Exhibition spotlight: Piranesi’s use of historical items in his work

The following is the final installment 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.

Piranesi studied ancient coins for their depictions of monuments and symbols. This focus on certain pictorial elements differentiates him from most Renaissance numismatists, for example, who tended to focus on images of Roman rulers; their likenesses, perceived as accurate portraits, could be used to identify sculpture.

Silver coin with bust of Trajan (obverse) and Trajan's column (reverse), 112–117 CE; Orichalcum coin with bust of Trajan (obverse) and standing Victory (reverse), 104–111 CE; Bronze coin with bust of Trajan (obverse) and octostyle temple (reverse), 104–111 CE; Numismatic Collection, Princeton University Library

Piranesi’s study of coins was more archaeological, as he used numismatic evidence to help reconstruct lost or ruined structures in his books. The materiality of coins also interested him, because stamped and impressed metal objects had resonance with his own work as an etcher and engraver. 

“Piranesi studied historical sources as material sources”

Engraved gems were another kind of ancient artifact that fascinated Piranesi, who depicted them in his Diverse maniere d’adornare i cammini (1769).

Two-sided red jasper gem with a bird and scarab, Etruscan, Princeton University Art Museum, Gift of Frank Jewett Mather, Jr.; Engraved carnelian gem with a caduceus and cornucopiae, Roman, Princeton University Art Museum, Gift of Ario Pardee; Engraved amethyst gem with Romulus and Remus and the wolf, Roman, Princeton University Art Museum

Made by carefully carving precious stones, both in antiquity and in Piranesi’s day, gems were impressed in hot wax to create their mirror images. In the eighteenth century, a learned debate continued about whether this practice constituted an ancient form of printing. Piranesi loved to incorporate ancient symbols like the ones on these examples into his designs for reliefs. 

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 December 2, 2021 

Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications