Piranesiís Etchings of modern Rome: Reasons for Constructing Unreality

'They despise my novelty, I their timidity'[1]

  • Ilse Grasmeijer - Faculty of Economics and Business
  • Judith Heida - Faculty of Medicine
  • Wouter Taheij - Faculty of Arts

Piazza Navona by Giovanni Battista Piranesi[2] Piazza Navona in 2014[3]

The etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 - 1778) have always been highly regarded. According to many scholars, his Vedute (Views) of both ancient and modern Rome, are a great depiction of the grandeur of the Papal City. However, others have accused the engraver, architect and printmaker of drawing unrealistically and depicting the eternal city more beautiful than it really was. On this page, we will try to answer the question how Piranesi's representation of the city differs from others and why Piranesi chose to portray Rome as he did. This will be accomplished with a literature search preceded by a detailed analysis of a print depicting the Piazza Navona.

During the ages, there has been written a lot about Piranesi's work, since his work has always captured the eye of the critics and art-lovers. However, most of these articles covered only one particular aspect of his oeuvre: his etchings of the ancient ruins of Rome. These etching have been discussed as if they are a completely separate part of his other work, while in reality he made them in the same period of his life and published them in the same books with the etchings of his contemporary Rome.[4] Therefore, it is highly likely that he made the etching of 18th century Rome with the same artistic view as his more famous work of the antiquities. The true challenge for Piranesi was therefore to simultaneously highlight the beauty of both contrasting aspects of Rome, both the old antiquities as the new and bright contemporary buildings. On this page we will give several possible solutions to this problem.

1. How did Piranesi change the reality of Piazza Navona?
2. Explanations found in previous literature
2.1 Working method
2.2 Piranesi's view on architecture
2.3 Personal Motivations
3.Why had Piranesi changed the reality in his etchings?

1. How did Piranesi change the reality of Piazza Navona?

When you look at the etchings of Piranesi of Piazza Navona, you imagine it to be a very big and imposing square. Although in reality it is a large piazza with imposing buildings, the depicted magnificence of Piranesi's piazza does not correspond to the real size of the piazza. To compare Piranesi's print we will not look at contemporary pictures of the Piazza Navona because this reality can be changed over the years by decay or human changes or developments in the constructions of the buildings. Therefore comparing Piranes's etchings with the current sitation would not be enough. To understand the uniqueness of Piranesi's work, one must compare it to other artists who have tried to create the same image. In what ways does Piranesi's work differ from that of other artists? The following paragraph will focus on the differences between the etchings of Piranesi and his predecessor Giovanni Battista Falda (1643 - 1678) who made an comparable etching of Piazza Navona a few years before Piranesi made his etching. Secondly, the work of Piranesi will be compared to a contemporary artist, Giuseppe Vasi (1710 - 1782).

Piranesi (ca. 1740) [2] Falda (1677)[5]

Examining the two different etchings, you see that both Piranesi and Falda use the same perspective: looking from above at the south side of the Piazza. Although the two etchings are made from the same perspective, different feelings arise, when looking at the etchings. A striking difference is that Falda pictures the piazza much narrower compared to Piranesi. When we compare Falda's etching to the photo of the Piazza Navona of today, we can see that his etching corresponds more closely to the reality than Piranesi, who shows the Piazza wider than it really is. Apparently, he uses an angle that increases the imposingness of the Piazza. This is also visible in the height of the buildings. The buildings of Piranesi are more emphasizing the width instead of the height. This helps emphasizing the size of the Piazza.

Fountain on foreground, detail of Piranesi's etching[2]
Fountain on foreground, detail of Falda's etching[5]

Besides the spacious effect, Piranesi also emphasizes some objects in the Piazza, while he leaves out other details, of which he is probably convinced that they are less important. The fountain on the foreground is sketched bigger and gets nearly all the attention when looking at the etching. Compared to the etching of Falda and the photo, this fountain only is a relative small object at the Piazza and does not attract that much attention as it gets from Piranesi. Also the area around the vanishing point is different in the two etchings. Where Piranesi is fading out the background and shows almost no detail, while Falda clearly indicates where the piazza ends and which buildings are at this end of the Piazza. These are other ways in which Piranesi has made the Piazza look grander than it is.

