illustrations with a ponderously erudite text. Piranesi rejected the argument of Laugier’s Essai sur l’architecture (1753) that Roman architecture was derived from the Greeks: he claimed that the Etruscans had been the original mentors of the Romans and praised the functional achievements of the Etruscans, to which early Roman buildings were indebted. This rationalistic defence is strangely combined with a celebration of the decorative exuberance of late Imperial ornament in the large fold-out plates.

During the 1760s Piranesi produced a sequence of equally lavish folios with a strong polemical bias, largely sponsored by the Pope and his family, the Rezzonicos. Lapides Capitolini (1762) traces the extent and complexity of Rome’s early history through inscriptions and sculptural fragments. The hydraulic science behind the city’s aqueducts is ingeniously reconstructed with technical diagrams in Le rovine del castello dell’Acqua Giulia (1761), and a similar approach, based on particularly exhaustive fieldwork, was applied to a surviving 4th-century bc drainage outlet in the Descrizione e disegno dell’emissario del Lago Albano (1762). Other Roman as well as Etruscan remains are considered in two further works, Antichità d’Albano e di Castel Gandolfo (1762) and Antichità di Cora (1764). But above all it is Il Campo Marzio dell’antica Roma (1762) that most clearly indicates the development of his theoretical ideas at this critical point in his career. Dedicated to Robert Adam, who had been closely involved in its preparation during the later 1750s, this expounds the Roman genius for urban planning and is based on an analysis of the surviving remains of the Campus Martius with the aid of documents and the fragmentary Severan Marble Plan of Rome. The illustrations strip away medieval accretions to reveal the evolution of a complex civilization, reaching their climax in an extravagantly elaborate planning fantasy, the Ichonographia, a large plan, composed of six contiguous plates. Fired by this polemical activity, Piranesi began to formulate a theoretical standpoint that was to govern his work as a designer. In 1765, responding to an attack on Della magnificenza by the French critic Pierre-Jean Mariette, he issued a three-part publication, Osservazioni sopra la lettre de M. Mariette, having as its main element the Parere su l’architettura, an imaginary debate between a rigorist disciple of Laugier and one who expressed Piranesi’s own belief in free experiment and formal variety. The supporting illustrations of imaginary architectural compositions demonstrate an extremely bizarre and eclectic use of motifs culled from Egyptian and Greek as well as Roman and Etruscan sources.

Piranesi’s final polemical and theoretical publication, Diverse maniere d’adornare i cammini (1769), was addressed to an international audience of designers and patrons, with parallel texts in Italian, French and English, and was to prove his most influential contribution to the decorative arts. In the lengthy preface he defended the creative originality of the Etruscans and discussed the ornamental vocabulary of the Egyptians; but his main theme was the need for creative licence in order to fashion a modern style based on a broadly eclectic study of all forms of antiquity. This was demonstrated by a copious quantity of etched designs produced over the previous decade. The main subject is the ornamental chimney-piece: 61 are depicted, including 11 in the Egyptian taste, ranging from the relatively simple to the extravagant. But he also included over 100 items of furniture and decorative elements, from commodes, clocks and sconces to coaches and sedan-chairs.

(b) The ‘Carceri’, and architectural and design commissions.

In 1761, having become the leading vedutista in Rome with a growing clientele of foreign patrons, Piranesi set up his own printmaking business and showrooms in the Palazzo Tomati on Via Sistina. The same year he was elected to the Accademia di S Luca. His reception there was later commemorated by a striking portrait bust by Joseph Nollekens (late 1760s; Rome, Gal. Accad. N. S Luca), on which Pietro Labruzzi (1739–1805) based his posthumous oil portrait of Piranesi (after 1778; Rome, Pal. Braschi). The reappearance in 1761 of the Invenzioni capric di carceri, now entitled simply Carceri d’invenzione and issued with two additional plates, marked a significant phase of creative tension in his architectural development. This definitive version, destined to achieve European influence, involved substantial reworking of the plates with stronger tonal contrasts and more specific details of sinister import. Architectural immensity and spatial ambiguity were amplified still further by new structures receding into infinity, epitomizing Edmund Burke’s concept of the Sublime.

At this time the enlightened patronage of Clement XIII and his family provided Piranesi with opportunities to apply his novel principles of design to a range of projects. In 1763 the Pope commissioned from him a new high altar for S Giovanni in Laterano. This developed into an ambitious scheme to replace the entire structure to the west of the transepts with a monumental tribune and pontifical altar. At least five distinct schemes are represented in a set of twenty-three highly finished drawings (New York, Columbia U., Avery Archit. & F.A. Lib.). One version of this unrealized commission involved an apsidal screen of giant columns with a hidden light source, in the manner of Andrea Palladio and Baldassare Longhena. Despite a Neo-classical fidelity to antique ornamental sources, the total effect of this ornate interior shows Piranesi consciously responding to Francesco Borromini’s Baroque remodelling of the nave.

Over the same period (1764–6), Piranesi renovated the church and headquarters of the Knights of Malta on the Aventine for their Grand Prior, Cardinal Giovambattista Rezzonico (1740–83). He devised a ceremonial piazza with an ornamental entrance screen and transformed the modest façade and interior of S Maria del Priorato into an impressive monument to the Order’s military history, subtly overlaid with complex antique symbolism.

As a designer of interiors and furniture, Piranesi executed a number of works, including schemes for the Pope at Castel Gandolfo, for Cardinal Rezzonico at the Palazzo del Quirinale and for Abbondio Rezzonico (1742–1810) at the Palazzo Senatorio on the Campidoglio. Virtually no trace of these interiors survives, apart from a pair of elegant side tables for the Quirinale (Minneapolis, MN, Inst. A., see fig.; Amsterdam, Rijksmus.). Nothing remains either of one of the first substantial contributions to the Egyptian Revival, Piranesi’s painted decoration of the Caffè degli Inglesi in Piazza di Spagna, executed in the early 1760s. The sole records of it are two plates in the Diverse maniere.

(v) Restoration, later vedute, and visits to Pompeii and Paestum, 1769–78.

After the death of Clement XIII in 1769 and the waning of Rezzonico patronage, Piranesi found a ready market for his energies among foreign clients in Rome, especially British collectors. He had already enlarged his printmaking business, now aided by his son Francesco Piranesi (1758–1810), to include the manufacture of ornamental chimney-pieces incorporating classical fragments. Some of these were illustrated in the Diverse maniere, and several were to be exported to Britain (examples at Burghley House, Cambs; Gorhambury House, Herts; Wedderburn Castle, Borders). During the 1770s, in collaboration with dealers such as Thomas Jenkins, Gavin Hamilton and James Byres, he extended this approach to the restoration of ornamental antiquities, profiting from Hamilton’s excavations at Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli. His activities were effectively advertised through the issue of 117 individual etchings of antiquities, later collected in the publication Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcofagi, tripodi, lucerne, ed ornamenti antichi (1778). These included works not only in his own museo or showrooms but also in other Italian collections, as well in some 25 British houses. They ranged from modest cinerary urns to the spectacular Warwick Vase (Glasgow, Burrell Col.), initially acquired by Sir William Hamilton. Piranesi’s skill in decorative synthesis led him to take increasing liberties in reconstruction, as in the pair of large marble candelabra (Oxford, Ashmolean) sold in 1775 to Sir Roger Newdigate.

Yet Piranesi’s concerns with archaeology and with the Vedute di Roma were undiminished. He produced many magisterial views of sites around Rome, especially at Tivoli, where he prepared a plan of Hadrian’s Villa, which, together with his fieldwork on the emissarium of Lake Fucino, was issued posthumously in 1781 by his son Francesco. Around 1774 Piranesi published a monumental record of Trajan’s Column, later combined with plates of the other giant relief columns in Rome, of Marcus Aurelius, and of Antoninus and Faustina.

Piranesi’s interest in archaeological discoveries now shifted from Herculaneum to Pompeii. From 1770 he made several expeditions there to prepare a plan and views, later etched by Francesco. The plan first appeared in 1785, and the vedute appeared between 1804 and 1807 in Les Antiquités de la Grande Grèce. Piranesi’s surviving sketches of this arid location (examples in London, BM; New York, Pierpont Morgan Lib.; Copenhagen, Stat. Mus. Kst), which are rough and uninspired, are in marked contrast to his highly finished drawings of the three Greek Doric temples at Paestum (London, Soane Mus.; Paris, Bib. N.; Amsterdam, Rijksmus.), which he surveyed with his son in 1777–8. The gradual acceptance of these gaunt structures by the architectural world charted the evolution of Neo-classical taste towards the expressive power of primitive forms. Piranesi’s 20 plates, which appeared after his death as Différentes vues … de Pesto (1778), were decisive in transforming archaeological interest into emotional understanding.

While at Paestum, Piranesi was already suffering from a malignant bladder complaint, which his strenuous work aggravated, and shortly after returning to Rome he died. He was buried in S Maria del Priorato under the most ambitious and complex of his fabricated candelabra. This highly appropriate, if unconventional, work (Paris, Louvre) was subsequently replaced at his family’s direction by an uninspired statue by Giuseppe Angelini (1735–1811) of Piranesi dressed all’antica, ironically more in keeping with the prevailing climate of Neo-classical taste.

2. Working methods and technique.

(i) Etchings.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Veduta dell’Anfiteatro Flavio detto il Colosseo (View of the Flavian Amphitheater known as the Colosseum), etching, 762×1016 mm, 1776 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959, Accession ID: 59.570.426); image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Piranesi’s graphic output of well over 1000 plates ranges from large-scale vedute, maps and diagrams to vignettes, end-pieces and ornamental letters (see fig.). The evolution of his extremely idiosyncratic technique was remarkable for its speed and widening range, from the exquisite linearity and subtle nuances of Rococo fantasy to the fierce striations and powerful tonality of Romantic Classicism. His Baroque temperament found the bozzetto or rapid sketch a natural form of expression. Contemporaries such as Jacques-Guillaume Legrand remarked on his lack of preparatory drawings and the virtuosity of his improvisations on the plate, aided by his exceptionally retentive memory.

Like Rembrandt, Piranesi applied an essentially painterly approach to etching, particularly while under the influence of Tiepolo in the mid-1740s. The surfaces of the larger Vedute di Roma in the 1750s were extensively worked, and the tonality throughout the plate area is even. By the next decade contrasts of line-strength and tone, achieved by repeated bitings and use of the burin, had become increasingly powerful. His archaeological and polemical concerns demanded a particularly sophisticated technique to register specific structural patterns and various deteriorating materials in ancient buildings. When he had closer control over the reproduction process at the Palazzo Tomati, he experimented with the printing itself, in terms of both colour and tonal distribution of ink, as can be seen in the later Carceri. By the 1770s, however, the heavy demands of illustrating archaeological treatises and restored antiquities led him to rely considerably on assistants, and this is reflected in a rather dry and mechanical line, verging on harshness in his late works, with the supreme exception of the Paestum etchings.

(ii) Drawings.

Piranesi is considered one of the finest and most versatile draughtsmen of the 18th century, and between 600 and 700 drawings by him have survived. They range from hasty scribbles on the backs of discarded proofs to meticulous working drawings and highly finished presentation designs. In mood they extend from the buoyant arabesques of his Venetian decorative designs to the moody intensity of his Paestum studies. Swiftly executed studies of views and objects dominate, yet there are a remarkable number of separate figure studies, underlining his concern with the enlivening human interest in his compositions. The various media employed include red chalk, pencil and charcoal. His vigorous studies in pen and ink are often amplified with washes, and occasionally he used several techniques together. Large holdings of his drawings are to be found in the British Museum in London, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York and the Kunstbibliothek in Berlin.

(iii) Collaboration and studio organization.

From the early 1760s Piranesi required collaborators and assistants. Apart from Francesco, several of his five children to survive infancy were trained as printmakers, Laura (b 1755) issuing a set of reduced versions of the Vedute di Roma. Meanwhile, the manufacture of chimney-pieces and restoration of antiquities involved leading specialists such as Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, as well as other sculptors such as Giuseppe Angelini, Cardelli, Franzoni, Jacquietti and Joseph Nollekens. Little has come to light yet on Piranesi’s architectural practice, apart from a particularly detailed account-book (New York, Columbia U., Avery Archit. & F.A. Lib.) covering the entire work on the Aventine buildings.

After Piranesi’s death, Francesco not only completed many of his father’s enterprises but also added extra vedute and several new folios, all published in Rome, notably Raccolta de’ tempi antichi (1780–90), Teatro di Ercolano (1783), Monumenti degli Scipioni (1785) and Collection des plus belles statues (1786). He also sold the larger part of his father’s remaining antiquities to Gustav III of Sweden in 1785 (now Stockholm, Nmus.). In 1799, with his brother Pietro (b 1758/9), Francesco transferred the family business to Paris, where as the Calcographie des Piranesi Frères, they continued to issue prints until Francesco’s death. All the surviving plates were then acquired by the business of Firmin-Didot, which continued to use them until 1839. The same year Pope Gregory XVI acquired them for the Camera Apostolica and brought them back to Rome (now Rome, Calcografia N.).

3. Critical reception and posthumous reputation.

Despite his practical enterprise and business capacity, Piranesi occupied a somewhat eccentric position in the contemporary professional scene and was dismissed by more conventional minds, such as Chambers or Luigi Vanvitelli, as impractical, even mad. In the 1740s he had an important influence on French Neo-classical pioneers. Later, his standpoint in the Greco-Roman debate brought him into sympathy with young British designers, especially Robert Adam who was quick to recognize the immense value of Piranesi’s eclectic vision. His close rapport with Adam continued long after the latter’s departure from Rome in 1758, and the Diverse maniere was a crucial factor in the development of the Adam style during the 1770s. From the 1790s, as an anthology of antique ornamental forms, the Vasi, candelabri had as extensive an influence on a later generation of designers in England and France, among them Charles Heathcote Tatham, Thomas Hope, Charles Percier and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine.

In his later years Piranesi’s essentially Baroque vision had set him increasingly at variance with the austere taste and theories of later Neo-classicism. After his death his Aventine buildings were abruptly dismissed by the Italian critic Francesco Milizia, but his ideas continued to be of seminal importance for radical architects such as Sir John Soane, Etienne-Louis Boullée, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux and Friedrich Gilly. In 1786 Horace Walpole wrote of ‘the sublime dreams of Piranesi, who seems to have conceived visions of Rome beyond what it boasted even in the meridian of its splendour’.

During the 19th century, apart from the continuity of a topographical tradition from Luigi Rossini (1790–1857) to Charles Meryon and Gustave Doré, Piranesi’s art found its most direct expression in Romantic stage design, as seen in the work of Francesco Fontanesi (1741–1831), Pietro Gonzaga (1751–1831), Giuseppe Badiali (1798–1859) and especially Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Most far-reaching of all was the inspiration of Piranesi’s imagery on writers: from early Romantics such as William Beckford, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas de Quincey, through a succession of French authors from Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo and Théophile Gautier to Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé and Marcel Proust. Similar debts are found among American writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville. For all of them the Carceri offered a wide range of visual analogies for the phenomena of disturbing imaginative experiences, which were later investigated psychologically by Aldous Huxley and also influenced film directors such as Fritz Lang (Metropolis, 1926) and Carol Reed (The Third Man, 1949), and even composers such as Brian Ferneyhough (Carceri d’Invenzione, I, 1982).

Unpublished sources

  • New York, Columbia U., Avery Archit. & F.A. Lib. [MS. account-bk covering entire remodelling of S Maria del Priorato]


  • Lettere di giustificazione scritte a Milord Charlemont e a’ di lui agenti di Roma (Rome, 1757)
  • Della magnificenza ed architettura de’ Romani (1761); R in J. Wilton-Ely, ed.: G. B. Piranesi: The Polemical Works (Farnborough, 1972)
  • Osservazioni sopra la lettre de M. Mariette, 3 parts (Rome, 1765) [incl. Parere su l’architettura and Della introduzione e del progresso delle belle arti in Europa de’ tempi antichi]
  • Diverse maniere d’adornare i cammini (1769); R in J. Wilton-Ely, ed.: G. B. Piranesi: The Polemical Works (Farnborough, 1972)


