Giovanni Battista (Gimabatista) Piranesi

Le Antichita Romane (Rome, 1756)

(Thomas Phillips, 1845)

Piranesi was born at Mogliano on the Venetian mainland on 4 October 1720, and trained as an architect and draughtsman; on the title page of this work he describes himself as architetto veneziano. In 1740 he first went to Rome, and immediately conceived what was to be a permanent passion for the city and its antiquities. While there he began to learn the art of etching, and in 1743 published his first collection of plates under the title Prima Parte di Architetture e Perspettive (though no seconda parte ever appeared). Soon afterwards his father stopped his allowance, thus obliging him to return to Venice, where he appears to have spent some time in Tiepolo's studio.

In 1745 he returned to Rome as agent for a Venetian printseller, and spent the rest of his life there. During the next few years he produced his famous series of imaginary scenes Grotteschi and Carceri, and began the long series of Vedutiedi Roma which continued till the year of his death, eventually totalling 135. The first 34 of these, along with an enlarged version of Prima Parte, the Carceri d'Invenzione and a collection of drawings of antiquities known as Arci trionfali, were published by Jean Bouchard in 1751 under the title Le Magnificenze di Roma.

In 1752 Piranesi married (after a five-day courtship, it is said), and his wife's dowry relieved him of immediate financial difficulties. He now began work on the huge task of recording as much as possible of the remains of ancient Rome, which was to result in the issue four years later of the four massive volumes of Le Antichita Romane containing altogether over 250 etched plates, some of which are truly enormous: up to 575 x 825mm, probably the largest copper plates ever etched. The set sold at 15 zecchini (gold coins). Volume I contains the remains of ancient buildings in the city, arranged in topographical order; the monuments illustrated include the Parthenon, Porta Maggiore, Baths of Dioceltian, Column of Trajan, the Forum Romanum, Palatine and Colosseum. Volumes II and III are devoted to sepulchral monuments in Rome and the Agro Romano. Volume IV contains bridges, theatres and porticoes, and includes the Mausoleum of Hadrian, the Theatre of Marcellus and the Portico of Octavia. In the first volume, after a plan of the ancient monuments of Rome and three devoted to fragments of the Marble Plan, there follows a forty-page index, with commentary, of all the sites marked on the plan. Then come thirty pages, each with two figures, engraved on separate plates, mostly around 200 x 130mm. On Plate XXVI, shown here, Figure 1, described as 'the Peristyle of the Casa Neroniana on the Palatine', is actually the large exedra on the East side of the 'Hippodrome' garden of Domitian's Palace. Figure 2 shows the Arch of Constantine, viewed from in front of the Colosseum, with the remains of the Meta Sudans and in the background, part of the Palatine.

In June 1755 Piranesi had met Robert Adam, newly arrived in Rome at the start of his Grand Tour of 1754-8 [cf. no. 13]. The two formed a firm friendship based on their mutual love of Roman architecture, and Piranesi paid an ingenious and fulsome tribute to his new friend in the frontispiece to Volume II of Le Antichita Romane. This depicts a fanciful reconstruction of the junction of the Via Appia and the Via Ardeatina at the second milestone from the Porta Capena outside Rome. Among the many tombstones and monuments with which the roadsides are crowded is one purporting to be that of Adam, inscribed 'DIS MANIB(VS) ROBERTI ADAMS (sic) SCOT (ICI) ARCHITECTI PRAESTANTISS(IMI) I(OANNES) B(APTISTA) P(IRANESIVS) FAC(IENDUM) COERAVIT' ('To the Divine Shades of the most excellent Scots architect Robert Adams(sic) Giovanni Battista Piranesi had this erected'). Similarly, another such monument is to the painter Allan Ramsay, while a third is to Piranesi himself.

In 1757 Piranesi was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London (an honoour which he is said to have prized above all), and in 1761 a member of the Accademia di S. Luca; and in 1765 he received a Papal knighthood from Clement XIII, who was himself a Venetian. He died in Rome on 9 November 1778, not long after returning from a tour of Campania in which he had studied the Greek temples of Paestum; his plates of them were published posthumously by his son Francesco.

(This text was written for the exhibition by Ian Barton, former Head of the Department of Classics at Lampeter.)