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  Cornell University

Cornell in Rome

College of Architecture, Art and Planning

Piranesi and the Spellbound View

Hadrian’s Villa, Piranesi

Last Friday, my architectural analysis class went to the Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica, (the National Institute for Graphic Arts) at Palazzo della Calcografia, which hosts the world’s largest collection of graphic prints on Rome. Accompanied by Professor Mastrigli, we took a short 30-minute walk from studio and reached the back of the Trevi fountain, where the institute was located. As it was also Valentine’s Day, the area around the Trevi was packed – strolling couples, Asian tourists with unwieldy cameras, and schoolchildren with red balloons in hand. The sun was out and glaring, and the world was red and full of light.

Inside, we were greeted by the museum staff and an ethereal, semicircular atrium. Split in two groups, my group was led upstairs to the state room, where canvas-sized books decked the grand dining table. Standing around the table, a staff historian then launched into a discussion on prints and Piranesi.

The institute, as it turns out, was founded before the invention of photography, in the third decade of the eighteenth century (then under a different name). During the time archaeology had just been invented, and there was a tremendous demand for surveying the city. As artists and scholars from all over Europe flocked the Rome, the institute began to sell prints, to great commercial success.

Of the institute’s many commercial prints, the historian explained, the best sellers were done by Piranesi. Piranesi, trained as an architect, had a way of portraying the city in the most theatrical light. His two most famous series, the Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome) and the Carceri (Prisons), surpassed all other prints in intricacy and drama.

Then we saw some of the prints themselves. As we examined closely Ancient Circus of Mars and Unfinished St. Peter, the intricate details of the etchings began to emerge. Every mark was a line, and every line was a legible line. Perspectives were not just perspectives, but exaggerations of scale, and shadows were not just shadows, but a searing darkness.

Ancient Circus of Mars, Piranesi

The finale of the visit was the most illuminating: we got to see the original copper plates. From the state room, we followed the institute staff down the stairs and into a subterranean vault chamber, which houses thousands of rare copper plates. Resembling a data center, the vault consisted of several corridors lined with black shelves. As the staff historian pulled out selected plates for viewing, I was awestruck by the tremendous craftsmanship—the pre-drawings, the etchings, the careful hammering—that went in to making each plate.

In the Vault, Photo by Author

Leaving the institute, I felt a mixture of inspiration and melancholy. Indeed, Piranesi’s drawings were more than amazing — they were spellbinding, phantasmagorical, transcendent. But as a graphic artist myself, I wondered if there would ever be another Piranesi, and whether drawings today would ever reach the prominence, or craftsmanship, that it had in the 18th century…


I better get to work.

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