The emphasis on the fountain 'Fontana dei quattro fiumi' from Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 - 1680), in the etching of Piranesi is very eminent, On the other hand, in the etching of Falda, the fountain is sketched, but the background around the fountain is crowded, dark and full of movements. Compared to Piranesi, the fountain gets less attention. Piranesi did not sketch much people in front of the fountain. However, he did portrait some people for the purpose of giving a human perspective of height to the buildings and obelisk.

Another important difference between the etching of Piranesi and Falda, is the relative position of the towers and dome. Falda made this position from a natural point of view: when you compare it to the actual picture, you see that the distance between the two towers is the same as in reality. In contrast, the two towers of Piranesi are sketched in the way that they are emphasizing the wide of the building: they are placed more separated and the dome is placed more backwards, so that a larger surface is visible. By changing the proportions of the objects of the square, Piranesi show the viewer his architectural dream of true proportionality.

Fountain of Bernini, detail of Piranesi's etching[2] Fountain of Bernini, detail of Falda's etching[5] Tower and dome, detail of Piranesi's etching[2] Tower and dome, detail of Falda's etching[5]

To demonstrate that the difference in perspective and size of objects is of Piranesi's doing, not of Falda's, another comparison is made with the etching of Giuseppe Vasi (1710 - 1782), Piranesi's teacher (see Biography of Giovanni Battista Piranesi). There are a lot similarities in style of the two masters. However, there is something in Piranesi's style that makes his etchings more interesting. Vasi and Piranesi probably influenced each other, which makes it hard to make an objective opinion when comparing the etchings. But even between the etching of Piranesi and Vasi, the differences mentioned above are visible.

Piranesi[2] Vasi[6]

The size of the fountain 'Fontana dei quattro fiumi' from Bernini, is in the etching of Piranesi bigger than in the etching of Vasi. In addition, the two towers are more separated from each other, to emphasize the length of the Piazza. Although Vasi also fade out the background, the borders of the piazza are constructed, where Piranesi fade out the background so that the end of the Piazza is almost unknown.

The fountain on the foreground is more visible in Vasi's etching, compared to the etching of Falda. Yet, it still doesn't meet the grand impression Piranesi gives to the fountain.

2. Explanations found in previous literature

Several theories and explanations have been formulated over the years to explain Piranesi's style, from his working methods to personal views on architecture. Below, a short overview of these theories is given.

2.1 Working Method

In his book Vedute di Roma, Piranesi has collected 135 monumental etchings. Altough the final result of etching and engraving is quite similar, there is a clear difference between the techniques. In engraving, special tools of varying thicknesses and shapes are used to cut lines in the plate. In etching on the other hand, the artist uses a chemical process in which the plate is first covered with an acid resistant ground and then worked with an etching needle.[7]

One reason proposed to explain the differences between his Vedute and the town views of his contemporaries was his particular method. For his etchings, Piranesi would visit his object and make some sketches, but never draw the full scene. Later, when he was in his atelier, he would compose the etching partly from his notebook, partly from his mind. His contemporaries criticized him for it, but Piranesi replied:

I realize that the complete drawing isn't on my drawing paper, however, it is very much in my head and you will see in it's entirely on my etching plate. I would be very upset, don't you see, that if my drawings were finished my etching plate would only become a copy, when on the contrary, I have created the effect on an etching plate, I will have created an original.[8]

Piranesi did not believe in the strength of copying reality, as we do with our modern photography. With the technique described above his echtings would become more than a copy, it will become an original, a work of art created by his mind.

2.2 Piranesi's view on architecture

Piranesi's architectural drawings[11]

A second reason which explains his style was Piranesi's personal view of architecture. Piranesi believed that architecture should impress the people. Therefore, he thought that presenting a truthful representation of the character of the building is more important than drawing each brick accurately. For example, he has left out columns of an ancient Roman temple, because he found repetition dreary.[9] Additionally, he changed perspective to emphasize certain features of buildings, referring to the Roman writer Vitruvius (80 - 15 BC) in the process, who had strongly supported the place of perspective in architecture in his work.[10]

Piranesi's changes of perspective are very clear for the visitor of the pictured scene: try to fit the compositions of his etching in the screen of your modern camera, even with a wide angle camera this is not possible. You won't be the first photographer who has failed.[12] Piranesi composed his etching using sketches made from different, often, elevated, points of view. These numerous sketches he combined to form one image, something that cannot be done with a normal camera, since there are several vanishing points.

