Inside the Milberg Gallery: Parting shots

The following is the fourth 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, the exhibition explores the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi and how the book became the centerpiece of his artistic production.

Catalogo delle opere date finora alla luce da Gio. Battista Piranesi, 1761 (c. 1776) Rare Books Division, Princeton University Library

Ever the entrepreneur, Piranesi worked to control the market for his books. For several years after he arrived in Rome, he did not own his own shop or printing premises. Instead, he worked with other printers, publishers, and dealers who helped him produce and promote his art. In 1761, he moved to his own premises, a house near the Spanish Steps. The location became famous across Europe as a place to buy Piranesi’s books, prints, and other wares, which included ancient sculptural fragments as well as furniture fashioned in part from ancient pieces.

“From his home - which was also his printing house, his store, and his museum - Piranesi orchestrated sales through personal correspondence and a continually updated catalog print. His strategies worked: Piranesi became one of the most successful printmakers in Europe.”

After Piranesi’s death in 1778, his sons took over the business. Though they continued some of their father’s time-honored marketing strategies, writing letters and using catalogs to spur sales, they also fundamentally changed the family business. They kept printing from their father’s copperplates, but they also took on other publication projects. Most importantly, they eventually stopped producing their father’s books as books, and made the images alone the center of their business. Their decisions were the first step toward the modern conception of Piranesi primarily as a printmaker rather than someone who made books. Collectors who valued Piranesi’s images over his texts, often with disastrous results, contributed to this perception.

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 daily noon to 6 p.m. Reservations are no longer required for the public. All visitors must be fully vaccinated and wear face coverings.

Published November 4, 2021 

Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications