This page was created by Erin Jones.  The last update was by Zoe Langer.

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Palace of the Academy on the Via del Corso, established by Louis XIV, King of France for French students of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture

As the lengthy caption of this view indicates, the French Academy was located on the Via del Corso in Rome and founded by Louis XIV for “students of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture.” From the moment Piranesi arrived in Rome he made strong connections to the students, or pensionnaires, of the Academy. The institution’s illustrious circle of artists, architects, printers, and patrons helped Piranesi to flourish in his early years as an emerging author and vedutista. In fact, Piranesi set up his first workshop across from the Academy until he transferred to the Palazzo Tomati in 1760, where he established his own printshop and museum. His signature from this early period can still be seen in the capriccio below: “Piranesi inv[entò], incise, e vende dirimpetto all’Accademia di Francia in Roma [Designed, engraved, and sold by Piranesi in front of the French Academy in Rome].” 

In these early years he contributed forty-eight small views to the popular illustrated guidebook, Varie vedute di Roma antica e moderna disegnate e intagliate da celebri autori (1745), which involved many well-known artists of the French Academy including Jérôme-Charles Bellicard and Jean-Laurent Legeay. Piranesi continued to collaborate with the pensionnaires on his own publications. For example, he called upon Jean Barbault’s expertise for figural engraving in the third volume of the Antichità Romane and Charles Michel Ange Challe is said to have provided the French text of the Diverse maniere d’adornare i cammini and his last publication, the Ville de Pesto. Painter Hubert Robert, who often accompanied Piranesi on his excursions and excavations, adopted Piranesi’s combination of architectural fantasy and archaeology in his large and sweeping views of ruins. These connections provide insight into the collaborative nature of Piranesi’s work, his reception in France among collectors and French artists, and the ways Academic culture shaped Piranesi’s career and artistic practice. 

Perhaps as an homage to the French Academy, Piranesi describes the institution in elaborate detail. He describes how “models of the rarest Statues and other examples of Roman Magnificence, both ancient and modern” were exhibited for artists to copy and draw. For example, the right side of the Palazzo (labeled “1”) displayed models of the “Column of Trajan, Equestrian and Free-Standing Statues, Busts, and Bas-reliefs.” The Academy encouraged direct contact with ancient art.  In the idealized view of the Academy below, Giovanni Panini, who also taught perspective at the Academy, shows the students sketching ancient sculptures as they are surrounded by paintings of the Pantheon, Colosseum, and the Tomb of Cecilia Metella, the “examples of Roman Magnificence” Piranesi describes in the text (Galitz 2003). It is interesting to note that many of these views bear a striking resemblance to Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma
Further emphasizing the hands-on approach of the Academy’s curriculum is the colossal ancient statue being wheeled into the institution right in the middle of the busy Roman street. Residents of the Academy shout from the balcony directing the men below on how to maneuver around the traffic of carriages, stalls, and tourists. As Piranesi outlines in the text, students not only copied sculptures, but also drew from life. Pensionnaires received lessons in anatomy and life drawing (annotation “1”). Piranesi further points out the apartments (“3” and “4”) where royal visitors, the director, and artists lived, showing how the palazzo served as a residence in addition to an academy of art and exhibition space. In this way, the artists formed crucial connections not only to other artists, but patrons and collectors. In fact, the director of the Academy, Charles-Joseph Natoire, promoted Piranesi’s Antichità Romane in France as soon as it had been published, including to the designer of Versailles gardens among other prominent architects (2015 Hyde Minor). The deep recession of the street all the way toward the Piazza del Popolo “7” allows viewers to take in all the details of the palace and street where Piranesi first set up shop in Rome. Such details provide viewers with a rare view into the way artists like Piranesi trained and formed networks in eighteenth century Rome. (ZL)

To see this image in Vedute di Roma, vol 16 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.

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