Furthermore, Piranesi believed that architecture should be a matter of the people, not of the privileged. Therefore, it should be open and transparent, which can also be seen in his work, as ascribed above. To underscore this point, in his etchings, not the wealthy upper-class is depicted, but the common man, living his daily life. Rome is not a world exposition but a living city where inhabitants are visitors. This mix of appreciation and nonchalance is what Piranesi tried to convey with his use of transparency.[13] Rome's beautiful views are there for everybody to be amazed by and so are Piranesi's prints.

Piranesi as Greek God [16]

2.3 Personal Motives

Finally, some scholars ascribe Piranesi's style primarily to his character and life's objectives. He was afraid to fall into oblivion, and therefore set himself the task of making the most beautiful art, not caring trespassing reality in the progress. He wanted to be known as an great artist, not as a trivial architect (in contrast to his carreer as an artist, his carreer as an architect did not prosper). To give an example of his self-aggrandisement, to one of his books he has added an etching of himself depicted as a Greek god.[14] Another motivation connected to his pursuit of fame could be the money that accompanied this success. His etching plates were designed in a way that allowed a large number of copies to be made from them, therefore being more profitable. He used this income to gain artistic independence, which allowed him to work on another project besides the Vedute, namely the more controversial etchings of the Carceri d'invenzione (imaginary prisons). [15]

These theories are based on the etching of the ancient buildings, but can be applied on the etchting of Piazza Navona as well, if not fully then at least partially.

3. Why has Piranesi changed the reality in his etchings of piazza Navona?

A striking difference between Piranesi and his contemporaries is the role of the people in his etchings. Where other artists like, for example Vasi and Falda focus on the social significance of the public square, the crowd in Piranesi's pictures plays little to no importance. His focus is on the architecture of the buildings. However, truthful representation is not the key of his work: on the contrary, Piranesi's aim is to show his ideal world with perfect architecture to the viewer. The people on the square function only to give the viewer an idea of the size of the buildings. In his effort to compose perfect architecture, he sometimes changes reality, as we have explained above, for example to avoid repetition.

In his own work, there is a contrast as well: he depicts ancient Rome as a ruin, while he represents his contemporary Rome as new and fresh. Some scholars say that he emphasised the breakdown of the old temples because he wanted to show the impermanence of the world. Maybe he wished to make that statement even more eminent by the contrast of the new city. But was that the only reason, given that the argument can be turned around. From this perspective, the contrast that Piranesi created was not to emphasize the collapse of the old city, but to let the new city shine in comparison. Maybe his message was hope for the future, to let people see the beauty of new creations and new architectural accomplishments. This can be argued by the fact that Piranesi published his prints of contemporary buildings next to those of the roman antiquity in the same book.

Another possible answer could be that Piranesi tried to give Rome a good PR for the many foreign visitors of the grand tour. If he would only draw ruins, maybe the appeal and glamour of Rome would fade. That would be bad for everyone's business, including his own. By depicting Rome as a living city and not of as collection of ruins more Grand Tourists would visit, which meant more income from his prints and more importantly more people who could see the magnificence of contemporary Rome. This could have changed how people thought about Rome and its Architecture.

We can also argue that Piranesi tried to mirror the image of Rome to his own image. His contemporary, Georges-Louis Leclerc (1707 - 1788), first described this thinking about work and artist in his famous quote: Le style, C'est le homme. What was created by the artist would reflect the artist himself. This would explain the heroic depictions of Piranesi. [17] In paragraph 2.3 is written how he pictured himself as a Greek god, for his personal PR. Maybe depicting Rome as ruins would diminish his ethos as an artist. For this reason he showed Rome to the people as he wanted to show himself to the people: In all his grandeur and beauty and most of all very much alive with everyone to enjoy it. Architecture is not dead, as is the beauty of Piranesi's prints. While enjoying the these prints, Piranesi focused his audience's view on the architecture.

4. Conclusion

In the previous paragraph, we have given a multiple answers to the question why Piranesi constructed unreality in his etchings. Naturally, at the time we write this, it is impossible to determine Piranesi's true motivations. However, we can make an educated guess. First of all, the books that Piranesi has written about his ideas on art and architecture seem to support the idea that the etchings where not simply a way to make money. The changes in perspective are according to Piranesi's theories about the perfect architecture. Secondly, a part of Piranesi's strategies was to constitute his name as a printmaker. By becoming renown, he added value to his voice, which helped to spread his ideas.

