Cover image for Piranesi’s Lost Words By Heather Hyde Minor

Piranesi’s Lost Words

Heather Hyde Minor


$99.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06549-6

264 pages
8" × 10"
130 duotone illustrations

Piranesi’s Lost Words

Heather Hyde Minor

“In the mid-twentieth century Piranesi may have been seized upon by architects and theorists as a “bad-boy Modernist” with a coherent theoretical standpoint and vision of the city. Now, in the early twenty-first century, Heather Hyde Minor has traced the development of Piranesi’s thinking across his major writings and shown that we might better consider his end position to be that of a postmodernist, embracing the past as a collection of rich fragments, to be taken by us and made of what we will.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Giovanni Battista Piranesi was one of the most important artists eighteenth-century Europe produced. But Piranesi was more than an artist; he was an engraver and printmaker, architect, antiquities dealer, archaeologist, draftsman, publisher, bookseller, and author. In Piranesi’s Lost Words, Heather Hyde Minor considers Piranesi the author and publisher, focusing on his major publications from 1756 to his death in 1778. Piranesi designed and manufactured twelve beautiful, large-format books combining visual and verbal content over the course of his lifetime. While the images from these books have been widely studied, they are usually considered in isolation from the texts in which they originally appeared. This study reunites Piranesi’s texts and images, interpreting them in conjunction as composite art. Minor shows how this composite art demonstrates Piranesi’s gift for interpreting the classical world and its remains—and how his books offer a critique of both the Enlightenment project of creating an epistemology of the classical past and how eighteenth-century scholars explicated this past. Piranesi’s books, Minor argues, were integral to the emergence of the modern discipline of art history. Using new, previously unpublished archival material, Piranesi’s Lost Words refines our understanding of Piranesi’s works and the eighteenth-century context in which they were created.
“In the mid-twentieth century Piranesi may have been seized upon by architects and theorists as a “bad-boy Modernist” with a coherent theoretical standpoint and vision of the city. Now, in the early twenty-first century, Heather Hyde Minor has traced the development of Piranesi’s thinking across his major writings and shown that we might better consider his end position to be that of a postmodernist, embracing the past as a collection of rich fragments, to be taken by us and made of what we will.”
“A fascinating examination of one of the most original artists of the 18th century. . . . Illustrated with 130 plates of excellent quality, the book itself is a visual feast and an engaging read. By examining Piranesi’s print and book composition, manufacture, publication, promotion, competition, and consumption, Minor also offers a richly textured portrayal of European Enlightenment culture.”
“Compelling and beautifully written. . . . Thanks to Minor’s stimulating publication, Piranesi’s fame as an author is restored, albeit in terms of a highly complex kind of authorship, the peculiarities of which we can be grateful to her for articulating.”
“Minor’s book is highly rewarding on many levels: she deftly combines close readings of Piranesi’s publications with a surgical dissection of his source material and rich contextualization in eighteenth-century intellectual life. . . . Minor succeeds in resituating Piranesi as a scholar engaging in many of the most heated intellectual debates of the time—even if his responses to those debates were unique.”
“With scholarly poise and forensic flair, Heather Hyde Minor restores the corpuscules to Piranesi’s corpo—the body of work extending from Roman Antiquities to Different Ways of Ornamenting Chimneys. Piranesi’s Lost Words makes a compelling case for understanding this eccentric genius as an artist akin to William Blake, one for whom writing and image-making were closely intertwined. By exploring the composite nature of Piranesi’s art, Minor not only deepens our understanding of his oeuvre but also situates it more fully within Enlightenment conversations about the classical past. As Piranesi would have wished, this book reaches out to diverse audiences: not only scholars of various persuasions but also latter-day Grand Tourists who find Piranesi an inexhaustible source of fascination.”
“Heather Hyde Minor has written an entirely new kind of book about Piranesi. Here we can assess Piranesi not primarily as an architect or as an engraver but as a maker of books. Minor gives emphasis to Piranesi’s words and how they amplify the long-recognized originality of his images. She also gives us an immediate feeling for Piranesi the obstinate, sometimes disputatious scholar-artist who did not shrink from debate with the socially mighty among his foreign patrons.”
“In this original and witty interpretation, Minor corrects our too-narrow view of one of the major cultural figures of the eighteenth century.”
“Unlike Piranesi, whose sheer volume of prose is likely to leave a reader exhausted, Minor leaves us wanting more.”

