Ancient Then & Ancient Now: Piranesi’s Views of Rome
Giovanni Battista Piranesi spent eight years researching the ancient ruins of Rome before completing his magnum opus, Le Antichità Romane. A complete set of the 220 engravings in four volumes is a highlight in our May 8 auction of Old Master Through Modern Prints.
When it first appeared in 1756, the work established Piranesi’s reputation as an authority of Roman archaeology and architecture. It was a popular purchase among wealthy travelers, mainly British men, on their coming-of-age European Grand Tour. Inspired by the recently discovered ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum and his visit to the sites, Piranesi turned his attention to the ruins still visible in Rome, some already almost 2,000 years old. His aim was both to record the vanishing past for scholars and to inspire contemporary designers to emulate the achievements of ancient Rome.
The books themselves are as monumental as the ancient towers they depict. Each of the four tomes is several inches thick, more than a foot wide and nearly two feet tall. Though most of the images fit within the margins of one page, several span the full spread of the book, and still others fold out to long vistas. The second edition, of which this is an example, includes an engraved dedication page to Gustavus III, King of Sweden, a great patron of Piranesi who funded the project.
The ancient monuments were constructed over a period of 800 years, spanning the Roman Republic (509 to 27 BC) and the Empire (27 BC to 315 AD). By contrast, only about 350 years have elapsed between Piranesi’s lifetime and today.
The interior of the Pantheon, one of the sheets that unfolds
Volume I explores the walls, defenses, aqueducts and public monuments of ancient Rome as they existed in 1756. In Piranesi’s vedute, or views, contemporary Romans use the crumbling structures in their everyday lives; they fish off bridges, worship in the Parthenon and loll around ruins, taking for granted their presence in the city. This volume includes landmarks still visible and in use today.
Trajan’s Column and the Chapel of St. Mary.Photo courtesy of Khan Academy.
Volumes II & III
Volumes II and III include the plans of the Camera Sepolcrali, and are devoted to the extensive remains of sepulchers around Rome. Seventeenth-century noblemen gleefully wander the mausoleums, crypts and catacombs, tiptoeing around skulls and rifling through coffins. This is not the quotidian Rome but a playground of the wealthy. It’s harder to recognize the locations of these plates because their structures are mostly underground and therefore less likely to be explored by modern tourists. Volume III in particular is devoted to maps and architectural studies devoid of human figures and often composed out of Piranesi’s own imagination.
A map of Rome composed of shards of pottery, a conceit devised by Piranesi.
An imaginary view showing examples of ancient Roman decorative styles.
Volume IV concentrates on feats of Roman engineering in the form of bridges and monumental structures such as the Curia Hostilia, the substructure of the Temple of Claudius, Hadrian’s mausoleum (the Castel Sant’Angelo) and the Colosseum.
The Bridge to Castel Sant’Angelo, from the castle.