Piranesi and the Gardens of Rome

detail from the Villa Albani

Italy has always been famous for its classical monuments and, since the Renaissance,  for its gardens too.  Both attracted tourists in growing numbers, particularly as the Grand Tour became an essential part of the education of almost every young northern European member of the elite.

Aristocratic or not  tourists have always  wanted souvenirs. Some wanted to take home antique sculptures, others to have their portraits painted in Italian settings by Italian artists, but others less wealthy had to be content with buying prints, and so the production of engravings of the major sites, towns and landscapes became a lucrative business.

The greatest exponent of these views – or vedute as they are known – was Giovanni Battista Piranesi  who possessed “one of the most imaginative minds ever to have brooded on the visual arts”.

detail of the Villa Pamphili

Such was the power of Piranesi’s imagery that these vedute created a lasting impression of Rome almost as magnificent as it  must have been in the days of the Caesars.  However,  they didn’t match with reality so it’s quite likely that tourists who saw his engravings  before they saw the actual sites themselves would probably have been disappointed!


Piranesi obviously loved Rome which is perhaps  surprising since he was born near Treviso in the Republic of Venice in 1720. His father was a stone mason and his uncle an architect so he grew up in a world of building, constructions, plans and sketches, and was probably assured a job alongside one of them. However when in about 1740 he had the chance to go as a draughtsman to Rome with the Venetian Ambassador to the papacy he grabbed it.

The Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli

So where did this enthusiasm for Rome come from?  Probably because of a shift in the balance of cultural power between the two cities. 18thc Venice was atrophied, and although it remained a permanent attraction of the  the Grand Tour the  centre of intellectual exchange was shifting to Rome. The Eternal City attracted not just tourists and the artists and dealers who served them, but antiquarians and architects like Robert Adam and John Soane who came to study the ruins.

Title page of the 1st edition of Prima parte di Architettura e Prospettive, 1743

On his arrival in Rome Piranesi  lived near  the French Academy in Rome which had been established by Louis XIV as a “finishing school” for aspiring French artists. He began by studying for a short period under Giuseppe Vasi,  an architect turned engraver who was already publishing vedute, and was to go on and produce several volumes of them in book form. But Piranesi was clearly anxious to test his own talents.

Prima parte di Architettura e Prospettive his first collection of a dozen or so prints of fanciful reconstructions of imaginary classical buildings was published in 1743.  The images bear similarities to contemporary theatre set designs, notably in the use of exaggerated perspective,  which he was to use to great effect in his depiction of gardens.  The collection was not a great commercial success although it was reissued in a revised form a few years later and some of the prints were recycled and appeared in other volumes.

Piranesi left Rome after it was  published, returning to Venice, before travelling to  see the excavations which had begun in 1738 at Herculaneum. He returned to Rome in 1745.

By then he had met with many of the students at the French Academy, and working with a group of them, he produced another series of engravings:  Varie Vedute di Roma Antica e Moderna in 1745.

The Villa Ludovisi from Varie Veduta. The Gardens were designed by Le Notre

This was reissued in 1748 as Antichita Romane and quickly earned Piranesi an international reputation. The plates were enormous in scale and printed on the finest quality paper.

Around the same time Piranesi opened his own workshop, and in 1751,  34 more  views of Rome appeared as Le Magnificenze di Roma.  In 1761 he acquired his own printing press which gave him control of the whole process from site measurement and drawing to the materials he used, and then engarving, printing and publishing. A further 135 prints gradually appeared over the next 25 years.

Nowadays the ancient monuments of Rome are well-protected but this was absolutely not the case in Piranesi’s day and most  were abandoned in fields and gardens, and many had plants growing all over them.

Even the central area around the Forum was simply known as the Campo Vaccino – the Cow Field.  The ruins evidently appealed to a growing antiquarianism within Piranesi, and his visit to  Herculaneum and the new excavations at Pompeii in the 1740s added to that interest. In 1751 he was even to become become director of the museum set up to house the finds.

Piranesi’s work  was certainly realistic but it was also antiquarianism writ large. He measured many of the buildings he engraved, the better to appreciate their construction and engineering. This enabled him to “fill in” the missing details of ruins, as well as faithfully capture their scale and appearance.  Combined with his skill at manipulating light and shade he gave his subjects a romantic, almost gothic, feel despite their classical origins. In a way his engravings can be seen as an attempt to “preserve” the ruins and certainly it’s true  they allow people to experience the “rustic” atmosphere of 18thc Rome.

As Kerrianne Stone points out in The Piranesi Effect, gardens, vegetation and landscape settings are prominent in many of his images of ruins and even the palazzi – and his use of nature, the way he places trees and plants on and around the ruins anchors them in reality, at the same time as anchoring them back to nature. There’s no doubt that the vegetation heightens the impression of decay and without “the vegetal stalactites that festoon the crumbling vaults … these scenes would lose much of their gravity.”

Now it’s about time I started talking about some of the gardens which are included in the views. although there are only a handful which are specifically designed to show them.

The Villa Albani


The Villa Albani featured in a print of 1769.  It was a huge new palace built between 1745 and 1767, just outside the old city walls for Cardinal Albani, who was the nephew of Pope Clement XI. The cardinal had  a series of small vineyards consolidated into a single plot and commissioned Giovanni Battista Nolli, to lay out a garden.  The villa was primarily to house Albani’s  vast collection of ancient sculptures and he employed Johann Winckelmann the great classical scholar to catalogue, arrange and research them. It quickly became a big attraction for those on the Grand Tour with people flocking to see the sculptures displayed not only inside but  on the terraces and in the garden too. That may be the reason Piranesi added  the villa and garden to what was otherwise largely a collection of ancient monuments.

detail from Villa Albani

The garden is seen from an oblique angle, which distorts the view in much the same way as a wide angle lens might do.  Piranesi doesn’t show the whole garden, and there is probably more missing than included. The view ends with the large Fontana dei Facchini, with its four Atlas figures. This is now in the Louvre, part of the loot  taken to Paris by the French  in 1797, and unlike smaller works of art  was considered too expensive and complicated to return after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815.  The garden extends further to the right of the print and ended with a large pavilion called the Caffeaus [or coffeehouse]   which had a  grand semi-circular portico.

The site was originally relatively flat but Nolli created a sunken garden  to display the cardinal’s treasures. It had a double axis, grand fountain and two streams running its length from the palace to the southern entrance with a statue of  Amphitrite,  the wife of Poseidon the sea god,  as the focal point of a series of cascades. There is a detailed description by Tom Turner

detail from the Villa Albani

Of course tastes change and a century later Henry James, the American novelist visited in 1873 and was less than impressed:   “Yesterday to the Villa Albani. Over-formal and (as my companion says) too much like a tea-garden; but with beautiful stairs and splendid geometrical lines of immense box-hedge, intersected with high pedestals supporting little antique busts….And yet a Roman villa, in spite of statues, ideas and atmosphere, affects me as of a scanter human and social portée, a shorter, thinner reverberation, than an old English country-house, round which experience seems piled so thick. But this perhaps is either hair-splitting or “racial” prejudice. ”

detail from Villa Albani

One of the interesting features of this print is that amongst the most prominent of the people shown are Albani’s gardeners.  They are also the most animated. As Colin Holden points out in the video below this might not be so surprising when you know that Piranesi’s wife, Angelica, was the daughter of a gardener to Prince Corsini.

The Villa Albani [now Villa Albani-Torlonia] somehow escaped destruction as Rome grew round it and although parts of the garden have been sold and developed, it’s now Rome’s only example of an 18th-century villa still in a more or less pristine state. What remains is still well maintained although until recently the villa and its gardens have not been open to the public. There is an article by Clive Cookson in the Financial Times in May 2019 describing the gardens today, and explaining  how this was now changing with  “free” visits bookable  in advance with a suggested “donation” of least €50.

The Villa Albani today

The Villa d’Esté in Tivoli originally built for Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este in the 16thc was the subject of another etching published in 1773.   The Villa was a sort of consolation prize for his not being elected pope and the cardinal splashed out huge sums on rebuilding a former monastery and laying out the grandest of grand Renaissance gardens down the hillside in front of the house. It required vast amounts of engineering and earthmoving  to pull off such a seemingly effortless playing with space,

Villa d”este

Tivoli is the meeting place of three of the Tiber’s spring-fed tributaries and so the gardens of the Villa d’Este are  dominated by water which is  used to power the garden’s array of cascades and fountains and even a water organ.

Piranesi’s  view focused on the garden, and looks straight down the central axis  up to the villa on the summit outlined against the sky.  Water dominates the garden, the fountains  are shown  in full working order with water gushing out and cascading through the network  of paths that take the visitor down the steep slope from the villa. Vast engineering and earthwork was required to pull off such a seemingly effortless play of space,

On the  the central “vertical” axis you can see  the Fountain of Gentle Dragons, and the multi-storied Fountain of the Cups   and lower down, running across  the garden is  the misleadingly named  Alley of a Hundred Fountains which links two more grand fountains. [Misleading because there are actually 300] It has water sprays and jets spouting out from eagles, boats and animal mouths,  into three canals.

Piranesi uses artistic license  to reveal the scale of the site.  His drawing was made from the centre of a circle of cypress trees  which he did not include because had he done so they would have obstructed a complete view of the site.  Several of these trees still survive.

detail from Villa d’Este


He further emphasised the scale of the site by  distorting the perspective, with the fountains and statues in the foreground  shown larger than reality, while most of the figures portrayed are drawn much smaller.

detail from Villa d’Este


Two years later, in 1776, Piranesi published  another impressive view, this time of the   baroque Villa Pamphili. This started life as the country house of the Pamphili family, again just outside the Roman walls,  but when Giambattista Pamphili was elected Pope Innocent X in 1644, it wasn’t grand enough for  his new status and a new palace was commissioned.  This was surrounded by extensive grounds with a lemon grove, some  follies and a water-filled grotto.


This time Piranesi chose an  oblique viewpoint  far above the site. This gives good sense of its scale, whilst he also played  with perspective, reducing the size of the people strolling among the parterres, and exaggerating the trees which  frame the scene.

The gardens of the Villa Pamphili, were later extended by the acquisition of neighbouring properties  and are  now Rome’s largest park, and can be seen in great detail in an Italian documentary about them available on youtube.

Sadly although Piranesi considered his real metier was as an architect  he did not really get many opportunities to practice.  The pope asked him to submit designs for the restoration of a  church but, in the end, did not commission him to do the work.

The boundary of the piazza also designed by Piranesi


However the pope’s nephew Cardinal Rezzonico, offered him the chance to restore another church,  Santa Maria del Priorato, and create the piazza on which it stands.  This may have been the reason Piranesi was awarded a papal knighthood in 1767 and become a Cavaliere. The church is also where he is buried. Irene Small has written a detailed architectural analysis .

The Piranesi Vase

If Piranesi did not build actual buildings he certainly imagined them.  Not content with simply recording and copying what he saw, his imaginative genius also led him to invent.  His  fictitious monuments, objects and scenes are now probably better known than his images of real things. Amongst them are the  highly architectural “Prison” engravings and  the  gigantic “Roman” vase, the ultimate fake antique for an English stately home, now known as the Piranesi Vase now in the British Museum.

Piranesi’s  legacy was ensured by his son and collaborator, Francesco, who saved  the printing plates, and re-used them to publish Twenty-nine folio volumes containing about 2000 prints in Paris (1835–1837).

For a comprehensive overview of Piranesi’s work see Luigi Ficacci’s Piranesi: The Complete Etchings, published by Taschen,  [undated]For more on Piranesi, Arcadia and the Theatre see, Susan Dixon’s article “Vasi, Piranesi and the Accademia degli Arcadi”, in Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome  (Vol.61 2016)

Gardeners at work on a fountain in the gardens of the Villa Albani


About The Gardens Trust

Email - education@thegardenstrust.org Website - www.thegardenstrust.org
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