Heather Hyde Minor is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of The Culture of Architecture in Enlightenment Rome (Penn State, 2010).


List of Illustrations



1. Reading Piranesi in the Twenty-First Century

2. Reading Piranesi in the Eighteenth Century

3. How Piranesi Made a Book Out of Fragments of Ancient Texts and Buildings

4. How Piranesi Made a Book Out of Fragments of Modern Texts and Images

5. How Piranesi Made a Book That Questions It All

6. How Piranesi’s Words Got Lost

7. How Piranesi’s Words Got Found





On All Saints’ Day, one of the greatest artists of the eighteenth century lay dying (fig. 1). Few Romans would have noticed. Nearly everyone was attending to their own dead, gathering sweet almond biscuits and candles to take to the city’s cemeteries to celebrate the feast of All Souls the following morning. For eight days the bladder ailment that had tormented him for more than a decade intensified its assault on Giovanni Battista Piranesi. He believed that his family was trying to poison him, insisting in the days before his death that one of his workshop assistants bring him his food to prevent his family’s access to his plate. His son suggested a doctor. Piranesi refused, pointing to his copy of Livy’s history of Rome and saying, “I believe only him.” But belief was not a cure. On November 9, 1778, Piranesi died. Learning of his death, an old Venetian friend wrote, “I heard rumors here that before he died he hid his money (which must have been abundant) so well that his children despair of finding it. Indeed, it is said that he died crazy. If the strange things that people are saying are true, it cannot be otherwise.”

Attended by his wife, five of their children, at least one servant, and probably some of his shop assistants, the baroque death scene that provided the final chapter of Piranesi’s life is fitting. For more than two hundred years, Piranesi has been remembered most famously as an engraver, but a return to the eighteenth-century sources reveals a much more complex character. He was not a typical artist, if such a character exists. The word artist, even in its most expansive definition, does not capture his diverse talents and interests.

Piranesi was born in Venice in 1720 into a family of stone carvers. Like many early modern artists, he owed his initial training to his family, studying architecture with his uncle. Unable to find work, he traveled to Rome in 1740, thanks to his godfather’s son, who recommended him to the new Venetian ambassador to the papal court. Rome became Piranesi’s home and his subject matter, enabling his transformation into one of Europe’s most celebrated artists.

The draftsman, printmaker, sculptor, architect, antiquities restorer, art dealer, collector, archaeologist, publisher, author, and family man died surrounded by the material evidence of his multiple, overlapping identities. Though he was born a stonemason’s son in a small house on a narrow Venetian calle, he died a gentleman in a twenty-room palazzo in Rome’s chic strada Felice, just a short distance from the summit of the Spanish Steps (fig. 2). Palazzo Tomati, which served as the artist’s home, studio, and showcase, was also known as Piranesi’s museo. It was one of the marvels of the Eternal City. As the Rome-based English antiquities dealer and banker Thomas Jenkins wrote to a Lancashire client, “The Cavalier’s [Piranesi’s] house is really the most Curious thing that Ever was Seen, I really Wonder it does not Tumble down, the Landlord with reason has Entered a Protest in Case of Accidents.”

The most eye-catching parts of the large collection crammed into the palazzo were the colored stones. Fragments of white alabaster and green porphyry, golden giallo antico capitals, and a black basalt lion’s paw were scattered in Piranesi’s center of operations. So many marble fragments lay strewn about that they could not be contained in the building proper. Thirty-six pieces escaped the premises and dotted the street leading up to the piazza at the top of the Spanish Steps. Indeed, Piranesi may have considered the house itself an antique. In the basement, there was a room with a ceiling “divided into squares, which certainly formed part of the buildings of Lucullus,” whose gardens sprawled across the Pincian Hill in antiquity. Thomas Jenkins also reported that Piranesi was loath to sell his ancient fragments: “notwithstanding this I have reason to believe without being a conjurer that the Cavalier [Piranesi] is as sanguine to be tempted as ever an old Lady was to be ravished.” Words and objects attest to Piranesi’s work as a collector, restorer, and dealer in ancient artifacts.

