PUL's upcoming exhibition, "Piranesi on the Page," reveals the art of the architect's books

Piranesi on the Page, the new exhibition in the Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery, features work by the 18th-century artist, Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Lapides Capitolini (1761), Princeton University Library Special Collections.


"Piranesi on the Page" tells the story of how Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the foremost printmaker in 18th-century Europe, made the book the center of his artistic production. The exhibition is scheduled to open at the Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery, located in the Firestone Library lobby, on Sept. 2, 2020.

Celebrating Princeton University’s collection of Piranesi works, the exhibition draws from the Library's Special Collections including Graphic Arts, Numismatic, and Rare Books; the Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology; and the Princeton University Art Museum. The exhibition also will feature a number of loans from international collections, including several works that will be on display for the first time. 

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) was born in Venice and came to Rome in 1740, seeking to become an architect. Finding no opportunities to build, he began to make paper monuments in the form of books. The pages he crafted became his most powerful and creative art form. Over the course of his career, Piranesi created twelve volumes that combine printed text and images. To make these books, Piranesi had to think in units of pages. Making images and making texts were two separate processes, discrete enterprises that required different printing equipment and skills. This circumstance forced Piranesi to work and think collaboratively.

He etched and engraved copperplates, and sometimes he sold impressions from these as single sheets. More often than not, he combined his prints with letterpress texts. Long, erudite, and sometimes convoluted, these texts were written with the help of humanist friends who supplied him with classical knowledge. To make books, Piranesi had to think as a creator of prints, writer of texts, page designer, and printer—and sometimes as a publisher, dealer, and salesman. What did these volumes mean to him, who did they bring into his world, and how can the process of making them be understood throughout his career? This exhibition explores Piranesi’s books as the central thread that connects all spheres of his enormous ambition.

The exhibition is curated by Heather Hyde Minor, professor, University of Notre Dame, and Carolyn Yerkes, assistant professor, Princeton University. "Piranesi Unbound," a book associated with the exhibition written by the curators, will be available from Princeton University Press in Fall 2020.

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director, Library Communications