The Project Gutenberg eBook of Selected etchings by Piranesi, by Charles Herbert Reilly

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Title: Selected etchings by Piranesi

Editor: Charles Herbert Reilly

Artist: Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Release Date: March 29, 2023 [eBook #70405]

Language: English

Produced by: Tim Lindell, Charlie Howard, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at (This file was produced from images generously made available by The Internet Archive/Canadian Libraries)


Transcriber’s Note

Larger versions of most illustrations may be seen by right-clicking them and selecting an option to view them separately, or by double-tapping and/or stretching them.

Transcriber included the plate numbers in their captions.

Cover image created by Transcriber, using the title page and an illustration from the original book. Result remains in the Public Domain.

Series I.


Selected Etchings

With an Introduction
C. H. Reilly, m.a., f.r.i.b.a.,
Roscoe Professor of Architecture, The University of Liverpool.




1. Title-page to the “Vedute di Roma.” (Pub. Rome 1751.)
2. Composition of Ruins.
3. Bas-relief from the Portico of the Church of the Apostles, Rome.
4. Antique bas-relief from Naples.
5. Trophy of Arms.
6. Design for a Grand Staircase.
7. Design for a Sculpture Gallery.
8. Design for the Mausoleum of a Roman Emperor.
9. Sketch Design.
10. Composition.
Views of Roman Buildings.
11. Pyramid of C. Cestius, Appian Way.
12. Temple of Hercules, Cora.
13. Basilica of Maxentius, Rome.
14. The Capitol,
15. The Capitol, Rome.
16. The Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine, Rome.
17. The Colosseum.
18. Tomb of Hadrian (Castle of St. Angelo).
19. Ponte Molle, Rome.
20. The Temple of Vesta at Tivoli.
21. Interior of the Pantheon.
22. Gallery in Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli.
23. Ponte St. Angelo.
24. Temple of Concord, Rome.
25. Interior of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.
26. Piazza Navona, Rome.
27. View of the Churches of the Madonna di Loreto and Santa Maria, by Trajan’s Column, Rome.
28. Piazza of St. Peter’s, Rome.
29. Antique Equestrian statues (Castor and Pollux) on the Quirinal, Rome.
30. The Quirinal, Rome.
Imaginary Roman Prisons.
31. Etching from the series of imaginary Roman Prisons.
32. Ditto.
Vases, Tripods, &c.vii
33. Vase from “Vasi Candelabri.” (Pub. Rome 1778.)
34. Vase from ditto.
35. Vase from ditto.
36. Vase from ditto.
37. Vase and tripod from ditto.
38. Vase and pedestal from ditto.
39. Tripod from “Vasi Candelabri.”
40. Tripod and bas-relief from ditto.
41. Tripod from ditto.
42. Lamp from ditto.
43. Vases from ditto.
44. Altar from ditto.
45. Design for Chimneypiece from “Diverse Maniere.”
46. Ditto.
47. Ditto.
48. Ditto.
49. Ditto.
50. Design for a Chimneypiece and clock from “Diverse Maniere.”



Architecturally speaking, we live at a time somewhat similar to that in which the genius of Piranesi first made its impact upon English designers. In the latter half of the eighteenth century English architects and patrons were alike growing a little tired of pure Palladianism. The novelty and spirit of Inigo Jones’s work had given place to the uninspired correctness of Campbell, Kent, and a host of lesser disciples. Restrained and elegant as the work of those architects appears to modern eyes, after the debauch of “free Classic” from which we are now emerging, it is nevertheless true that, at that time, the English Palladian formula was nearly exhausted. The circuses and crescents of Bath, with their unfluted columns and dull ornament, their endless repetitions of correct features, could not be indefinitely extended. The early Georgian houses, so comfortable in the country, began to look a little coarse and provincial in London streets, particularly to those who had taken the Grand Tour.


What more natural, then, that architects should turn again to the source and fountainhead from which Palladio had drawn his inspiration, to see whether it had anything fresh to yield?

The practising architect in England at the end of the eighteenth century required, however, a cicerone to the remains of the antique world just as much as his predecessor did in the seventeenth century. The seventeenth-century architect chose Palladio as his guide; the architect in the latter part of the eighteenth century chose Piranesi. Naturally, the lesson taught was somewhat different. The eighteenth-century architect was much further advanced in scholarship. Palladio gave the main proportions of the Orders and the principles of composition. He laid down definite rules and precepts suitable to beginners. His was the first-year work, to use a school simile. Piranesi takes the scholars of the later years and initiates them into all the mysteries of ornament and stylistic character. Offering no pedantic rules, he makes a direct appeal to the imagination of his students. He reveals to them not only the power but the intimate spirit of the Roman world. He offers them whole collections of vases and candelabra to use or not asx they like. He unlocks a treasure-house—a library full of fresh detail. The detail, too, is rich, complex detail, safe only in the hands of the discerning. But Piranesi’s students in England at that time were fit to profit by such a master; among his more attentive scholars being Robert Adam, Chambers, Dance, and many other architects of the late eighteenth century, and through these he influenced the decorative designers from Chippendale to Pergolesi. Mr. Phene Spiers, not without a certain hyperbole, traces the Empire Style to Piranesi’s designs for chimneypieces. At any rate it is safe to say that the new vigour and life which came into English architecture with the work of Chambers and Adam was derived from a more thorough and complete knowledge of Roman architecture, and that the chief source of that knowledge was the vast collection of thirteen hundred or more engraved plates which Piranesi etched and published at the marvellous rate of one a fortnight throughout a fairly long life.

Now, if any coherence at all can be seen in the trend of modern English architecture, we seem at the present moment to be just as dissatisfied with mere Palladianism as were the architects of the end of the eighteenth century. Like them, too, we are lookingxi for a more complete expression of the Classic spirit. To us, therefore, Piranesi may have a very similar lesson. The unfortunate thing, however, is that his etchings, a few years ago so easy to obtain, are daily becoming more rare and expensive. A collection of the best of those issued during the artist’s lifetime could hardly be made to-day for less than a couple of hundred pounds. The Paris reprints which his son issued in 1815 might be obtained for half that sum, but to the ordinary practitioner this may be considered as half infinity. Even Mr. Keith Young’s massive volume of reproductions costs several pounds. The days of Robert Adam were the days when architects were few and patrons were rich. Our own times are less happy in that respect, but they are nevertheless the days of unrivalled opportunity. Piranesi is the magician who can show what opportunities may become; more especially as the process block, albeit lacking in the marvellous gradations of tone and feeling of the original etchings, renders it possible to publish at small cost such a series as are comprised in this volume.

The following are the main facts of Piranesi’s career as far as they are known:—

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, to give him his full name, was born in Venice in the yearxii 1720. His father Angelo pursued the honourable calling of a stonemason, so suited to the progenitor of an architect. His mother was sister to an engineer and architect named Lucchesi, and it was to him that young Piranesi was articled. In his early years he seems to have been something of an enfant prodigue and is reported to have been able to draw the architecture of Venice at the age of eight. At eighteen he persuaded his parents to send him to Rome, and ever after, although signing himself “Venetian Architect,” he remained at work in that city. At first, in his desire to obtain a firm grasp on the technique of the graphic arts, he seems to have attached himself to various masters. The story is told that he threatened one of these masters, Vasi, with the loss of his life because he imagined that some secret in the process of etching was being withheld from him. Such a story, whether true or not, together with the later one that he saw for the first time and married his wife within the space of one week, fits in well enough with the impetuous temperament and fine fury of work which all the etchings exhibit. The numerous controversies in which he was engaged in later years, sometimes involving the erasure of names from dedication and title-pages, are all evidencexiii of the same characteristics—characteristics which may have made him, according to modern standards, a poor archæologist, but which were not without value to the artist and teacher of artists.

