This view is in the general format and size of a vue d’optique — a perspective view produced as a hand-colored print generally intended to be viewed through a convex lens. Vues d’optique often were rendered in high-key color and dramatic linear perspective which enhanced the illusion of three-dimensionality when viewed through the lens, making it seem like the viewer was really there. Thus, they served as a form of visual entertainment. The viewing devices were known variously as zograscopes, optiques, optical machines and peepshows. According to the Getty Research Institute, street performers would set up viewing boxes with a series of prints giving a pictorial tour of famous landmarks, dramatic events and foreign lands. Vues d’optique were also purchased by Grand Tour travelers as souvenirs to be viewed at home as a parlor activity. To cater to this broad audience, the prints often had titles and descriptions in two or more languages. Because the images are reversed in viewing devices, the main titles on some vues d’optique are backwards. Vues d’optique were also hung on walls as decoration.
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.
Robert Laurie (1755-1836) and James Whittle (1757-1818) were London map, chart and printsellers active from 1794 to 1812 trading variously as Laurie and Whittle or Whittle and Laurie. Laurie began his career as an accomplished mezzotint engraver and exhibited at the Society of Artists from 1770 to 1776. With Whittle, he took over the large map and print business of Robert Sayer. Laurie & Whittle published many atlases and maps and products used for jigsaw puzzles. Robert’s son, Richard Holmes Laurie, succeeded him upon his retirement in 1812, and after Whittle’s death in 1818 carried on the business alone until at least 1840. The firm still exists as Imray, Laurie, Norie and Wilson Ltd., which has long specialized in marine charts.
Full title and publication information: “A View of St. John of Lateran, at Rome &. Veue de St. Jean de Lateran, a Rome &. Publish’d according to Act of Parliament. Published 12th May, 1794, by Laurie & Whittle, 53 Fleet Street, London.”
Condition: Generally very good with the usual overall light toning, wear, soiling.
“Emperor’s Palace in Beijing.” Devices of Wonder. J. Paul Getty Trust. 2001. http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/devices/html/homepage.html (30 September 2002).
Hind, Arthur M. Giovanni Battista Piranesi: A Critical Study. London: Holland Press, 1922 (1978 ed.).
Maxted, Ian. “The London book trades 1775-1800: a preliminary checklist of members.” Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade History. 2001. http://bookhistory.blogspot.com/2007/01/london-1775-1800-l.html and http://bookhistory.blogspot.com/2007/01/london-1775-1800-w-z.html (20 May 2009).
Wilton-Ely, John. Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Complete Etchings. San Francisco: Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, 1994. 2 volumes.