  • Piranesi, Giovanni Battista
  • Prima parte di architetture e prospettive (Rome, 1743)
  • Varie vedute di Roma antica e moderna (Rome, 1745)
  • Grotteschi (Rome, c. 1747)
  • Antichità Romane de’ tempi della Repubblica e de’ primi Imperatori (Rome, 1748); repr. after 1765 as Alcune vedute di archi trionfali ed altri monumenti inalzati da Romani parte de quali si veggono in Roma e parte per l’Italia
  • Vedute di Roma (Rome, c. 1748–78)
  • Invenzioni capric di carceri (Rome, c. 1749–50); reworked with two extra pls as Carceri d’invenzione (Rome, 1761)
  • Opere varie di architettura, prospettiva, grotteschi, antichità (Rome, 1750)
  • Le antichità Romane (Rome, 1756)
  • Della magnificenza ed architettura de’ Romani (Rome, 1761)
  • Le rovine del castello dell’Acqua Giulia (Rome, 1761)
  • Antichità d’Albano e di Castel Gandolfo (Rome, 1762)
  • Il Campo Marzio dell’antica Roma (Rome, 1762/R Florence, 1972) [reprint contains app. with official inv. of Piranesi’s possessions at his death]
  • Descrizione e disegno dell’emissario del Lago Albano (Rome, 1762)
  • Lapides Capitolini sive Fasti Consulares triumphalesque Romanorum ab urbe condita usque ad Tiberium Caesarem (Rome, 1762)
  • Antichità di Cora (Rome, 1764)
  • Diverse maniere d’adornare i cammini ed ogni altra parte degli edifizi desunte dell’ architettura Egizia, Etrusca, e Greca con un ragionamento apologetico in difesa dell’ architettura Egizia e Toscana (Rome, 1769)
  • Différentes vues de quelques restes de trois grands édifices qui subsistent encore dans le milieu de l’ancienne ville de Pesto autrement Posidonia qui est située dans la Lucanie (Rome, 1778/R Unterschneidheim, 1973) [pubd by Francesco Piranesi]
  • Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcofagi, tripodi, lucerne, ed ornamenti antichi (Rome, 1778)
  • Pianta delle fabbriche esistenti nella Villa Adriana (Rome, 1781) [pubd by Francesco Piranesi]
  • Les Antiquités de la Grande Grèce, aujourd’hui Royaume de Naples (Paris, 1804–7) [pubd by Francesco Piranesi]


