Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 14, 2022
Carolyn Yerkes and Heather Hyde Minor Piranesi Unbound Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020. 240 pp.; 193 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780691206103)

Among recent contributions to Piranesi studies, Piranesi Unbound occupies a special place as a volume clearly aligned with the “material turn" of art history. The coauthors, experts on architectural drawings and prints, are implicitly and productively critical of the canonical type of art historical research, concentrating specifically on what classical art history has regarded as parerga—the technical, material, and economic aspects of artistic production. Utilizing variegated forms of writing, Yerkes and Minor draw the reader into the experience of a close study of individual material objects. From one chapter to the next, the narrative is liable to be interrupted by a checklist, say, or by a minute description of the intellectual “laboratory” of attribution. The tome, moreover, is illustrated with color plates that convey the material sense of Piranesi’s work: some of the reproductions include not just a print, nor even the flat image of a whole page, but rather a photograph of the entire original book opened to the desired place. Thus, the color of paper, the battered underlying pages, and the leather cover edges of a particular copy all form part of the message.

All in all, Piranesi Unbound proposes a view of Piranesi focused on book production and trade as the presumed real kernel of his world. The authors’ statement (in the introduction) that Piranesi’s prints, as a rule, had previously been considered outside the book context is provocative but not entirely correct. In fact, analyzing his artistic works as component elements of his publications on Roman topography, history, and architecture stands as a commonplace of Piranesi studies. However, Minor and Yerkes do shift the inquiry from the framework of intellectual history to that of “book history.” Whatever Piranesi’s sublime vision as an artist, architect, and scholar of antiquities, the authors assert that he communicated it to his public through a material carrier—which is to say, books—and that the book page was his primary medium. Minor already laid the foundations for this approach with the publication of her Piranesi’s Lost Words (Penn State University Press, 2015); now those ideas have been supported with interesting new findings. In their joint introduction and in the following six (individually authored) chapters, each devoted either to a case study or to an aspect of book production, Yerkes and Minor demonstrate that a close analysis of the techniques, culture, and economy of bookmaking can furnish Piranesi studies with new materials and modes of discussion.

To achieve his goal—which was to become an author of antiquarian publications illustrated with prints of the utmost quality—Piranesi needed the assistance of a team of writers, translators, and scribes. While the production of prints entailed supervising a workshop, letterpress printing required a different team working on different machines. The two workshops were hardly compatible in a single enterprise, or at least Piranesi himself chose not to buy a letterpress. Instead, he either inscribed his texts directly onto plates for printing or, more frequently, entrusted them to an outside press. Knowledge of this technical background enables one to regard Piranesi’s work with a more informed eye. The declared focus on the book page as medium is reified in Yerkes’s meticulous discussion of Piranesi’s vignettes and decorated capital letters. Interestingly, she has demonstrated Piranesi’s own attention to the material qualities of Latin written words, whether as inscriptions in cast bronze, metal coinage, or stone, since he referred to all these techniques in his vignettes.

An important discovery enriching our knowledge of Piranesi emerges from observations on his habit of using and reusing paper as his material. The investigation of some proofs of his prints and of a particular group of his drawings enables a close-up view of Piranesi’s practice in his triple capacity as artist, publisher of antiquities, and head of a print workshop. When conceiving his staffage personages, Piranesi hastily drafted various figures, mainly his own printers at work, using wastepaper from the workshop for this purpose. Investigating such scraps of paper reused for proofs and drawings, while (literally) piecing this puzzle together again, Minor and Yerkes have reconstructed a printer’s colophon from a title page dated to 1753, as well as small portions of an unpublished antiquarian text. Their conclusion is that in this year Piranesi was intent on publishing a book on tombs, which unlike his previous collections was to include printed texts. This unrealized project stands at the halfway point between his first archaeological series without letterpress text (ca. 1750) and his magnum opus of 1756, Le Antichità Romane.

The finding of this dated title page of a discarded publication fits well with the idea of the complex evolution of Le Antichità Romane, during which the scope of the project changed dramatically: a collection devoted solely to tombs morphed into a mammoth four-volume edition describing all extant remnants of ancient Rome. We have otherwise been informed about this evolution from Piranesi’s own letters to his patron, which he edited and published as a booklet under the title Lettere di Giustificazione Scritte a Milord Charlemont (1757) and which reflect his conflict with the latter. To approach this much described and convoluted incident afresh is not an easy task. Yet Minor has illuminated Piranesi’s unparalleled move to mobilize support from the community of potential readers by locating all the extant copies of the Lettere, each inscribed by Piranesi’s hand to a particular addressee, that are presently dispersed in libraries all over the world. The annotated list of the Lettere’s owners known to date, which completes the relevant chapter, will furnish Piranesi scholars with an instrument enabling further analysis of the reception of his books.

The joint history of Le Antichità Romane and the Lettere continues in Minor’s chapter on the bindings of Piranesi’s books. In the eighteenth century the concept of binding a book was more fluid than it is today, as bindings were not necessarily fashioned by the publisher for the entire print run. Piranesi exploited this for his own purposes. The Lettere appears in manuscript form, in the first printed edition, and with the addition of other primary materials, bound within a few special copies of Le Antichità Minor selected two such unique copies (from Biblioteca Braidense in Milan and Biblioteca Corsiniana in Rome) to show how they illuminate the story of the conflict. She also investigates other bound versions of Le Antichità, presently in American libraries, which invite a different type of interest. These copies have been mutilated by owners who left the text intact but cut out the prints for commercial use. For a present-day researcher, however, these works represent material facts of “active reading,” or physical involvement with the book itself, rather than mere spoilage. Yerkes’s chapter on purchasing Piranesi through history confirms the practice of using Piranesi’s prints separately from the books to which they once belonged, as evident from an analysis of collections, catalogs, and advertisements.

These and other findings—as well as new and varied ways of presenting them with the help of full-page, two-page, and even (following Piranesi’s own model) folded illustrations, collages, and diagrams—all make the book a sort of statement on the methods, objectives, and audience of present-day research. Yet it must also be said that Piranesi studies represent a special case: material and socioeconomic aspects of Piranesi’s art were so salient that they evoked art historical investigation from the start. Hence, some of the topics discussed in the book—such as the history of Le Antichità Romane, with inspection of its special copies—overlap with long-standing interests of Piranesi scholars. In particular, the existence of the discarded book project which preceded Le Antichità had already been hypothesized previously on the basis of contextual data; even its very title, I sepolcri antichi, had been tentatively established by scholars. The authors of Piranesi Unbound do not always pause to reconstruct the historiography of these questions. As a result, on one hand, new is not always clearly distinguished from old in their contribution, and on the other hand, the sense of deliberate and accurately built continuity with previous research is somewhat lacking.

In terms of the intended audience, the material characteristics of this profusely illustrated volume should appeal to general art lovers, but the text itself is intended first and foremost for scholars of Piranesi and of eighteenth-century book culture. Parts of the book consist of extremely focused essays on Piranesi’s studio practice, public relations, and commercial fate—topics that would ordinarily be more at home among the materials of a specialized academic journal. Hopefully this unusual combination will help to entice a broader public into the complexities and technicalities of Piranesi’s workshop practice and trade, and of the art of print in general.

Lola Kantor-Kazovsky
Senior Lecturer, Department of Art History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem