Written by Caeley Jones, Gallery Host
Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 – 1778); 1. Arco di Tito in Roma. 2. Villa Farnese. 3. Colon.e del Tem.o di G.ve St.re. 4. Ar.co di Set.o Sev.ro. 5. T.o della Pace, 1748; etching on paper; gift of Mrs. Julianna F. Waring; 2020.17.3.
Within the Telfair Museums’ permanent collection, there is an eighteenth-century etching of Rome by Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Piranesi was a printmaker best known for his “Views of Rome” series, which captured the attention of scholars and tourists alike. In this series, he created twenty-eight etchings of famous Roman monuments (prints of which are in the Telfair Museums’ permanent collection) that highlight his use of linear perspective and, despite this artwork being classified as a sketch, his use of detail.
The tourism industry in Rome was much like it is today, with people taking home souvenirs to remember the sites by, and these prints satisfied that demand. Piranesi became famous for his etchings, and they ended up satisfying the academic community as well. He is not idealizing his view of these places but depicting them as they are, decaying and unceremonious. Plants grow out of cracks, marble facades are missing, and rubble litters the streets. These monuments were once glistening reminders of the triumphs of the Romans, and now they are a spot for laborers to take a nap, as seen by the figure reclining against the Arch of Titus.
These etchings tell us that despite the glories of the past, the reality of the present commands. These deteriorating buildings are not just a reminder of the successes of Rome but a reminder of its downfall as well. These etchings also give us a look at what Rome was like in the eighteenth century before preservationists worked on the monuments.
The Arch of Titus looks remarkably different than it does today, with a slanted brick wall and foliage growing out of every crevice. I like how it works on various levels: aesthetically and academically as a ruinscape, as a firsthand account of Rome, and as a piece for mass consumption for the tourism industry. It gives us a glimpse into life almost three hundred years ago.