In 1741, when twenty-one years of age, Piranesi published his first etchings, four compositions of ruins, afterwards included in his Opere Varie, issued by Bouchard at Rome in 1750. In 1748 he published his Antichità Romane de’ Tempi della Repubblica e de’ primi Imperatori, etc., containing thirty plates of triumphal arches, amphitheatres, and other ancient structures, mostly from places other than Rome. The price of this volume (Mr. Samuel informs us in his admirable book) was 16 paoli, or about 13s. 4d., which shows for how small a contemporary reward Piranesi had to work. In 1750 Bouchard published his Opere Varie, which contained a number of his imaginative designs for great halls, staircases and monuments, as well as his famous series of prison dreams—the Carceri d’Invenzione. From this time onwards followed in quick succession an immense number of etchings grouped somewhat irregularly in great folio volumes with varying engraved title-pages. The Raccolta di Varie Vedute (Rome 1751) contains ninety-three small views and includes work by Israelxiv Silvestre and other etchers. This volume must not be confused with the Vedute di Roma, in two volumes, containing large title-pages and one hundred and thirty-seven plates, thirty-four of which were published in 1751, under the title Le Magnificenze di Roma le più remarcabili.

Perhaps Piranesi’s greatest work, in both size and importance, is Le Antichità Romane, in four volumes, containing a varying number of plates from 216–224. This was first issued in 1756.

In 1761, he etched four plates for Robert Adam illustrating the latter’s design for Sion House, and in 1769 he published his Diverse Maniere d’Adornare, in which appear the ornate but very stimulating designs for chimneypieces, referred to above. Of his remaining works, perhaps the most important to architects is the Vasi Candelabri Cippi Sarcofagi Tripodi Lucerne ed ornamenti Antichi, to give it its full title, which was published in Rome in 1778—the year of his death. This contains a series of magnificent drawings of antiques, largely from his own collection. A great number of these drawings are dedicated to various English gentlemen, each described as “a lover of the fine arts,” which is proof of the interest Englishmen were already taking in Piranesi and his work.


In addition to the foregoing, Piranesi published a number of monographs on special subjects illustrated with etchings. Among these are the volumes on Trajan’s Column, the Theatre at Herculaneum, Hadrian’s Villa, and the Temples at Pæstum, all of which are more noticeable for the boldness of the draughtsmanship than for the archæological views they set forth. It must not be imagined, however, because Piranesi was the interpreter of the romance of the Roman ruins, and through this very romance fired the imagination of Europe, that he was not when he liked an exact draughtsman. The cracks on the obelisk shown in the foreground of his etching of Santa Maria Maggiore tally with those shown in a photograph taken one hundred and fifty years later.

In April, 1757, Piranesi was elected an honorary Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, which is another proof of the esteem in which he was held in England. He was knighted by Pope Clement XIII. in 1767. He died in 1778, and is buried in the church of Santa Maria Aventina.

Of his five children, Francesco (b. 1748) and Laura (b. 1750) etched in their father’s manner and assisted him in his work. After his death, however, they took to print-sellingxvi rather than creative work, though Francesco still etched plates on his own account. In 1798 he packed up his father’s copper-plates and took them to Paris. During an adventurous journey they fell into the hands of an English Admiral, who, however, knowing the fame of the father, unfortunately restrained his first impulse to throw the plates overboard. It was unfortunate because on arrival in Paris Francesco was able, with the help of the French Government, to republish from the old plates a new edition of his father’s work, which, from the state of the plates, for many years did considerable damage to Piranesi’s fame as an etcher. The plates exist at the present day, and it is believed that prints are still occasionally struck from them. Now, however, the difference between the original Roman impressions and the later Paris ones is well understood, and Piranesi’s renown never stood higher than it does to-day. His son died in 1810.

The plates here reproduced are from the author’s collection, with the exception of the designs for chimneypieces, which have been kindly lent by Mr. Batsford.

