Here we are looking at a portrait of the artist himself. However, it is not his work, but the work of his eldest son, Francesco. Francesco had been given a comprehensive training as an artist at the hands of several important masters in Rome, and worked closely with his father in his printing studio. Francesco was just 20 when his father died. As inheritor of his father’s business, he reprinted his father’s work, as well as publishing a sizeable output of his own. Francesco designed this portrait as the frontispiece for his reprint of his father’s most celebrated work, a comprehensive four-volume treatment of the ruins of Rome (the Antichità Romane).
In this context, it was natural that he showed his father as though he were an ancient Roman, in profile on part of a monument that had survived from the classical era. It was the kind of visual play that Francesco’s father had quite consciously engaged in himself. When Francesco was only four years old, his father had done something very similar in a tiny corner of a map of ancient Rome, where he showed himself looking like an emperor on an ancient Roman coin. And to Piranesi, the ancient Roman world was far more than simply a subject for his highly successful works; he saw its values as a model for people in daily life. He even tried to base his behaviour as a husband, father and household head on those of ancient Rome – which can hardly have been easy for his wife and children.
Later, as an adult, Francesco himself became a supporter of republicanism, as the ideas of the French Revolution spread across Europe. At the same time that Francesco supported a short-lived republican government in Rome itself, his heroes in history became some of the leading figures in ancient Rome before the appearance of the first emperors – anti-imperial figures like Brutus, who took part in the plot against Julius Caesar. For the Piranesis and many of their contemporaries, the classical world was not something past and distant, but spoke to them directly in many different ways.