Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778)

Italian etcher, archaeologist, designer, theorist and architect, Giovanni Battista Piranesi was one of the greatest figures of the 18th century.

Portrait of Piranesi, Felice Ponzani, 1750

Image source: http://www.stilearte.it

About his life

Giovanni Battista Piranesi was born on 4 October 1720 in Venice. He learned to draw from his uncle, who was a designer and hydraulic engineer. He also studied scenography and perspective composition. At the age of 20, Piranesi moved to Rome, where he studied the ancient monuments of this city. He made original engravings on the theme of ancient and modern Roman landscapes, which brought him popularity. Later, he created series of engravings of fantastic prison interiors. At the age of fifty, he produced drawings and engravings of Greek architecture in southern Italy thanks to his interest in archaeology. During the expedition, health problems forced him to return to Rome, where he died at the age of fifty-eight.


Portrait of Piranesi, Pietro Labruzzi, 1779

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

What were his major works?

He is best known for his Views of Rome (Vedute di Roma), those beautifully observed, deeply Romantic evocations of decrepit grandeur, and the Carceri.

View of the Mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian, Vies of Rome, Piranesi, 1756

Image source: http://www.metmuseum.org

As for the Views of Rome, he continued to produce plates for this series until the year of his death in 1778. The popular Piranesi series overshadowed earlier Roman landmarks with its dynamism, vibrant lighting effects, and dramatic presentation. It is known that Goethe, who knew Rome from Piranesi’s engravings, was somewhat disappointed when he saw this city in reality.

View of the Arch of Constantine, Views of Rome, 1771.

Image source: https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au

Carceri, a set of 14 copperplate engravings, is a series of labyrinths of prison interiors. In these prints, Piranesi explored the possibilities of perspective and spatial illusion, while at the same time pushing the engraving to its limits.

Carceri Plate VII, The Drawbridge., Piranesi, 1745

Image source: http://www.italianways.com

How can we identify Piranesi’s style?

  • He used perspective restitution methods in his etchings.
  • He created new artistic visions of the buildings that exist but in a different form.
  • He has created magical and mysterious views of Rome in a perfect combination of perspective, theatrical composition, and play of light and shadow using the chiaroscuro technique.
  • He was able to piece together facts and detail with incomparable levels of emotional expression.
Piramide di C.Cesio, in vedute di Roma.

Image source: https://www.artribune.com

Info sources: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/804/giovanni-battista-piranesi-italian-1720-1778/ http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pira/hd_pira.htm https://artinprint.org/article/messing-about-with-masterpieces/ http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/13602360802573868

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