Piranesi Unbound

In Piranesi Unbound Carolyn Yearkes and Heather Hyde Minor reframe discussion of Piranesi not as solely or principally as a printmaker/artist but “as a writer, illustrator, printer, and publisher of books”. They posit that the product was ultimately the book rather than individual prints or – in our age of catalogues raisonnés and universal access to a lifetime’s oeuvre – a body of prints, and that consequently it was the individual books that provided Piranesi’s a metric of his own success. Our consumption of Piranesi’s art has distorted our appreciation of it and left us ill-equipped to understand how Piranesi saw his work.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) arrived from Venice aged 20, with an ambition to become an architect. His skill for as an architectural draughtsman led to him recording the ruins of Rome in his painterly, exaggerated picturesque style in drawings and etchings. His books of etchings – mainly the Views of Rome and Imaginary Prisons – presented architectural views and fragments of antiquity, which came from Piranesi’s efforts as an archaeologist-antiquarian.

Piranesi produced prints for authors but soon moved to producing prints of his own subjects, both individually and bound as books. He collaborated with scholars on texts for his books, later writing alone. The texts assisted in selling bound collections of prints by adding intellectual coherence to views of disparate buildings and antiquities. The authors outline Piranesi’s career and method of operation. His drawing on the spot before motifs was complemented by invented and observed figures. Piranesi etchings often have diminutive figures to demonstrate the size of buildings; they also exhort viewers to behold the wonders of the ancients. Numerous illustrations show us sketches where the artist refines ideas and improvises.

The authors analyse Piranesi as a book producer. A chapter covers the way Piranesi used off-prints, faulty sheets and test proofs as waste paper on which he would sketch. (Over 60 sketches on printed sheets are extant.) It is significant that Piranesi had to send sheets to a book printer in order to have text printed. Although specialist engravers could cut letters on to figural plates, for whole pages of text, moveable type was required, which was under the purview of a text printer. “No matter how successful he became, Piranesi never owned a letterpress. Printing with movable type set in trays and printing from copperplates were two distinct specialities in eighteenth-century Rome, requiring different presses and teams of skilled laborers.” Type printing was relief matrix and copperplate was intaglio (recessed) matrix.

The printed sheets used for sketches are analysed, with sources identified. (Not all the sources are Piranesi’s books.) The artist designed his own letterforms and etched decorative vignettes of initial capital letters. The authors note that cataloguers have paid inconsistent attention to these vignettes, the plates for which have been lost. “Reference works on Piranesi’s prints typically divorce images from their texts, summarizing his books as lists of illustrations, and organizational problems abound within them.”

Copies of Piranesi’s books were bound once they were sold, with presumably sample books held by Piranesi’s publisher-bookseller. Many collectors had books bound to their own specifications, sometimes with a family escutcheon. There is discussion of the various patrons who supported Piranesi. Many were British gentlemen on the Grand Tour. Researchers will welcome the list of dedicatees of extant (and some lost) copies of Lettere di giustificazione scritte a Milord Charlemont (1757), which forms a summary of Piranesi’s patrons. “From the individual copies emerges a sweeping panorama of the artist’s professional world. Patrons and clients, printers and artists, nobles and clergy: all of them appear within the small frame of Piranesi’s dedicatory print.” Thumbnail biographies are accompanied by portraits. Fittingly, Piranesi Unbound is profusely illustrated and well designed.

The author’s note the way Piranesi reflected objects of antiquity and cast letters (from Roman inset inscriptions and contemporary cast type) in his prints, playing with illusionism. This is also seen in Piranesi’s texts illustrated as carved inscriptions on ruined stonework. On the title page of Lapides Capitolini sive Fasti Consulares Triumphalesque Romanorum (1762) has the form of a carved tablet with seals and coins placed on it. “When Piranesi etched or engraved a coin, he almost always showed it life-sized, or near life-sized, reveling in the verisimilitude of having an impressed object appear as if set down on the paper.” Piranesi was forever etching real and invented inscriptions on depictions of objects, demonstrating his playful creativity and visual wit.     

Hampering appreciated of Piranesi as book maker is the fact that many books have been split up and pages either separated for display or dispersed. Piranesi himself sold individual sheets to buyers who did not want or could not afford entire books. The chapter on the binding of Piranesi’s books includes photographs of the sumptuous bindings: leather with gilded figures and borders. There is a photograph of a copy that has had most of its pages cut out. These are aptly called “carcasses”. A chapter deals with the fate of prints, books and plates following the artist’s death. It seems Piranesi’s books were acquired by antiquarians, historians and numismatical experts, as well as by artists and architects.

There is a point here that applies to all art. We are becoming accustomed to the dematerialised digitised art work. Even if we are consuming art on the printed page, the image has been through digitisation and tweaking. Sizes have been adjusted to suit the page, tones altered to be optimised through a printing press, margins have been trimmed and straightened. Viewing art on a computer screen may allow greater flexibility in viewing and increased resolution, but it further translates a physical item into an arrangement of pixels. Even those of us who have seen or handled original prints, there is a certain relief about the printed illustration or computer file. We do not have to take care handling a printed sheet; we do not have to make an appointment and travel to a library to study an image; we can flip instantly between pictures and access unique works we could never see in person. There is a certain eager resignation to accept that art-as-object can be viably supplanted by art-as-image and there are advantages that cannot be gainsaid in the advances in printing and internet image access.

Piranesi Unbound is a thoroughly researched and stimulating discursive study of Piranesi as a creator and seller of books. This will be a valuable book for students of Piranesi, book arts and patronage in Eighteenth-Century Rome.  

Carolyn Yearkes and Heather Hyde Minor, Piranesi Unbound, Princeton University Press, 2020, hardback, 240pp, fully illus., $65/£54, ISBN 978 0 691 20610 3

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art


[i] P. 4

[ii] P. 15

[iii] P. 72

[iv] P. 125

[v] P. 110