Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778). “Veduta di Piazza di Spagna,” 1750–1778. Etching on laid paper. Fifth state (?). Plate size: 16 x 23 1/2". Sheet size: 21 x 30". Signed in plate l.r. margin: Piranesi Archiletto fec. Minor spotting and toning in margins; old tape residue. Overall excellent condition.
The son of a stonemason, Giovanni Piranesi was born in Venice and went to Rome in 1740 to study architecture and engraving. He also studied archaeology, engineering, and theatrical set design, the latter of which may have contributed to the distinctive use of light and shade and the exaggerations of scale that are hallmarks of Piranesi’s unusual etching style. His dramatic images of buildings and ruins have a power and expressiveness not present in the standard topographical views produced by his contemporaries.
Although perhaps Piranesi’s most discussed etchings are those of his visionary Prison series (Carceri), his Views of Rome (Vedute di Roma), produced as single prints between 1748 and 1778, are his best-known mature works. Comprising 135 large-scale etchings of the buildings of classical and post-classical Rome, this series contributed considerably to the city’s fame and to the rise of Neoclassicism in art, architecture, and interior design in the second half of the eighteenth century. Piranesi’s dynamic compositions, bold lighting effects, and dramatic presentation shaped European conceptions to the extent that Goethe, who had come to know Rome through Piranesi’s prints, was somewhat disappointed on his first encounter with the real thing. The artist’s technical mastery made these prints some of the most original and impressive representations of architecture to be found in Western art.
One of the earliest images in the series on Rome is the print offered here depicting Piranesi’s sweeping view of the Piazza di Spagna. The piazza, with its famous long staircase known as the Spanish Steps, has been the destination of foreigners to Rome for centuries. Formed from two sharp triangles that meet at the points, the piazza is actually two “squares”—in fact, in Piranesi’s time, only the southern half was called Piazza di Spagna (after the Spanish embassy to the Holy See). The steps connect the piazza to the Trinità dei Monti, a French church built in the 16th century. Interestingly, Piranesi chose to place the dramatic steps to one side of his composition, focusing instead on the intriguing fountain that sits at the base of the stairway. This is a fascinating compositional decision, likely appealing to the artist’s sense of the theatrical, as the fountain, la Fontana della Barcaccia, is known for its peculiar features. The design features a boat set at street level, built as a symbol of survival inspired by an incident in 1598 when a small boat was found intact after a devastating flood. By distorting the scale of the fountain and the perspective of the piazza, Piranesi gives the fountain dramatic prominence far beyond its actual relationship with its setting.
The present print appears to be a lifetime impression, possibly state V based upon the criteria outlined by Arthur Hind in his catalogue of Piranesi’s Views of Rome. Beginning the series in 1748, Piranesi continued to produce new plates and publish editions of it until his death in 1778.
Piranesi’s highly theatrical view of the Piazzi di Spagna is a strong and desirable impression from his most important architectural series.
Refs.: Arthur M. Hind, Giovanni Battista Piranesi: A Critical Study with a List of his Published Works and Detailed Catalogues of the Prisons and the Views of Rome (New York: Da Capo Press, 1967), pp. 1–5, 70, cat. no. 18, plate XI (first Paris edition).