Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778). “Veduta dell’insigne Basilica Vaticana coll’ ampio Portico, e Piazza adjacente [St. Peter’s with Forecourt and Colonnades, a Bird’s-Eye View].” Etching on laid paper. First Paris edition, 1800–1807. Plate size: 18 3/4 x 28". Sheet size: 21 3/4 x 32". Signed in plate l.r. margin: Cavaliere Piranesi delin. ed. inc. Old toning and soiling along sheet edges; old damp stain in l.r. corner. 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, these images 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 unparalleled accuracy of depiction, his personal expression of the structures’ "noble simplicity and calm grandeur" (in the words of the art historian Johann J. Winckelmann), and his technical mastery made these prints some of the most original and impressive representations of architecture to be found in Western art.
The last of several views that Piranesi made of St. Peter’s Basilica in the course of his Rome series, the print offered here is one of the artist’s most famous. It is a remarkably rendered bird’s-eye view of St. Peter’s church and the enormous elliptical piazza that stretches out before it. By distorting the scale and perspective of the square and the colonnade that defines it, Piranesi conveys Bernini’s intention for the space to enclose the visitor with “the material arms of Mother Church.”
The present print appears to be from the Paris edition of 1800–1807. Following Piranesi’s death in 1778, his children carried on his publications in Rome until 1798. Two years later, the artist’s sons moved to Paris, taking with them their father’s original copper plates and from their new location reissuing his prints until 1839 when the Camera Apostolica bought the plates.
Piranesi’s magnificent view of St. Peter’s and its forecourt 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. 120, plate LXIV (first Paris edition).