Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Italian, 1720-1778)

Spaccato interno della Basilica di San Paolo fuori delle mura., n.d.

Spaccato interno della Basilica di San Paolo fuori delle mura., n.d.

Etching and engraving 17 1/8 in. x 25 in. (43.5 cm x 63.5 cm)

Crocker Art Museum, gift of Rhea and Dan Brunner


  • One of the most important Italian printmakers of the 18th century, Giovanni Battista Piranesi concentrated on rendering ancient, modern, and even imaginary buildings. Born on the terra ferma near Venice, he was trained as an architect but rarely practiced; only one late church survives. At the age of twenty, he traveled to Rome in the company of the Venetian ambassador, and during his first three years in the city he learned etching and engraving. The city captivated his imagination, and he settled there permanently in 1747. His first imaginary works, the Carceri d’invenzione, which incorporated Roman architectural ideas into fantastic settings, date from 1745, when he was still in Venice, and prepared his way in the Roman printmaking world.
    In Rome, Piranesi became obsessed with depicting both the ancient and modern city, devoting himself to careful measurement before creating his monumental views. These two belong to the Vedute di Roma series begun in the late 1740s. The interior of the basilica of Saint Paul outside the walls shows its frescoes, papal portraits, and imperial Roman marble columns before their destruction by fire in 1823. The artist’s attention to architectural proportion and detail engage the viewer as a participant in the scene alongside beggars, dogs, and groups of noble men and women.
    Piranesi’s skills are employed differently in the view of the palace of the Sacra Consulta, the papal tribunal, now the seat of the Italian constitutional court. All but ignoring the palace’s situation on top of the Quirinal hill, he chooses an oblique viewpoint that enlivens the composition. As in the view of Saint Paul’s, Piranesi’s exacting technique enables him to create volume, light, and shadow purely through the use of etching and engraving, virtuoso effects that are especially evident in these early impressions.

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