Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Italian 1720–1778

During the eighteenth century painted and engraved views of Rome were popular among visitors to the city, in particular the wealthy young Englishmen who roamed the Continent on what was known as the Grand Tour. The market was well established for these views (vedute) when, in the mid 1740s, the young Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi made his first prints. Initially working on a small format, Piranesi’s delicate etchings of ancient and contemporary Roman architecture imbued their subject with a striking monumentality. The desire to communicate the architectural achievements of the past, and of his contemporaries, led the artist to adopt a larger, double-folio format when he commenced his most famous series of views, the Views of Rome. Issuing the plates individually and in groups from the late 1740s, the artist created a total of 135 prints during his long career.

View of Piazza di Monte Cavallo belongs to the earliest etchings in the series and is thought to date before 1748. It represents one of the most famous piazzas of Rome, situated on the Quirinal Hill and called Monte Cavallo after the enormous sculptural group of two figures with their horses that grace its centre. In his etching Piranesi focuses on the marble sculptures, which, at over five and a half meters in height, tower over the people in the square. The identity and origin of the marble group, believed to have been in the square since antiquity, have been debated since the Renaissance. In the key at the bottom of the print Piranesi identifies the group as Alexander and his horse Bucephalus, an interpretation that had been popular, but disputed, since the mid sixteenth century. The figures were also thought to represent the man-eating horses of Diomedes, or more popularly, the twin gods Castor and Pollux.

Illuminated by a dramatic sunset, the powerful physiques of the gesturing figures and rearing horses convey Piranesi’s passionate belief in the enduring legacy of the ancient civilization. A melancholy note is struck, however, by the scattered Roman ruins overgrown with foliage in the foreground, which serve as a reminder of their inevitable erosion through time. Piranesi introduces an element of temporal ambiguity with the presence of an almost naked man resting on these ruins. His lack of attire and exaggerated size set him apart from the finely dressed noblemen in elaborately decorated carriages, soldiers in front of their barracks and other groups in the square. Another unexpected detail emerges from Piranesi’s choice of viewpoint, with the face of one of the marble figures being obscured by his outstretched arm. With these idiosyncratic touches Piranesi extends the parameters of the view genre.

This very fine, early impression of View of Piazza di Monte Cavallo belongs to the first edition of the Views of Rome, published in Rome by Bouchard and Gravier in 1750–51.

Maria Zagala, Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2004).