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

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About his life.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi was born on October 4, 1720 in Venice. He learned to draw from his uncle, who was a designer and hydraulic engineer. He also studied stage design and perspective composition. At the age of 20 Piranesi  moved to Rome, where he studied the ancient monuments of this city. He made original etchings on the theme of ancient and modern Roman landscapes, which brought him popularity. Later, he created series of etchings of fantastic prison interiors. At his fifties, Piranesi’s interest in archaeology took him to southern Italy, where he produced drawings and etchings of Greek architecture. 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

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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

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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 that 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.

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Carceri, a set of 14 copper plate 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

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How can we identify Piranesi’s style?

  • He used methods of perspective restitution in his etchings.
  • He was not just a recorder of history, he created new artistic visions of the buildings that really exist but in a different shape.
  • He achieved magical and mysterious views of Rome in a perfect combination between the perspective, theatrical composition and play between light and shade. He used the technique of chiaroscuro.
  • He could bring together fact and detail with incomparable levels of emotional expression.
Piramide di C.Cesio, in vedute di Roma.

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