The Basilica of Constantine, originally known as the Basilica of Maxentius, was a large roofed hall begun by the emperor Maxentius and finished about 313 AD by emperor Constantine. It covered about 7,000 square yards and included a central nave that was 265 feet long and 85 feet wide. The surviving vaults are a testimony to the quality of the engineering and construction of the concrete structures of the ancient Romans. As is characteristic of Piranesi, the picturesque ruins are shown in a contemporary context, with Romans at work in the foreground among piles of rubble and architectural fragments, including men laboring beside a horse-drawn cart, and a goatherd with his flock illuminated by a shaft of sunlight beneath an immense arch. The inclusion of these figures lend scale to the architecture but also show the ruins as visitors to Rome on the Grand Tour would encounter them. In the background on the right is a portion of the Colosseum. Below the title in the cartouche is the legend, “Muro da A.B. fatto pr’ma del restante della Fabbrica C. Anfiteatro Flavio,” pointing out that the walls labeled A and B were made before the rest of the building, and that the building labeled C is the Flavian Ampitheater. See the detail images for close-ups of the corresponding areas of the print.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi was one of the leading figures in the development of the neoclassical style in the 18th century. His Vedute di Roma depicted the great buildings of Rome, from ancient times and the Renaissance to the mid 18th century, when many were in ruins. Their lasting popularity is due not only to the picturesque subject matter but Piranesi’s consummate artistry, command of perspective, subtle tonality, and imaginative flair. The Vedute is the largest and best known series of the prints Piranesi produced, comprising 135 plates by him and two by his son Francesco Piranesi (Hind, 5). Piranesi scholar John Wilton-Ely describes the Vedute as follows:
The 135 plates of the Vedute di Roma, produced individually by Piranesi from the late 1740s until his death some thirty years later, represent almost every phase in his stylistic evolution and reflect his changing intellectual concerns. Through these particular works, which were spread all over the Continent by means of the Grand Tour, Piranesi was not only to revolutionize the convention form of the veduta but was to transform the European vision of classical antiquity. (Wilton-Ely, 176)
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.
Determining the date of printing of the 135 etchings from the Vedute is exceedingly complicated for many reasons. They were published in books and sets (of various titles, not just Vedute di Roma) as well separately issued – in various printing states – from about the 1740s. Numerous other states and posthumous editions were issued after Piranesi’s death in 1778 throughout the late 18th century, and continuing in the 19th and 20th centuries. Wilton-Ely describes the earliest fixed date for publication of plates from Vedute being 1751, when 34 of the views were published by Bouchard, Rome, in another Piranesi work Le Magnificenze di Roma, though he notes that the Vedute were almost certainly earlier published in the 1740s. According to Wilton-Ely, Piranesi self-published the Vedute from 1760 to the time of his death in 1778. Historian and print expert Arthur M. Hind wrote the definitive reference book on Piranesi’s views in 1922, Giovanni Battista Piranesi: A Critical Study, in which he painstakingly attempted to distinguish the sequence and characteristics of various states of the Vedute, and specific date of separate issue. Piranesi prints can also be identified by characteristic watermarks of the paper makers. These are illustrated by scholar Andrew Robison in an appendix to John Wilton-Ely, Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Complete Etchings.
There were several posthumous printings of Piranesi’s views following his death in 1778. His son, Francesco Piranesi, added two final plates to the 135 etched by his father that Francesco and his brother Pietro continued to sell in Rome until 1799. Then they left Rome and set up a business in Paris, publishing the first Paris edition from 1800 to 1807. The so-called intermediate Paris editions were published circa 1807 to 1835. Finally, the Firmin-Didot edition was published in Paris circa 1835 to 1839. Agents for the Vatican purchased the plates in 1839 for the Camera Apostolica, which at the time was the central financial office of the papal administration, and returned them to Rome to be printed by the Calcografia Camerale, a venerable Roman printing press. This printer was renamed the Regia Calcografia in 1870 and operated under that name until 1945 when it became the Calcografia Nationale. Impressions under the imprint of Regia Calcografia from 1870 on generally have an embossed blind stamp with “Regia Calcografia” and central emblem of a crown surmounted by a cross. Piranesi prints published in Rome during the 19th and 20th centuries are sometimes referred to as “Pope’s edition.”
Full publication information, lower right margin: Cavalier Piranesi F.
Condition: Generally very good, recently professionally cleaned and deacidifed, with light remaining toning and wear.
“Basilica of Constantine.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica. 2018. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Basilica-of-Constantine (30 October 2018).
“Cori, Italy Tourism.” PlanetWare. 1995-2009. http://www.planetware.com/italy/cori-i-la-lacor.htm (27 April 2009).
“Giovanni Giacomo De’ Rossi.” Romamor. http://www.romamor.it/en/ancient/derossi.htm (13 May 2005).
Hind, Arthur M. Giovanni Battista Piranesi: A Critical Study. London: Holland Press, 1922 (1978 ed.). Views of Rome 114.
Holden, Colin. “Piranesi’s People: Temple of Antoninus and Faustian, the Forum.” YouTube. 22 April 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDuuVzfuVIE (20 October 2018).
Moorby, Nicola. “Basilica of Constantine, Rome.” Tate Gallery. October 2009. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-basilica-of-constantine-rome-d16376 (30 October 2018).
Wilton-Ely, John. Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Complete Etchings. San Francisco: Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, 1994. 2 volumes. 161.