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Permanent Recollections: Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s work at MoFA

Published September 6, 2023

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 – 1778) was a Venetian draughtsman and architect, known for his finely detailed etchings of a variety of architectural themes, both real and imagined. From a young age, Piranesi possessed a fascination with the art and architecture of classical antiquity (particularly that of Greece, Rome, and Egypt) and sought to incorporate them into his own creative pursuits, both architectural and artistic.

Piranesi, Giovanni Battista/1720-1778, Plate XXIII from Le Antichita Romane (The Roman Antiquities), PRINT, 1756, mat: 19 7/8 x 15 3/4; sheet: 9 x 14; image: 5 x 8

He is perhaps best known for the Vedute di Roma (or Views of Rome) – a series of 135 etched illustrations of ancient Roman ruins – most of which were produced and published over the course of several decades until his death in 1778. Notably, these works often juxtapose the lingering austerity of the ruins with the decay and overgrowth surrounding them. In many ways, this considerable body of work serves not only as a solemn memorialization of classical antiquity’s distant heights, but as a reverent testament to its enduring grandeur and legacy.

Piranesi, Giovanni Battista/1720-1778, Sepolcro di Cecilia Metella, from Vedute di Roma (The Tomb of Caecilia Metella, from The Views of Rome), 1762, PRINT, sheet: 22 7/8 x 32; image: 18 x 25 1/4 inches

In 1745, Piranesi began work on the Carceri d’invenzione (or Imaginary Prisons), a series of 14 (later 16) etchings depicting the dark, nightmarish halls of fictitious prison landscapes. In these works, Piranesi leverages his intimate knowledge of architecture and draughtsmanship to conjure dreamlike worlds that feel at once tangible, yet impossible – real, but unreal. They are spaces which on their surface seem to make sense, but upon closer inspection make no real sense at all. These works, by way of this spatial contradiction, instill at once an atmosphere of crushing oppressiveness and inescapable breadth.

Piranesi, Giovanni Battista/1720-1778, Veduta del Sepolcro di Cajo Cefio from Vedute di Roma, PRINT, first state 1755, framed: 24 x 29 1/2; image: 16 x 21 inches

Though Piranesi is most often considered an artist of the Neoclassical period for his affinity for classical subject matter, these later works are distinct for their fascination with the imagination and the invocation of Sublime terror – characteristics which would come to be broadly associated with the Romantic period some decades later. Because of this, Piranesi’s body of work is sometimes regarded as something of a bridge between the two periods. Piranesi, on the imaginative nature of his work, is often cited as having said, “I need to produce great ideas, and I believe that if I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would be mad enough to undertake it.”


Hind, A. M. “Giovanni Battista Piranesi and His Carceri.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 19, no. 98 (1911): 81–91.

Rosenfeld, Myra Nan. “Picturesque to Sublime: Piranesi’s Stylistic and Technical Development from 1740 to 1761.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome. Supplementary Volumes 4 (2006): 55–91.

Thompson, Wendy. “Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778): Essay: The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, October 2003.

Zarucchi, Jeanne Morgan. “The Literary Tradition of Ruins of Rome and a New Consideration of Piranesi’s Staffage Figures.” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 35, no. 3 (2012): 359–80.

About the Author

Chris recently graduated from FSU with a BA in Classics as well as a second in Interdisciplinary Humanities. As someone with a strong personal and academic interest in art and art history, they find volunteering at the MoFA to be an invaluable opportunity to immerse themselves in the vibrant landscape of contemporary art from a hands-on perspective. As someone who practices art and illustration in their spare time, assuming a front-facing position as a volunteer presents a unique opportunity to engage with visitors and discuss art in a way that feels meaningful and direct.