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  Giovanni Battista Piranesi. “Veduta in prospettiva della gran Fontana dell’ Acqua Vergine detta di Trevi...” 1800-1807.  
Piranesi, Trevi Fountain

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778). “Veduta in prospettiva della gran Fontana dell’ Acqua Vergine detta di Trevi Architecttura [Fontana di Trevi. Front View].” Etching on laid paper. First Paris edition, 1800–1807. Plate size: 18 3/4 x 26". Sheet size: 21 3/4 x 32". Signed in plate l. l. margin: Cavalier Piranesi F. Minor chipping and toning in margins; professionally stabilized corner tear at u. r. 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.

Among Piranesi’s best-known images in the series on Rome is the print offered here depicting his baroque interpretation of the Fontana di Trevi, the most famous and arguably the most spectacular fountain in Rome. In his etching, Piranesi capitalized on the inherent qualities of the fountain: the imaginative concept, the theatrical composition, and the sober and imposing beauty of the Neptune in his chariot drawn by sea horses. The impressive monument dominates the small Trevi Square and is the terminus of the Vergine aqueduct built in 19 B.C. to bring the waters of the Salone Springs to Rome.

In 1732, Pope Clement XII commissioned Nicoli Salvi to create a large fountain at Trevi Square. A previous undertaking to build the fountain after a design by Bernini was halted a century earlier by the death of Pope Urban VIII. Salvi based his masterpiece on the earlier design, exploiting the characteristics of the site in order to increase the sensation of wonderment. He purposely exaggerated the size of the fountain within its tiny square and set its façade almost entirely against the face of the Palazzo Poli. Taking his compositional cues from Salvi, Piranesi distorts the scale and perspective of the square and the fountain’s imposing façade to increase its dramatic effect, attempting to recreate its spatial theatricality in two dimensions and succeeding rather well.

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 highly theatrical view of the Trevi Fountain 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. 104, plate LVI (first Paris edition).

Copyright 2003, William R. Talbot