C. H. Reilly.


Plate 1: Title-page to the “Vedute di Roma.” (Pub. Rome 1751.)
Plate 2: Composition of Ruins.


Plate 3: Bas-relief from the Portico of the Church of the Apostles, Rome.


Plate 4: Antique bas-relief from Naples.


Plate 5: Trophy of Arms.


Plate 6: Design for a Grand Staircase.


Plate 7: Design for a Sculpture Gallery.


Plate 8: Design for the Mausoleum of a Roman Emperor.


Plate 9: Sketch Design.


Plate 10: Composition.


Plate 11: Pyramid of C. Cestius, Appian Way.


Plate 12: Temple of Hercules, Cora.


Plate 13: Basilica of Maxentius, Rome.


Plate 14: The Capitol, Rome.


Plate 15: The Capitol.


Plate 16: The Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine, Rome.


Plate 17: The Colosseum.


Plate 18: Tomb of Hadrian (Castle of St. Angelo).


Plate 19: Ponte Molle, Rome.


Plate 20: The Temple of Vesta at Tivoli.


Plate 21: Interior of the Pantheon.



Plate 22: Gallery in Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli.
Plate 23: Ponte St. Angelo.


Plate 24: Temple of Concord, Rome.


Plate 25: Interior of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.


Plate 26: Piazza Navona, Rome.



Plate 27: View of the Churches of the Madonna di Loreto and Santa Maria, by Trajan’s Column, Rome.


Plate 28: Piazza of St. Peter’s, Rome.
Plate 29: Antique Equestrian Statues (Castor and Pollux) on the Quirinal, Rome.


Plate 30: The Quirinal, Rome.


Plate 31: Etching from the Series of Imaginary Roman Prisons.


Plate 32: Etching from the Series of Imaginary Roman Prisons.



Plate 33: Vase from the “Vasi Candelabri.”


Plate 34: Vase from the “Vasi Candelabri.”


Plate 35: Vase from the “Vasi Candelabri.”


Plate 36: Vase from the “Vasi Candelabri.”


Plate 37: Vase and Tripod from the “Vasi Candelabri.”


Plate 38: Vase and Pedestal from the “Vasi Candelabri.”


Plate 39: Tripod from the “Vasi Candelabri.”


Plate 40: Tripod and bas-relief from the “Vasi Candelabri etc.”


Plate 41: Tripod from the “Vasi Candelabri.”


Plate 42: Lamp from the “Vasi Candelabri.”


Plate 43: Vases from the “Vasi Candelabri.”


Plate 44: Altar from the “Vasi Candelabri.”


Plate 45: Design for Chimneypiece and Grate from the “Diverse Maniere.”


Plate 46: Design for Chimneypiece from the “Diverse Maniere.”


Plate 47: Design for Chimneypiece from the “Diverse Maniere.”


Plate 48: Design for Chimneypiece from the “Diverse Maniere.”


Plate 49: Design for Chimneypiece from the “Diverse Maniere.”


Plate 50: Design for Chimneypiece and Clock from the “Diverse Maniere.”



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Staircase in Cromwell House, Highgate (4 plates).

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The Architects’ and Builders’ Journal.

Continuous progress has marked “The Architects’ and Builders’ Journal,” which may now claim to be the most up-to-date, the most widely read, and the best illustrated of all the architectural and building weeklies. Every issue includes a set of no fewer than six large photographic plates of architectural subjects, together with a double-page plate illustrating a measured or working drawing. Articles dealing with all phases of architecture and building are contributed by well-known men in the profession, while editorial notes deal trenchantly with current topics of professional interest.

Special attention is given to constructional subjects, all important new works being illustrated by means of photographs and drawings, with accompanying letterpress. Thus, the practical side of building is represented equally with the subject of architectural design.

A very complete list of Contracts Open is published every week, together with full particulars of all projected new works, competitions, etc.

Two other valuable features are the Special Law Reports, dealing succinctly with all cases of importance, and “Inquiries Answered,” under which heading experts furnish advice on various problems raised by correspondents.

