If I had the opportunity to create a world, I would be mad enough to do it.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi

The Italian visual artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) is best known for his architectural studies of Rome and “imaginary prisons.” While Rome remained his subject and his home, he depicted worlds both real and imagined. An innovative map-maker, he used cartography’s visual features—the manipulation of scale and perspective, the combination of image and text, and the expressivefeatures of light and shadow—to produce maps as well as images and books that are worlds unto themselves. Combining recent advances in cartography with inventive graphic design, his maps attempt to represent not only geographical space but also reconstructions of lost histories, combinations of the past and the present, and extensive networks of information.

Just as Piranesi pushed the boundaries of what a map could represent, the items in this exhibition expand the traditional definition of what a map is. In addition to maps of Rome, they include other works that resemble maps through their visual design or historical use. A map insists on the connection between the real world and its visual representation, but Piranesi’s maps challenge that connection by emphasizing their status as works of visual artistry. With keys that identify points of interest, maps—and Piranesi’s in particular—create networks of cross-references that are located in both the geographical space of Rome and the bibliographical space that unfolds across printed pages.  

The Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections is one of very few places in the world where these networks between maps, texts, and illustrated views can be studied in detail. Displayed in this exhibit are roughly one-third of the volumes in a rare complete set of his posthumous Opere [Works] (1837-9), which includes over 1000 images and unites his individual publications. His earliest works were individual engravings of Roman ruins marketed towards tourists. He soon began producing architectural fantasies and increasingly larger views, and he not only added engraved textual keys to these views but also supplied typeset indices, prefaces, and essays in his large illustrated books. Individually, his publications, especially the well-known “Carceri d’invenzione” [“Imaginary Prisons”] (c. 1761) and Vedute di Roma [Views of Rome] (1748-78), are significant works in the fields of art and architectural history. His works are also milestones in the culture of antiquarianism, the history of print, and the ages of Neoclassicism, the Baroque, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism. Seen together, they conjure a world in which modern cartography, ancient fragments, and imaginary architecture are all tightly interwoven.  

While Piranesi’s works focus on the archaeological history and architectural glories of Rome, their significance spreads beyond this geographical and disciplinary center. His engravings of Rome lured visitors from Northern Europe who embarked on the grand tour—in a few cases only to lead them to disappointment upon actually seeing the city—and loomed large in the imaginations of those who dreamt of the city from a distance. Commercial objects, works of architectural history, and incentives to travel and dream, Piranesi’s Views of Rome have been said to encourage us to think about the very nature of art, history, and civilization. 

Piranesi’s works have also been said to predict many elements of digital design. His views and maps include detailed alphabetic keys that seem to anticipate the hyperlink, his architectural studies often consist of multiple layered images that resemble digital tabs or windows, and his interior views are immersive in ways that suggest virtual reality. Digital elements of this exhibition illuminate these features of Piranesi’s works. His images are usually encountered individually, removed from the arguments and networks that bind his publications together. In this exhibition, Piranesi’s works are displayed individually but also situated, through digital supplements, within the worlds of the books he produced. His maps, with their combinations of historical imagination and information display, embody the innovative and meticulous nature of the worlds that he immortalizes in print and that this exhibition shares in their original formats and new media.