Giovanni Battista (also Giambattista) Piranesi (Italian
pronunciation: [dʒoˈvanni batˈtista piraˈnesi]; 4 October 1720 – 9
November 1778) was an Italian artist famous for his etchings of Rome
and of fictitious and atmospheric "prisons" (Carceri d'Invenzione).
Piranesi was born in Mogliano Veneto, near Treviso, then part of
the Republic of Venice. His brother Andrea introduced him to Latin
and the ancient civilization, and later he studied as an architect
under his uncle, Matteo Lucchesi, who was Magistrato delle Acque, a
Venetian engineer who specialized in excavation.
From 1740 he was in Rome with Marco Foscarini, the Venetian envoy to
the Vatican. He resided in the Palazzo Venezia and studied under
Giuseppe Vasi, who introduced him to the art of etching and
engraving. After his studies with Vasi, he collaborated with pupils
of the French Academy in Rome to produce a series of vedute (views)
of the city; his first work was Prima parte di Architettura e
Prospettive (1743), followed in 1745 by Varie Vedute di Roma Antica
From 1743 to 1747 he sojourned mainly in Venice where, according to
some sources, he frequented Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. He then
returned to Rome, where he opened a workshop in Via del Corso. In
1748–1774 he created a long series of vedute of the city which
established his fame. In the meantime Piranesi devoted himself to
the measurement of many of the ancient edifices: this led to the
publication of Le Antichità Romane de' tempo della prima Repubblica
e dei primi imperatori ("Roman Antiquities of the Time of the First
Republic and the First Emperors"). In 1761 he became a member of the
Accademia di San Luca and opened a printing facility of his own. In
1762 the Campo Marzio dell'antica Roma collection of engravings was
The following year he was commissioned by Pope Clement XIII to
restore the choir of San Giovanni in Laterano, but the work did not
materialize. In 1764 Piranesi started his sole architectural works
of importance, the restoration of the church of Santa Maria del
Priorato in the Villa of the Knights of Malta in Rome, where he was
buried after his death, in a tomb designed by Giuseppi Angelini.
In 1767 he was created a knight of the Golden Spur, which enabled
him henceforth to sign himself "Cav[aliere] Piranesi". In 1769
his publication of a series of ingenious and sometimes bizarre
designs for chimneypieces, as well as an original range of furniture
pieces, established his place as a versatile and resourceful
1776 he created his famous Piranesi Vase, his best known work as a
'restorer' of ancient sculpture. In 1777–78 Piranesi published Avanzi degli Edifici di Pesto, (Remains of the Edifices of Paestum)
a collection of views of Paestum.
He died in Rome in 1778 after a long illness and buried in the
Church of Santa Maria del Priorato, on the Aventine hill in Rome.
The Views (Vedute)
The remains of Rome kindled Piranesi's enthusiasm. He was able to
faithfully imitate the actual remains of a fabric; his invention in
catching the design of the original architect provided the missing
parts; his masterful skill at engraving introduced groups of vases,
altars, tombs that were absent in reality; and his broad and
scientific distribution of light and shade completed the picture,
creating a striking effect from the whole view. Some of his later
work was completed by his children and several pupils.
Piranesi's son and coadjutor, Francesco, collected and preserved his
plates, in which the freer lines of the etching-needle largely
supplemented the severity of burin work. Twenty-nine folio volumes
containing about 2000 prints appeared in Paris (1835–1837).
The late Baroque works of Claude Lorrain, Salvatore Rosa, and others
had featured romantic and fantastic depictions of ruins; in part as
a memento mori or as a reminiscence of a golden age of construction.
Piranesi's reproductions of real and recreated Roman ruins were a
strong influence on Neoclassicism.