An Italian etcher and engraver, b. at Venice, 1720; d. in Rome, 9 Nov., 1778. His uncle Lucchesi gave him lessons in drawing, until in 1738 his father, a mason, sent him to Rome to study architecture under Valeriani and engraving under Vasi. He did not return except for a brief visit to his family. In 1741 he brought out a work on arches, bridges, and other remains of antiquity, a notable monument of black and white art; thereafter he opened a gallery for the sale of prints, chiefly his own. He was a rapid and facile worker and etched more than 2000 large plates, full of detail, vigour, and brilliancy. As a rule he drew directly on copper, and hence his work is bold, free, and spirited to a marked degree; his shadows are luminous, but at times there is too much chiaroscuro . The result is a dramatic alternation of black and white, and of light and shade, which deservedly won for him the name of "the Rembrandt of architecture".
Skilful and artistic printing lent an added charm to his proofs, and the poor impressions that exist in western Europe come from plates that were captured by British warships during the Napoleonic wars. Some of the etchings in his twenty-nine folio volumes are on double-elephant paper, ten feet in length. While he achieved a work of magnitude in pictorial records of Roman monuments of antiquity and of the Renaissance, and gave immense archæological, antiquarian, and topographical value to this work, the artistic quality always predominates. He was fond of peopling his ruins with Callot-like figures, and "like Callot makes great use of the swelling line" (Hind). His plates ultimately came into the possession of the pope. Although not eminent as an architect he repaired among other edifices the church of S. Maria del Popolo, and the Priory of Malta, in which is a life-size statue to his memory. Piranesi married a peasant, and his children, Francesco and Laura, were of great assistance to him towards the end of his laborious life. Laura's touch strongly resembles that of her father. He was decorated with the Order of Christ and was made a member of the London Society of Antiquaries. His works are: "Roman Antiquities" (220 plates); Views of Rome (130 plates); Antique Statues, Vases and Busts (350 plates); Magnificence of the Romans (47 plates).
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