Inside the Milberg Gallery: Making Pages

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), Fontana di Trevi, in Giovanni Lorenzo Barbiellini, ed., Roma moderna distinta per rioni, e cavata dal Panvinio, Pancirolo, Nardini, e altri autori: ornata di varii rami diligentemente intagliati rappresentanti le basiliche, e altre insigni fabbriche fino all’anno MDCCXLI (Rome: A spese di Fausto Amidei Libraro al Corso sotto il Palazzo del Signor Marchese Raggi; appresso il Bernabò, e Lazzarini, 1741), Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University Library.

The following is the first in a series of inside looks at the current exhibition in Princeton University Library’s Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery at Firestone Library - "Piranesi on the Page."

Curated by Heather Hyde Minor, Professor of Art History at University of Notre Dame, and Carolyn Yerkes, Associate Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, “Piranesi on the Page” explores the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi and how the book became the centerpiece of his artistic production.

How did Piranesi become a maker of books? When he came to Rome, he and a group of pensionnaires, or students, from the French Academy explored the city’s ancient ruins. Piranesi sought design training, but it was not easy to convert his experiences sketching with friends into employment. As his professional network of artists, scholars, and collectors grew, he learned the material, intellectual, and commercial demands of printing and publishing books.

“Books offered an alternative career path, a place to invest creative energy outside of building.”

In the early 1740s, Piranesi began contributing small vedute (city views) to the books of others, selling copperplates he had etched to Roman guidebook publishers. He published his first book, the Prima parte di architetture e prospettive, in 1743, citing Rome’s “speaking ruins,” along with earlier authors, as his inspiration for the scenes of fantastical structures. In the short essay that accompanied the prints, Piranesi complained about his lack of opportunities to build. Books offered an alternative career path, a place to invest creative energy outside of building.

Piranesi also began to make large city views. The Vedute di Roma were his most commercially successful prints. They also are an early sign of Piranesi thinking like a bookmaker, because customers could buy a title sheet to group their individual sheets into a volume. 

Discover more about "Piranesi on the Page" through PUL's online exhibition.

The exhibition will run from October 8 through December 5, 2021. It is open to Princeton University faculty, students, and staff with access to campus buildings daily noon to 6 p.m. The public is invited to visit via reservation.

Published October 14, 2021

Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications