Exterior of the Coliseum

1720–1778Giovanni Battista PiranesiItalian, 1720–1778etching and drypoint17 1/2 in. × 26 in. (44.45 cm. × 66.04 cm.)

Gift of Charles A. Coffin, Honorary Degree 1922


The antiquarian and master printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi can be credited with creating some of the most iconic and widely circulated images of the Italian peninsula and its ancient ruins. Trained as an architect and draftsman, Piranesi applied these skills to producing studies of Roman ruins that were popular sites among tourists. His most famous series, the Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome, 1750–1778), occupied the better part of the artist’s energies for three decades and included views of the Colosseum, the Arch of Titus, the Pantheon, and other monuments throughout the city. The hundreds of inventive and intricately detailed views he created during his lifetime, especially of Rome, were extremely popular souvenirs among eighteenth-century English gentry on the Grand Tour. Bound as a series in volumes or sold as individual sheets, Piranesi’s works continued to be printed well into the nineteenth century and were equally popular among American tourists of this period. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Piranesi’s etchings could be found in many public and private collections in the United States, including a complete set gifted to the Boston Public Library in 1869.

Piranesi’s work had a significant and lasting influence on both the perception and study of the ancient world and the neoclassical movement that swept Europe in the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. While as an architect Piranesi paid careful attention to the construction of ancient buildings, often labeling important architectural elements, as an artist Piranesi took a more playful and creative approach to aspects of scale and scenery. The result is prints that blur the line between reality and fiction, romanticizing Roman ruins in order to emphasize their grandeur.

Despite his playful approach to some of the scenery and scale of his subjects, his careful attention to the architectural aspects of ancient Roman ruins across the Italian peninsula made his prints a valuable resource for study by architects, archaeologists, and antiquarian scholars, as well as artists like Charles-Louis Clérisseau (1721–1820), who befriended Piranesi during his Italian sojourn. As objects of study, the prints were popular on both sides of the Atlantic until well into the nineteenth century, when the invention of photography largely supplanted the print by offering a more faithful and accurate rendering of ancient relics and ruins.