The Pyramid of Cestius is an ancient pyramid near the Protestant Cemetery and Porta San Paolo, along the Via Ostiensis. One of the best preserved ancient structures in Rome, it was built around 18-12 BC as a tomb for the magistrate Gaius Cestius and originally stood in open countryside surrounded by a wall, statues, columns, and other tombs. Standing 37 meters high, it was much admired by architects in the 18th and 19th century, celebrated by poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Thomas Hardy, and considered a must-see for visitors on the Grand Tour.
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:
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: Presso D autore. Piranesi F.
Title and legend: Piramide di C. Cestio. 1. Terreno sgombrato d’intorno all Piramide sotto il Pontificato d’Alessandro VII. 2. Porta apera di quel tempo nella Piramide. 3. Colonne ritrovate nello tempo nella Piramide. 3. Colonne ritrovate nello sgombro e riposte nell’antica positura. 4. Mura di Roma. 5. Torri della Porta di S. Paolo. [Pyramid of C. Cestio. 1. Soil cleared around the Pyramid under the pontificate of Alexander VII. 2. Door appears in that time in the Pyramid. 3. Columns found over time in the Pyramid. 3. Columns found in the excavation and placed in the ancient position. 4. Walls of Rome. 5. Towers of the Porta di S. Paolo.]
Condition: Generally very good. Recently professionally cleaned and deacidified with little remaining toning and wear. Few short marginal tears professionally restored verso.
Hind, Arthur M. Giovanni Battista Piranesi: A Critical Study. London: Holland Press, 1922 (1978 ed.). Views of Rome 36.
“Pyramid of Cestius.” Wikipedia. 24 January 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyramid_of_Cestius (4 February 2019).
Wilton-Ely, John. Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Complete Etchings. San Francisco: Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, 1994. 2 volumes. 190.