Giovanni Battista Piranesi is famous as the greatest interpreter of Rome above all through the Vedute di Roma, begun in 1748 and continued throughout the remainder of his life.
The artist was to transform the conventional Veduta as practised by Giuseppe Vasi (with whom Piranesi first learned etching) into a vision of heroic antiquity, seen through the eyes of an architect and archaeologist who passionately believed in Roman classical antiquity as a living inspiration to the present. Through his works the artist was to become an international figure of the Enlightenment, and the leading protagonist of Roman achievement as opposed to Winckelmann and the supporters of Greece.
The new large plate format of the Vedute di Roma enabled the artist to take on the monumental spaces of the city, such as St. Peters (see illustration opposite, Hind 3) and to compete with the painted veduta of his contemporary Gian Paolo Panini.
The present set of Vedute represents the series in an early form, with Piranesi's address and price, including the plates made up to 1762. The impressions are finer and stronger than with those in the later contemporary editions of the full set of plates issued around 1778.
The Vedute in this collection rank amongst the artist's greatest plates, and arefoutstanding for their fine, clean printing in dark black ink and for the rich and painterly variety of tones achieved through repeated bitings of the acid. The use of plunging diagonals and powerful tonal recessions, for example in the steep, almost vertiginous perspective of the façade of S. Paolo fuori le Mura (Hind 6), achieves unrivalled dramatic effects. The façade, brought close to the picture plane, is made to tower above the spectator by lowering the viewpoint, thus creating a vision of formidable and awesome monumentality.
'In the course of thirty-five years, Piranesi had transformed the Veduta from a subtle Rococo vision of elusive melancholy to an uncompromising statement of the Sublime which was to leave an indelible impression on the sensibilities of European Romanticism.' (John Wilton-Ely, Piranesi Exhibition Catalogue, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1978)