During his lifetime, Giovanni Battista Piranesi produced more than 1,000 etchings and engravings of various places and objects, real and imagined. His first independent commercial success was a set of small-scale etchings called Roman Antiquities from the Time of the First Republic and the First Emperors, which led to the publication of his most popular and well-known series, the large-scale Views of Rome. The entire set of Views of Rome includes 135 plates that were issued individually and in groups throughout the artist’s lifetime. Both series of etchings were popular souvenirs for British travelers whose visits to Rome were the culmination of an extended educational holiday throughout Europe, commonly called the Grand Tour. These etchings—with their remarkable handling of light, grand sense of scale, and painterly approach to the prints’ surface—capture the picturesque romance and sublime magnificence that 18th-century tourists sought during their stay in the Eternal City.
Piranesi’s talents were wide ranging—he worked as a printmaker, designer, architect, archaeologist, and theorist. During his formative years in his native city of Venice, Piranesi cultivated a taste for the dramatic and spectacular under the instruction of theatrical stage designers. In Rome, where he settled permanently in 1747, Piranesi studied ancient monuments in and around the city and eventually published illustrated treatises on Roman architecture and decorative arts for international audiences. This scholarly theoretical work, which eventually encompassed the archaeological sites at Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Paestum, combined a practical understanding of ancient Roman technology with imaginative visions of the transience of human endeavors, something Romantic artists and writers would continue to explore throughout the first part of the 19th century.
This exhibition is the first in a series of two shows that explore the Honolulu Museum of Art’s collection of graphic works by Piranesi. Selections from Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons, which demonstrate the artist’s ability to conceive of his own darkly dramatic architectural spaces, will be on view in this gallery beginning in August 2013.