Ambition: Piranesi

“I need to produce great ideas, and I believe that if I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would be mad enough to undertake it.” -Piranesi


Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) was raised in Venice and trained as an architect. Today, we remember him for his extraordinarily ambitious prints, drawn on copper plates. Piranesi’s famous series, Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome) aimed to celebrate the magnificence of his adopted city, and to draw appreciation to its crumbling ancient ruins. He was critical of contemporary architecture and often used his drawings to contrast the old and new structures of his times. He earned his living selling his prints.

A genius of intense and passionate character, Piranes produced over a thousand etchings, which were better engraved, printed on finer paper and larger -some of the two feet wide- than any by his contemporaries.” “His visionary yet accurate depictions frequently depended on the use of a complete panoramic spread of 180 degrees and an imaginary viewpoint far above ground level. It is as though a modern film camera has swept across the scene.


Piranesi’s engravings repay detailed study, for he took delight in the contrast between the timeless ruins, encrusted with feathery weeds, and the modern life around them, including tumble-donee stables, carts, massive oxen, wiry goats, pack-horses and yapping dogs. The pictures are also alive with a small army of peasants, beggars, cripples, shepherds, laborers and tradesmen, while ladies and gentleman of a higher social status disport themselves just below the capitals of the largely buried Temple of Vespasian all humans being drawn deliberately small to emphasize the grandeur of the architecture.

Piranese’s engravings made such an impact on visitors such as Goethe and Flaxman that they confessed finding the actual ruins disappointing in comparison. from The Roman Forum by David Watkin


“I do dare that, like Horace, I have executed a work that will go down to posterity, and which will endure for as long as there are men desirous of knowing all that has survived till our day of the ruins of the most famous city of the universe” -Piranesi

Further Observation
It seems that the artist’s tireless devotion to his work and his identification with the grandeur of Rome never flagged, for on the day of his death, Piranesi reportedly refused to rest: saying that repose was unworthy of a citizen of Rome, he spent his last hours busy among his drawings and copperplates. – Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), Thematic Essay, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art



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