Giovanni Battista Piranesi
(Venice, Italy, 1720 - 1778, Rome, Italy)
Giovanni Battista Piranesi was the son of a Venetian building contractor, and his uncle, Matteo Lucchesi (1705–1776), was an architect and engineer. As a youth, Piranesi learned to paint illusionistic scenery for Venetian opera houses, but he discovered a profound, lifelong fascination with Rome and its ancient ruins during his first journey to the Eternal City in 1740. He remained, living and working in Rome, for most of the rest of his long career as the greatest topographical etcher of the eighteenth century. Piranesi joined the studio of Rome’s premier topographical engraver, Giuseppe Vasi (1710–1782) in 1742, where he learned the advanced techniques of printing and publishing that made his success possible. The resulting prints were primarily intended for a foreign audience, that is the English, French, and German travelers who were engaged in the “Grand Tour,” then considered an essential component for a young man’s intellectual and cultural cultivation. By the mid-1750s, he was celebrated as one of the best-known artists in all Italy.
Piranesi created many individual prints as well as series such as “Vedute di Roma” (“Views of Rome”) and the “Carceri d'Invenzione” (“Imaginary Prisons”). He worked and re-worked his large plates over time. He built his compositions in a series of states, developing complex webs of lines, tones, and textures to produce rich, moody evocations of ancient ruins and mystic spaces. Although Piranesi is credited as one of the greatest topographical artists of the eighteenth century, his works were never transcriptions of reality. He typically rearranged elements, incorporating some that did not exist in actual time and space, and he heightened the dramatic qualities of the scenes by carefully structured contrasts of light and dark.
See Richard Rand and John Varriano, “Two Views of Italy: Master Prints by Canaletto and Piranesi,” (Hanover, NH: The Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 1995).