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Architectural Art, Piranesi, Trajan’s Column, Antique Print, Rome, 1770s


Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) (after)
Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), Francesco Piranesi (1758-1810),
Vincenzo Dolcibene (engravers)
Bassirilievi cavati della Colonna Trajana [Bas-reliefs removed from Trajan’s column]
Plates XX and XXI
from Trofeo o si Magnifica Colonna Coclide di marmo…
[Trophy, or the Magnificent Spiral Column of Marble…]
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Rome: 1774-79
Copperplate engravings
30 x 22 inches overall, average
20.5 x 15 inches, plate mark
$1,500, the pair

Two prints relating to Trajan’s Column, a Roman monument that was placed on what was then the road to Umbria.  These plates illustrate sections of the bas-reliefs on the column. This pair is from three Piranesi series of prints created between 1774 and 1779. They were eventually brought together as a composite publication recording the three monumental relief columns of Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Traianus, Roman Emperor from AD 98-117), Marcus Aurelius, and Antoninus and Faustina in Rome.  Trajan’s Column is covered with intricate carvings chronicling the Dacian Wars conducted by the emperor Trajan in an ascending spiral of 23 coils around the column rising 38 meters high including the base. Over 2,000 figures enact the story from the preparations for war until the ouster of the Dacians from their homeland.  The column is also known as “coclide” for this spiralling decoration. It was surmounted by a statue of Trajan until 1587, when it was replaced by a figure of St. Peter.  The high cubic base supporting the column is decorated at the corners with four eagles, and on three sides with bas reliefs showing trophies of Dachic arms.

Product description continues below.


The full title of this series, translated from Italian by Piranesi expert John Wilton-Ely, is “The Trophy or Magnificent Spiral Column of marble composed of large drums on which are carved the two Dacian Wars of Trajan, raised in the middle of the large Forum, erected in honor of the same Emperor on the order of the Senate and People of Rome after his Triumphs.”

These series of prints are further described by Wilton-Ely, as belonging to the last phase of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s career, when a number of works in progress were finished with studio assistants such as Vincenzo Dolcibene and Piranesi’s son Francesco. Dolcibene and Francesco were probably involved in most, if not all, of the plates. The Baroque flourishes of the elder Piranesi are giving way in these works to “the growing influence of the aesthetic ideals of Neoclassicism.” (Wilton-Ely)

Giovanni Battista Piranesi was a multi-talented and accomplished man of the enlightenment who combined supreme artistic ability and historical scholarship with an entrepreneurial business sense.  He was at once an artist, architect, archeologist, designer, collector, and print and antiquities dealer.  Many consider him one of the most influential artists in the development and popularization of the neoclassical style of the late 18th Century.  According to scholar John Wilton-Ely, the distinguishing characteristics of Piranesi’s early works were “the unorthodox combination of classical motifs, the manipulation of superhuman scale, the organization of powerfully receding perspectives upon diagonal axes, and the modulation of space by means of skilful lighting.”  Piranesi’s work was recognized with his election as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in England in 1757.  He was knighted by the Pope in 1765.  Although Piranesi composed and etched many of his works, his son Francesco (1758-1810) and studio assistants such as Vincenzo Dolcibene also etched a significant number of the prints, especially in later years.

Piranesi etched and published numerous folio print sets of art, architecture and archaeology of Rome and environs, that served as source material for other architects and designers.  They were sold as souvenirs to English aristocrats on the Grand Tour in Italy or by subscription directly to British patrons.  Among those influenced by Piranesi was the great British architect Robert Adam (1728-92), who was a colleague of Piranesi while in Rome on the Grand Tour in the 1750s.  From the 1760s onward, Piranesi supplemented his printing business by joining the thriving trade in the restoration and sale antiquities to Grand Tour travelers.  Piranesi’s interest in these objects went well beyond historical restoration and marketing — he also advocated emulating the creativity of the Roman designers and integrating motifs from Greek and Roman antiquities with a contemporary sensibility to produce new and strikingly original works. The British were particularly good customers, so he set up his workshop and showrooms close to the British quarter of Rome.  After Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s death in 1778, Francesco and another son, Pietro, continued to republish Piranesi prints and sell antiquities.

Condition: Each very good with the usual overall toning and wear. Center folds as issued.


John Wilton-Ely. Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Complete Etchings. San Francisco: Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, 1994. 2 volumes. Chapter D.X, Volume II, page 767 (plates cited by not illustrated)

Rockwell, Peter et al. “Trajan’s Column.” The McMaster Trajan Project. 1999. (3 February 2004).