The entrance to the building, its staircases, and its corridors were ornamented with eighty-six life-size plaster casts of the Column of Trajan. These reproductions of the nearly ten-story-tall shaft document Piranesi’s study of antiquity. Drawings of Hadrian’s Villa, a site that he spent decades exploring and excavating, often while living in a tomb at the complex, record his work as an archaeologist. A fireplace made to Piranesi’s specifications, two vases, and several candelabra fusing ancient and modern marble sat ready for sale in the six rooms of the gallery, evidence of Piranesi’s output as a furniture and interior designer, as well as a dealer. Alongside the marbles and the manufactured goods, a compass, a pen, and a holder for graphite that served as a mechanical pencil sat together in a tortoiseshell case with a tool used to remove earwax. These implements served Piranesi in his career as a draftsman, and some of them were undoubtedly used to create the twenty-six volumes of drawings that resided in the house.

Two of these were pocket-sized, well-worn notebooks filled with Piranesi’s jottings about Roman architecture, ancient and modern. In these sheets, we find Piranesi learning to be an architect from his earliest days in Rome in the 1740s. Although he completed only one building, the church of Santa Maria del Priorato, Piranesi often described himself as an architect, signing his copperplates “Piranesi Architect.”

These instruments and drawings joined bales of paper, burins, other tools for etching and engraving, and two rolling presses, the material that fueled Piranesi’s activities as an etcher and engraver. The more than one thousand etched copperplates that formed the core of his artistic patrimony were safely stored in a loft in the family quarters. They acted as a counterpoint to the eighteen-foot-long wooden counter used to craft, store, and display the fruits of the Piranesi printing workshop’s labors. This counter sat in the first room of the studio, with locked compartments underneath for sheets of prints and paper. With it, Piranesi practiced the art of commerce. Like print sellers across Europe, he offered other artists’ sheets for sale and sent off his own works to be put up for sale. When he died, shops in Venice and Paris owed him money for his etchings that they had sold. A broken basket containing two bags filled with money in three currencies, probably received as payments for purchases made by visitors to the museo, sat in the room where Piranesi stored most of his plates.

Paramount among his possessions were his bodies. Piranesi’s physical form was only one of his many corpi that were in the house on that autumn day in 1778. The word corpo in eighteenth-century Italian referred not just to the human body but also to unbound books. There were more than three hundred such corpi in Piranesi’s museo on the day he died (fig. 3). These strikingly beautiful large-format books combined visual and verbal content. Piranesi designed and manufactured twelve of these volumes over the course of his career. This highly diverse production included images that take traditional forms like vedute (city views), along with others that relied on new tools for conveying visual data, like ichnographic maps and stratigraphical and other technical diagrams. The more than six hundred pages of letterpress found in these books take many forms. Composed in Latin, Greek, Italian, French, and English, his texts often appear translated into several different languages in a single volume. These vary in length from a 198-page history of the engineering accomplishments of the Romans to a thirty-eight-page essay on the origins of all ancient peoples. Some volumes rely on narrative, part of the earlier rhetorical tradition for writing histories, while others borrow the form of epistolary exchange, a new literary genre made popular by French and English novels. Slender satirical pamphlets and mammoth folios both rested in the beautiful chaos of the museum. Piranesi’s books were his most powerful and successful art form.

While Piranesi fashioned himself into an artist, architect, archaeologist, businessman, and printmaker, he also made himself an author (fig. 4). Although he became one at the age of thirty-five, with his publication of the Antichità romane, four volumes that intertwine more than two hundred printed images with seventy-two pages of text, he wanted to become an author much earlier. As Mario Bevilacqua’s rich analysis of Piranesi’s notebooks shows, there are traces of texts to accompany his plan for a magnificent college (1750) and his city views (1747–48) that date to when Piranesi was in his twenties.

