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Art in Eighteenth-Century Rome


Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Mogliano 1720–1778 Rome

Mural Decoration for the Caffè degli Inglesi, Piazza di Spagna, Rome: Plate 45 from Diverse Maniere di adornare i cammini ed ogni altra parte degli edifizj desunte dall’ architettura egizia, etrusca, e greca con un ragionamento apologetico in difesa dell’architettura egizia e toscana (First Edition, First Issue)

printed by Generoso Salomoni, 1769
etching with engraved dedication leaf, 3 plates, 66 numbered plates, 3 vignettes; original 18th-century paper board binding

plate: 8 ¼ x 12 5/8 inches
210 x 320 mm
album: 24 x 32 3/4 inches
609.6 x 812.8 mm

inscribed in plate, lower left: ‘Disegno ed invenzione del Cavalier Piranesi’; lower right: ‘Piranesi inc.’ legend below image: ‘Altro spacatto per longo della stessa bottega, ove si vedono fr. le aperture del vestibolo le immense piramidi, ed altri edifizi sepolcrali ne’deserti dell’Egitto.’



with Fiammetta Soave, 2007
Private Collection, United States


Related Literature

Arthur M. Hind, Giovanni Battista Piranesi: A Critical Study, With a List of his Published Works and Detailed Catalogues of the Prisons and the Views of Rome, New York, 1922, p. 86.
Katalog der Ornamentstichsammlung der Staatlichen Kunstbibliothek zu Berlin, Berlin, 1977, no. 3820.
Luigi Ficacci, Giovanni Piranesi, the Complete Etchings, London, 2000, pp. 504-51.
Martha Pollak, et. al., The Mark J. Millard Architectural Collection, Volume IV: Italian and Spanish Books, Fifteenth through Nineteenth Centuries, Washington, D.C., 2000, no. 100, pp. 294-95.
Henri Focillon, Giovanni-Battista Piranesi, 1720–1778, Bologna, 1963, pp. 353-57.

In 1769, by then a knight, a famous engraver, architect and a highly successful dealer in antiquities, Piranesi published Diverse Maniere, a compendium of designs for chimneypieces with two plates reproducing Piranesi’s own celebrated painted decorations in the Egyptian style of the Caffè degli Inglesi. The cafe was located in the Piazza di Spagna and was known as the meeting place for English expatriates, especially the community of foreign artists. In an oft-quoted entry in his Memoirs, the artist Thomas Jones referred to the coffee shop as ‘a filthy vaulted room the walls of which were painted with sphinxes, Obelisks and Pyramids, from capricious designs of Piranesi, and fitter to adorn the inside of an Egyptian Sepulchre, than a room for social conversation’.

This print records the now-destroyed interior which depicted an array of Egyptian deities: the bull Apis, Sobek the crocodile god, a king wearing the crown of Osiris, scarab beetles, the cat goddess Bastet and Khum the ram-headed god among others, all artfully arranged as an architectural confection; it was this architectural capriccio that made Piranesi’s interior so revolutionary. Fischer von Erlach (Entwurff) and the comte de Caylus (Receuil d’Antiquités) had already drawn attention to the existence of ancient Egypt while the excavations of Hadrian’s Villa and the use of obelisks as focal points in Rome’s new street plan all show the birth of ‘Egyptomania’ before Piranesi’s inventions. However, it was the way that Piranesi adapted Egyptian motifs to architectural interiors that was truly original. The Caffè’s interior was completed in 1776, exactly at the time when Piranesi was working on this book of some 67 plates prefaced with a polemical essay which extolled the virtues of Egyptian and Etruscan designs over the Hellenic aesthetic promoted by Winckelmann.

Piranesi may have inspired furniture in the Egyptian style (see cat. 28) and scholars have attributed the design of a table to him which is featured in Laurent Pécheux’s 1777 Portrait of Margherita Gentili Boccapaduli (fig. 1). Michael Pantazzi describes Piranesi’s influence in this field as ‘a turning point in the iconography of Egyptomania’. Following Piranesi’s decoration of the Caffè degli Inglesi, Prince Marcantonio Borghese commissioned important ‘Egyptian’ rooms both in the Villa Borghese in 1778–82, designed by Antonio Asprucci and in the Palazzo Borghese.

Fig. 1 Laurent Pécheux, Portrait of the Marchesa Margherita Gentili Boccapaduli, 1777. Private collection

Piranesi was from Venice where he studied architecture. In Venice he was exposed to the superb engravings of Canaletto and Tiepolo, both artists who brought to a typically journeyman’s medium imagination and fantasy. Piranesi came to Rome in 1740 in the employ of the newly installed Pope Benedict XIV Lambertini who in 1748 would create a Vatican Museum of Egyptian works. Though Piranesi had ambitions as an architect, his only actual commission was the renovation of the church of the priory of the Knights of Malta in Rome, executed in 1762–64 at the behest of Cardinal Giambattista Rezzonico, to whom the Diverse Maniere is dedicated. Piranesi is now primarily remembered for his iconic engravings of views of Rome, the Vedute which he worked on from the 1750s onwards, and for two fantastical series of etchings called I Carceri, dark images of gigantic imaginary prisons (Metropolitan Museum of Art,; 37.45.3 [27]). He is buried in the above-mentioned church of S. Maria del Priorato.❖

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