Piranesi tried to convince his audience that contemporary architecture should be held in the same regard as classical architecture. A lot of Piranesi's admirers where young, often foreign, travellers on their Grand Tour through Europe. This group consisted of high educated men with interest in culture and history. Even though the grand tourists were not his only clients, it was especially this group that would discuss Piranesi's ideas and spread them through Europe when returning home. By impressing this audience with his prints, Piranesi made sure that the ideas within his prints would travel through Europe.

To demonstrate the beauty of 18th century Rome, he used multiple techniques to show the magnificence of contemporary buildings. First of all, Piranesi depicts the contemporary buildings with more grandeur and beauty by leaving out detail and exaggerating proportional relation. Second of all, by showing normal people in the prints, Piranesi shows Rome as a living city, not only as an collection of ruins. These two points are both meant to attract attention to the beauty of his contemporary Rome next to that of the ancient ruins.


  1. This quote from Gaius Sallustius Crispus in his Bellum Igurthinium is added by Piranesi to one of his etches in Parere du l'Architecture as defence against his critics.See: Piranesi, G., & Ely, J. (2002). Observations on the letter of Monsieur Mariette: With opinions on architecture, and a preface to a new treatise on the introduction and progress of the fine arts in Europe in ancient times (p. 47). Los Angeles, CA: Getty Research Institute
  2. http://sights.seindal.dk/photo/10098,s205f.html: Rene Seindal, etchings by Piranesi. Retrieved November 29 2014
  3. own collection, taken by Ilse Grasmeijer
  4. Vries, G. (1990). Vedute en Antichità: De openbaarheid als sfeer. In Piranesi en het idee van de prachtige stad (p. 135). Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Duizend & Een.
  5. http://rubens.anu.edu.au/htdocs/bycountry/italy/rome/popolo/pics/0057/P5762.JPG: The Popolo Project, Piazza Navona by Falda. Retrieved November 29 2014
  6. http://www.romeartlover.it/Vasi26na.htmlAbridged history of Rome, Etchings by Vasi. Retrieved November 20 2014
  7. http://www.collectorsguide.com/fa/fa096.shtmlCollectors Guide. Fine-art Etchings and engravings: enduring, distinctive and orignal works of arts. Retrieved February 6 2015
  8. Howe, E. (1995). The Art of exaggeration: Piranesi's perspectives on Rome : Fisher Gallery, University of Southern California, February 22 - April 15, 1995 (p. 62). Los Angeles: The Gallery.
  9. Vries, G. (1990). Paestum: De vorm te buiten. In Piranesi en het idee van de prachtige stad. (p.133) Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Duizend & Een.
  10. Vries, G. (1990). Magnificenza ed Architettura: Piranesi's teksten. In Piranesi en het idee van de prachtige stad (p.89). Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Duizend & Een.
  11. http://www.wikiart.org/en/giovanni-battista-piranesi/set-of-stairs-decorated-with-magnificent-architecture: Wikiart, Set of stairs, decorated with magnificent architecture. Retrieved December 1 2014
  12. Howe, E. (1995). The Art of exaggeration: Piranesi's perspectives on Rome : Fisher Gallery, University of Southern California, February 22-April 15, 1995 (p. 63). Los Angeles: The Gallery.
  13. Vries, G. (1990). Vedute en Antichità: De openbaarheid als sfeer. In Piranesi en het idee van de prachtige stad (p133-134). Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Duizend & Een.
  14. Howe, E. (1995). The Art of exaggeration: Piranesi's perspectives on Rome : Fisher Gallery, University of Southern California, February 22-April 15, 1995 (p. 12). Los Angeles: The Gallery.
  15. Ihle, B. (1953). Etsen van Piranesi, 1720-1778. (Catalogus, samengesteld door B. L. D. Ihle, met medewerking van E. J. Bouten-Klinkhamer. [Vorw.]: J. C. Ebbinge Wubben.) (p. 5). Rotterdam.
  16. http://www.humanitiesweb.org/spa/gcp/ID/541: Self Portrait. Retrieved December 1 2014
  17. from http://library.iyte.edu.tr/tezler/master/mimarlik/T000527.pdf: Ipek, F.(2006, June 1). The archeaological sublime: history and architecture in Piranesi's drawings. Retrieved November 1, 2014