Can be obtained of all Newsagents and Booksellers.
Published Weekly.   Price 2d.   Every Wednesday.
About 52 pages weekly.   12½ in. by 8¾ in.

Annual Subscription—Post Free Rates: England, 10/10;
Canada, $3.20; America, $4.75; Abroad, 19/6.

The Liverpool Sketch Book.

“The Liverpool Sketch Book” records a selection of the best designs and measured drawings executed by students of the School of Architecture of the Liverpool University. This School of Architecture, under the direction of Professor C. H. Reilly, M.A., F.R.I.B.A., has become closely identified with the modern movement for the development of classical design and the careful study of monumental work. It is conducted on the most scholarly lines, embodying the best methods of the French and American schools, and the results achieved have been approved by all the leading men of the profession.

The illustrations in “The Sketch Book” are beautifully printed on thick art paper, and the volumes will be found particularly interesting and useful to all students. In view of the fact that for the Final Examination of the R.I.B.A. four testimonies of study are now required, the designs and details illustrated in these volumes, which show how similar problems have been dealt with, should be found of the greatest possible value.

In addition to work by present students of the School, and the work of the Travelling Scholars, that of its old students, and others connected with it directly or only sympathetically, is also included, the object being to present a consistent and definite architectural outlook rather than a mere collection of drawings.

Vol. I. Out of print. 1910.
Vol. II. Price 5/- nett. 140 pages (enlarged edn.) 1911.
Vol. III. Price 2/6 nett. 120 pages (enlarged edn.) 1913.

Who’s Who in Architecture.

This new volume, which makes its first appearance in 1914, will take its place henceforth as a work of reference for everyone connected with architecture and building. Perhaps its greatest attraction lies in the fact that it occupies a sort of midway position between the biography and the directory, possessing all the personal interest of the one and all the detailed information of the other. The societies have their list of members, and the directories give, more or less correctly, the names and addresses of architects in practice, but the information thus presented is of the baldest description, and quite devoid of all personal attraction. “Who’s Who in Architecture” is of far greater interest and value. It gives a succinct account of all the most notable men in the profession—their training, achievements, etc.—and not only of the leading men, but also of the many architects who have done important work without having had the attention of the profession directed to it. The book also gives addresses, etc., and as the list of architects is a thoroughly comprehensive one, “Who’s Who in Architecture” thus fulfils a dual purpose as—

(1) A personal record of members of the profession, and

(2) A list of architects practising in the United Kingdom.

Hence it is a volume which every architect needs to have on his shelf.

One Volume. Price 10s. 6d. NETT.

Some Famous Buildings and their Story.

By A. W. Clapham, f.s.a., and W. H. Godfrey.

Buildings that have been the scene of historical events, or have played a distinctive part in the development of national life, are commonly dealt with either at length in a most unattractive style, or dismissed in a few sentences embodying dates and particulars which are frequently inaccurate. Thus, the general reader finds himself confronted with two extremes, alike unsatisfactory. It was with the express object of correcting these deficiencies in respect of certain famous buildings that the authors compiled the series of short papers which constitute the volume under notice. They have been at great pains in their task, and, as the result of much original research, a flood of fresh light is thrown upon the subjects dealt with, every chapter adding some new fact to previous knowledge, or reproducing some hitherto unknown or neglected plan. In this way we have set before us, by means of description and illustration, the most remarkable of all Henry VIII.’s palaces—Nonsuch, in Surrey, whose wanton destruction was probably the heaviest loss which English architecture has suffered since the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The Tower of London, dealt with in another chapter, offers a wealth of interest when critical research and architectural acumen are brought into play, and in the same way the Royal Palace of Eltham, Northumberland House, Sir Thomas More’s House at Chelsea, the Fortune Theatre, Barking Abbey, and other famous buildings are dealt with.

One Volume. 5s. NETT. 275 pages.


Colophon: Technical Journals Limited


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