Why did Piranesi want to be an author? Words offered both practical and ethereal rewards. They allowed Piranesi to rise socially, to join the bustling European scholarly community interested in antiquities, and provided a key credential in securing employment. Later in his career, Piranesi sought to become the commissario delle antichità (superintendent of antiquities) for the papal court. Although he failed in this attempt, establishing his scholarly bona fides in print was a prime source of eligibility. Beyond Rome, the currency of the imaginary learned society, the republic of letters, was words. From its narrowest alleyways to its most sweeping piazzas, erudite men shared their ideas via texts, not images. Words allowed Piranesi to commune with this European community on its own terms. Texts also offered new forms of communication and fame. Words let Piranesi claim a place as an antiquarian. They allowed him to court controversy, to take up the forms of popular fiction, to borrow from the ancient language of satire, and to advertise his wares in ways that went beyond the reach of his brilliantly luminous prints.

In exploring how artifacts, images, and words could work together in interpreting the classical world, Piranesi seems to have realized that he had something to say that no one else was saying. The obsession with antiquity that marked the diverse contents of his museo is also impressed on the reams of images and pages of text married together in the volumes he created. Careful study of his books demonstrates that he was one of the most gifted interpreters of the classical world and its remains. Although he has been seen as eschewing gilded vellum-covered folios in favor of the rough remains of ancient buildings, Piranesi spent a great deal of time with books. Texts, both ancient and modern, shaped his approach to understanding the classical past. Although Piranesi is not often viewed as an author, in his corpi we see him exercising his skills in weighing ancient and modern visual evidence and crafting arguments about lost ancient civilizations. At the same time that Piranesi’s books were being made, the modern disciplines of art history, history, archaeology, and classics were coming into being. His protean volumes offer a view (and a critique) not only of the Enlightenment project of creating an epistemology of the classical past, but of the methods that scholars, from the eighteenth-century to the present, use to explicate that lost world.

Piranesi transformed the possibilities of print in his books through his understanding of ancient engraving and its relationship to modern printing. While the marriage between word and image was not consummated in print until the arrival of the Antichità romane, it seems that Piranesi conceived of his art as a composite one from the beginning. Above a quick graphite sketch of the Basilica of Maxentius, Piranesi wrote, “The ancients did not have printing, and because of this, knowledge of these ancient things was lost, and by means of these [vedute] one will see what in the future will be destroyed” (fig. 5). In spite of Piranesi’s clotted prose and jolting time travel, this notation makes clear that he was thinking about intaglio printing as a means of preserving ancient architecture. Recording a building like the basilica in a drawing, transposing it to a copperplate, and reproducing it again and again served to keep alive an ancient wonder. Piranesi’s notation also highlights that he was using a tool that the ancients did not have: copperplate engraving. Ancients did engrave gems. These luxury objects were often used as seals, with users impressing the carved stone onto molten wax to reproduce its image and to authenticate documents. Piranesi was fascinated by engraved or cast objects like inscriptions, gems, and even an enormous stone map from the ancient world. Ancient incised or impressed things served not only as subjects for his chosen art form of engraving, but as a way to connect his own craft to the versions of it practiced in antiquity.

How did he become an author? For Piranesi, the first step in the process of becoming an author was learning to be an artist. To become a practicing engraver, he studied other prints with great care, copying parts of them into his notebooks. While examining the material qualities of artworks and copying had been part of the typical education of artists for centuries, Piranesi used these skills to produce breathtakingly creative results in his books. His early training in the city schooled him in the practical means by which large, illustrated books were created. His first hands-on experiences included working for Giovanni Battista Nolli and Giuseppe Vasi, who were both occupied with crafting ambitious books that combined texts and images. Vasi’s project documented the city’s monuments in ten volumes and more than two hundred plates, while Nolli created a map of the city that was six feet by seven feet and included more than one thousand sites. Rome in the 1700s was a rich natural habitat for scholars and writers. Libraries were plentiful, and access to them was largely unfettered. One of his earliest biographers characterizes Piranesi’s first years in Rome as a time of “running without respite from ruins to libraries.” The city was packed with all sorts of great collections of books and prints. Piranesi’s explorations led him to the collection of the wealthy master mason Nicola Giobbe at the base of the Capitoline Hill, as well as to the princely collections of the Albani and Corsini families. The Eternal City was still an important center for the publishing industry, and large-format illustrated books were a Roman specialty. His first years in Rome introduced Piranesi to this art form in the city’s rich repositories. These experiences taught him how to use words with images and as images.

