Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Giovanni Battista Piranesi was one of the many neoclassical artists who had great love for the age of antiquity. Altogether, they reacted against the changes that Rococo brought to the industry because they didn’t want to lose touch of the ancient Roman and Greco styles. The classical art was simply more admired to because of the higher level of technical skills and knowledge it required from an artist before one could execute a terrific work.

Piranesi’s talent went beyond etching as he was also a painter, archeologist, architect, designer and an art theorist. He was also considered as the best printmaker of the 18th century Rome, although he’d love to call himself an architect. Some of his famous etchings include a self-portrait, The Pyramid of Cestius, The Colosseum (1757), The Arch of Trajan at Benevento, and a large series of architectural plates collectively called The Prisons.

These architectural plates are numbered in Roman numerals and are as follows:

  • Title Plate
  • The Man on the Rack
  • The Round Tower
  • The Grand Piazza
  • The Lion Bas-Reliefs
  • The Smoking Fire
  • The Drawbridge
  • The Staircase with Trophies
  • The Giant Wheel
  • Prisoners on a Projecting Platform
  • The Arch with a Shell Ornament
  • The Sawhorse
  • The Well
  • The Gothic Arch
  • The Pier with a Lamp
  • The Pier with Chains

Early Life

Giovanni Piranesi was born on October 4, 1720 in Mogliano Veneto, a territorial enclave of the then Republic of Venice. His father was a stonemason and contractor for buildings in the town, so he probably learned of his designing skills from his father. However, it is thought that Piranesi had also been taught by his hydraulic engineer uncle, Matteo Lucchesi.

Lucchesi worked for the waterworks of the republic while his brother was a monk who also greatly influenced the young Piranesi to pursue architecture. The Carthusian monk was proud of the ancient Roman contributions to what made Italy looked like that century. Piranesi got all the support he needed to study stage design and building construction.

As an Architect and Printmaker

Piranesi’s early training helped him lay his foundation in etching and architecture. By 1740, he went under training with Giuseppe Vasi in Rome, who was a successful printmaker. Although it wasn’t clear whether Piranesi learnt the rudiments of printmaking in Venice or in Rome already. Vasi introduced him to the etched images of Roman buildings that were sold to traveling scholars, artists, and tourists.

This later on fueled him to make etchings of his designs that were once he thought would never materialize at least on paper. He attempted at re-designing the aqueduct systems of the previous civilization. His in-depth knowledge of the antiquity matched with archeological skills earned him a solid reputation in the industry and had established a name for himself, as an antiquarian.

In fact, in 1756 he executed Antichita Romane which won the votes of the members of the Society of Antiquarians of London to become its leader. Few years back, Piranesi had collaborations with the students of the French Academy in Rome. The team produced a series of views of the Eternal city, under which his Prima Parte di Architettura e Prospective of 1743 and Varie Vedute di Roma Antica e Moderna of 1745 were considered as major works.

As a traveling artist, he journeyed back to Venice where he would often visit Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Confident enough to pursue a highly independent career he opened up a studio in Via del Corso. There he completed yet another series of views of the city, beginning 1748 until 1774.

Piranesi also made sure that he’d have a closer look of the ancient Roman buildings, including its measurements, texture and other characteristics. This study inspired him to write the Roman Antiquities of the Time of the First Republic and the First Emperors during the early 1750’s. The publication of the writing pushed through with his association to the printmaking business in Venice.

In fact, in 1761 he was accepted as the new member of the prestigious Accademia di San Luca. He was already making a good fortune for himself at the time that he was able to establish his own printing factory. One of the earliest works he had ever printed was the Campo Marzio dell’Antica Roma in 1762.

In that same year, Piranesi was summoned by Pope Clement XIII to re-design the San Giovanni (Laterano) choir area. However, this project wasn’t pursued by the engraver for unknown reasons. It was probably because he kept himself too busy with writing Delle magnificenza ed Archittetura de’Romani in 1761. Through this defense, he argued that the Romans learned their classical knowledge and skills in arts from its foremost inhabitants, and not necessarily from the Greeks, as how the French and British intellectuals appeared to be claiming it.

While Piranesi was the defender of ancient Roman art, he did not limit himself from developing interest in Egyptian and Greek art. This foreign influence was evident in some of his designs like the one he made for an Egyptian-inspired fireplace and a decorative pattern for Caffe Inglese’s walls in Piazza di Spagna.

Another evidence to his universal interest in the arts was the preface he wrote for Diverse maniere d’adomare I cammini in 1769. There in the book he stated that architects can easily gain complete freedom of expression by drawing models based on time and place from where they have been to. The classicism in Piranesi’s etchings, specifically the fireplace and centerpiece designs, appealed to the taste of the general public that they made it to the continent-wide circulation.

Restoration Projects

Pope Clement XIII and his nephew Cardinal Rezzonico employed the services of Piranesi to restore buildings. He was assigned to completing two important projects where he must produce decorative designs for the Lateran Basilica’s choir. However, this didn’t happen, and instead he used his original design to restore the church of the Knights of Malta also known as the Santa Maria del Priorato.

Advanced Years

Within the last ten years of his life, 1768 to 1778, he was still able to produce a couple of collections and writings. As a restoration specialist, he compiled his experiences in a publication entitled Remains of the Edifices of Paestum in 1777.

However, the fateful day came and Piranesi died of an illness in November 9, 1778 in Rome. He was buried at the Santa Maria del Priorato Church on Aventine hill. His grave was designed by Guiseppi Angelini.