Early sources
  • G. L. Bianconi: ‘Elogio storico del Cavaliere Giambattista Piranesi celebre antiquario ed incisore di Roma’, Antologia Romana, 31–6 (Rome, 1779); R in Grafica, 2 (1976), pp. 127–35
  • F. Milizia: Roma nelle belle arti del disegno (Rome, 1787)
  • F. Piranesi and P. Piranesi: Oeuvres des Chevaliers Jean Baptiste et François Piranesi qu’on vend séparément dans la calcographie des auteurs (Rome, 1792, Versailles, 2/1800)
  • J. G. Legrand: Notice historique sur la vie et sur les ouvrages de J. B. Piranesi (1799; Paris, Bib. N., MSS 1020, nouv. acq. fr. 5968); in Piranèse et les Français (exh. cat., Rome, Acad. France, 1976), pp. 213–56 [biog. based on the lost mem. of the artist and family recollections]
  • H. Walpole: Anecdotes of Painting in England (London, 1762–71, rev. 4/1786), iv, p. 398
  • R. Wittkower: Studies in the Italian Baroque (London, 1975)
  • H. Focillon: Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Essai de catalogue raisonné de son oeuvre (Paris, 1918)
  • H. Focillon: Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1720–1778 (Paris, 1918, rev. 1963)
  • A. M. Hind: Giovanni Battista Piranesi: A Critical Study with a List of his Published Works and Detailed Catalogues of the Prisons and the Views of Rome (London, 1922/R 1967)
  • A. Hyatt Mayor: Giovanni Battista Piranesi (New York, 1952)
  • H. Thomas: The Drawings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (London, 1954)
  • Piranesi (exh. cat., ed. R. O. Parks; Northampton, MA, Smith Coll. Mus. A., 1961)
  • Incisioni di G. B. Piranesi (exh. cat., ed. S. Zamboni and others; Bologna, Pal. Re Enzo, 1963)
  • Giambattista e Francesco Piranesi (exh. cat., ed. M. Calvesi; Rome, Calcografia N., 1967–8)
  • Giovanni Battista Piranesi: His Predecessors and his Heritage (exh. cat., ed. E. Croft-Murray; London, BM, 1968)
  • P. Murray: Piranesi and the Grandeur of Ancient Rome (London, 1971)
  • Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Drawings and Etchings (exh. cat., ed. D. Nyberg; New York, Columbia U., Avery Archit. & F.A. Lib., 1972); rev. as Piranesi Drawings and Etchings at the Avery Architectural Library, Columbia University, New York: The Arthur M. Sackler Collection, ed. D. Nyberg and H. Mitchell (New York, 1975)
  • R. Bacou: Piranesi: Etchings and Drawings (London, 1975)
  • J. Scott: Piranesi (London, 1975)
  • N. Penny: Piranesi (London, 1978)
  • J. Wilton-Ely: The Mind and Art of Piranesi (London, 1978, rev. 1988)
  • Disegni di Giambattista Piranesi (exh. cat., ed. A. Bettagno; Venice, Fond. Cini, 1978)
  • Piranesi (exh. cat., ed. J. Wilton-Ely; London, Hayward Gal., 1978)
  • Piranesi: Incisioni, rami, legature, architetture (exh. cat., ed. A. Bettagno; Venice, Fond. Cini, 1978)
  • Piranesi nei luoghi di Piranesi, 5 vols (exh. cat., ed. A. Marzia Positano; Rome, Calcografia N.; Castel S Angelo; Orti Farnesiani; Istituto di Studi Romani; and elsewhere; 1979)
  • J. Wilton-Ely: Piranesi as Architect and Designer (New Haven and London, 1993)
  • J. Wilton-Ely: Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Complete Etchings, 2 vols (San Francisco, 1994)
Specialist studies
  • F. Stampfle: ‘An Unknown Group of Drawings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi’, Art Bulletin, 30/2 (1948), pp. 122–41; as book G. B. Piranesi: Drawings in the Pierpont Morgan Library (New York, 1978)
  • L. Keller: Piranèse et les Romantiques français: Le Mythe des escaliers en spirale (Paris, 1966)
  • P. Hofer: ‘The Prisons’ by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (New York, 1973)
  • Piranèse et les Français, 1740–1790 (exh. cat., ed. G. Brunel and P. Arizzoli; Rome, Acad. France, 1976)
  • Conference Proceedings, Académie de France à Rome. Piranèse et les Français: Rome, 1978
  • B. Reudenbach: G. B. Piranesi: Architektur als Bild: Der Wandel in der Architekturauffassung des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts (Munich, 1979)
  • A. Robison: Piranesi: Early Architectural Fantasies: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Etchings (Chicago, 1986)
  • Piranesi architetto (exh. cat., ed. J. Wilton-Ely and J. Connors; Rome, 1992)
  • J. Wilton-Ely: Piranesi as Architect and Designer (New Haven, 1993)
  • Exploring Rome: Piranesi and his Contemporaries (exh. cat., ed. C. Denison, S. Wiles and N. Rosenberg; Montreal, Cent. Can. Archit., 1993)
  • J. Wilton-Ely: Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Complete Etchings, 2 vols (San Francisco, 1994)
  • Piranesi e l’Aventino (exh. cat., ed. B. Jatta; Rome, 1998)
  • J. Wilton-Ely: Soane and Piranesi (Sir John Soane's Mus., London, 2000)
  • L. Ficacci and others: Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Selected Etchings (Cologne, 2001)
  • B. Sorensen: ‘Piranesi, Grandjacquet and the Warwick Vase’, Burlington Magazine, 145 (Nov 2003), pp. 792–5