This book is divided into two parts. The first two chapters examine his earliest folio, the Antichità romane (Roman Antiquities, 1756, 4 vols.), offering an introduction to Piranesi’s working method. Because most viewers today encounter Piranesi’s work either on the walls of museums and galleries or in the pages of books that reproduce his searing images, chapter 1 introduces modern readers to the Antichità in its original form. What is it like to encounter the images and texts contained in it? Chapter 2 answers the same question but considers instead its eighteenth-century audience. Letters, journal articles, library and auction catalogues, and other sources from the eighteenth century illuminate how contemporary readers understood its form and contents. This chapter also considers the literary spectacle spawned by the Antichità. This carefully managed furor was deliberately staged by Piranesi through the publication of the provocative Lettere di giustificazione scritte a Milord Charlemont. . . . (Letters of Justification written to Lord Charlemont. . . . , 1757), which combined the ancient forms of satire with a modern publicity campaign.

The second part of the book considers four more of Piranesi’s volumes. Here we find him shifting from primary to secondary sources, from ancient texts and material remains to recent learned books. Chapter 3 takes up the beautiful Campus Martius Antiquae Urbis (The Field of Mars of Ancient Rome, 1762), a history of part of the city. It examines Piranesi’s working method, how he collected ancient textual and visual evidence and shaped it to form the Campus Martius. Ruins and antique texts are both treated as incomplete material objects, a strange but brilliant contention that courses through the river of books he produced in the 1760s. Della magnificenza ed architettura de’ Romani (On the Magnificence and Architecture of the Romans, 1761) is the subject of chapter 4. This striking volume makes a learned argument based on a single ancient text while at the same time extending the working method of the Campus Martius to include modern books and images as evidence. It establishes a dialogue with modern printed works, from journal articles to books, rejecting aesthetics in favor of history. With Della magnificenza, Piranesi launched himself into the Greco-Roman controversy, a noisy quarrel over the relative merits of Greek and Roman culture and art. When the book was panned in a review by a French critic, Piranesi crafted an artful rebuttal, his Osservazioni di Gio. Battista Piranesi sopra la Lettre de Monsieur Mariette aux Auteurs de le Gazette Littéraire de l’Europe (Observations of Gio. Battista Piranesi on the Letter of Monsieur Mariette to the Authors of the Gazette Littéraire de l’ Europe, 1765). Chapter 5 takes up Piranesi’s last treatise, his Diverse maniere d’adornare i cammini. . . . (Different Ways of Ornamenting Chimneys. . . . , 1769), which points to the limitations of prevailing historical models in the creation of a system for classifying ancient art and architecture, and ultimately reveals the inadequacy of words and images to order the visual and material culture of the past. Chapter 6 tracks how Piranesi’s words faded from view in the years immediately after his death, exploring precisely how his corpi came to be dismembered. His texts literally went missing from his death in 1778 until 1835 because they were not printed. It traces this history from the story of his spendthrift heir through the political upheavals of late eighteenth-century Europe. By following the movements of his copperplates as they passed from Rome to Paris and back to Rome, this chapter examines the practical consequences of these transfers. The final chapter continues the story to the present day, focusing on how Piranesi’s ideas came back to life after a long dormancy. While many people today are acquainted with Piranesi’s prints, even specialists are sometimes unfamiliar with his texts. The images contained in Piranesi’s volumes have received great attention, but often in isolation from the texts that he created to accompany them. How did this happen? The subject of Piranesi’s texts and the quirkiness of his arguments certainly have a role to play. Chapter 7 explores how the norms and codes of the academic world, polite learning, and the modern art market all helped to decouple his words from his images. It takes in a broad panorama of a wide range of sources, from a wicked eighteenth-century biography to a pithy book review written by a twentieth-century archaeologist and spy. It recovers the unusual circumstances of the rediscovery of Piranesi’s texts in the 1930s. Finally, it explicates the currency of his ideas in the modern disciplines devoted to the study of the ancient world, as well as their relationship to broader humanistic models that undergird our understanding of the past today.

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.