What are the various print-making techniques that Piranesi used to create his prints? What are the differences between these techniques? We will begin by imagining that we are visiting his workshop in the Strada Felice near the Spanish Steps in Rome. What we see is a French workshop of the same period, but the range of activities that are being carried out here are no different from the ones that took place in an Italian workshop of the same period.
Engraving and etching are two different techniques, but both involve the working of lines into the surface of a metal plate – nearly always copper – using a variety of pointed tools. In engraving, the lines are worked directly into the plate with printmaking tools – a burin or graver. The plate would generally be rested on a cushion in such a way that the artist could turn it at different angles while creating an individual line. However, the resistance of the metal makes anything like the free line of drawing impossible, and great discipline as well as ingenuity were needed to build up a pattern of lines that would create the illusions of tone, sometimes almost of colour, as well as depth and perspective. Many of Piranesi’s prints, and many large prints by other artists, use a combination of engraved and etched lines on the one plate, but pure engraving was seen as the more technically difficult process. It was particularly favoured for use in portraits. In this collaborative portrait of Pope Clement XIII, the portrait itself, by Domenico Cunego, one of Piranesi’s contemporaries, is engraved, while most of the other details have been etched by Piranesi.
Etching was in some ways a more complicated process than engraving, but allowed the artist to create a freer line, much closer to that of a drawn one. In our 18th-century French studio we can see all the major steps that went into making an etched plate. Firstly, the plate would be completely coated with a wax-based coating that is acid-resistant. This is called the ‘ground’. Next, the ground would be blackened by waving a lit candle or taper across the surface. The artist would draw through the wax using pointed instruments of varying degrees of fineness, often termed ‘needles’. Against the charcoal deposit left by the tapers, the lines created would show up as a pink copper colour.
The word etching comes from a German word meaning to eat or corrode, and the next step explains why. The lines would be deepened by immersing the plate in an acid bath. Here we see studio assistants preparing the acid, then the plate being submerged in the acid bath. The acid would only eat into the plate where the metal was exposed, and not through the wax-based coating. For delicate lines, just one immersion might be enough, and then these would be covered over – the term is ‘stopped out’ – with an acid-resistant substance and the plate would be immersed more times in order to create deeper, and then the deepest lines. Here we see studio assistants emptying acid from the bath.
If the printmaker were dissatisfied with any of the line-work at this stage, there were ways of making alterations. One was to work on the rear of the plate with small hammers or mallets, as we see here. There might also be some etched lines made directly onto the plate, and not worked through a ground – known as ‘drypoint’. The graver, used to draw on the plate, throws up a kind of metal furrow on each side of such lines. These catch the ink, resulting in rich, dark lines and an almost fuzzy overall effect.
Now for the printing. The plate is warmed on a hot-plate, and then inked evenly with a dabber. A dampened paper sheet is placed on top of the plate, which lies face upwards on the bed of a press. The press consists of two rollers operated manually by a wheel. Even pressure is secured by laying blankets over both the plate and paper. In passing through the press, the paper is forced into the inked lines on the plate, creating the printed impression. The plate also leaves a distinctive indentation made by the edges of the plate (‘plate mark’). The sheet is then hung up to dry. If the paper sheet were a large one, it might be hung over a line to dry, leaving a fold-mark on its reverse side. Fold-marks are visible on the back of some of Piranesi’s views of Rome.
Many of Piranesi’s earlier prints were printed in the workshop of a French bookseller and publisher in Rome, but from 1761 until his death he was able to afford his own staff and a workshop with two presses. Like the French workshop in the illustrations, Piranesi’s workshop offered employment to a range of people, from young apprentices to senior craftsmen. Able apprentices could slowly work their way upward, mastering all the printmaking skills, and might remain in one studio for life. In the 1790s, almost 15 years after Piranesi’s death, his sons were still employing members of the Mori family, who had joined the workshop in the 1760s. In the last decade of his life, many of the publications from Piranesi’s workshop, such as the big book on Trajan’s Column, were primarily the creation of studio staff, who copied from drawings made by Piranesi.
We know from sources close to his oldest son that Piranesi himself often worked from memory onto the copper plate. Drawings on site were something he seems only to have done to impress things into his memory, which must have been what we would now call ‘photographic’. In the studio, it was as though he was starting afresh, and he was known to work unusually rapidly.
Now let’s look at some individual prints, just to start to gain some idea of the quite different effects Piranesi obtained. The way in which pure etching could simulate the freedom of drawing is clear in this early work, published in 1748, showing an arch at Ancona. It has much of the lightness and airiness that characterised Venetian printmaking of his day.
The feature that marks Piranesi from all his contemporaries is the extraordinary range of line-work in a single print, from intensely dark to the most light and delicate. Let’s look for a moment at this view of the Arch of Titus. On the right, the arch and the deep shadows around it are created from the dramatic lines that Piranesi made by immersing the plate between 10 and 12 times in the acid bath. At the opposite extreme, look at the delicate details in the background, such as the three columns of the temple to the left of the man gesturing. These would have been scratched very lightly through the wax-based ground, then ‘stopped out’ when the plate was repeatedly submerged in acid.
This view of the interior of the so-called Temple of the Cough contains more examples of the deeply bitten and therefore dark lines. In fact, while the first edition of this image looks quite dramatic, what we see here is a second edition or state, where Piranesi added new lines to an already quite intense area – the arch that frames the view into the dome. Sometimes he inked the plate so heavily in works like this that the inking actually obscures individual lines in the plate, printing as a dark, almost solid mass. In his own printing studio, he also seems to have been using heavier printing presses than many other printmakers, which was another way of reinforcing the intensity he strove for.
We can easily be overpowered by the drama created through these techniques and miss the lightness and airiness that he could also convey. The archway, made up from deeply bitten lines, looks all the more imposing because of the delicate lines of the columns stretching under the archway into the distance, and the suggestion of a hazy, shimmering Italian summer sky. In fact, Piranesi’s skies are a study of their own. Often, but not always, they include small groups of irregular, dark lines. If we look again at the view of the Arch of Titus, we can see these lines in the sky above the walls on the left. Sometimes these create an oddly unsettling effect, as they do in this view of the Forum. Shimmering light effects are also a feature of some of Piranesi’s views of the interiors of the great pilgrimage churches of Rome. This long perspective view inside St Peter’s is typical. This edition was printed in the 1750s, when Piranesi’s views were being printed on presses that were lighter in weight than the ones he subsequently used.
Some etchers would make all the lines on the plate with a single needle or etching tool, but a close look at Piranesi’s views of Rome show that in these images he used several different needles, of varying thicknesses. This is the case with the parallel lines that make up the columns in this view of the Temple of Concord. Looked at in isolation, the effect is almost surreal, as though we were looking at a work by a mid-20th-century artist.
These are only a few of the almost endlessly varied effects that Piranesi obtained in his printing, but I hope that this introduction helps you begin to appreciate the remarkable gifts of this great artist, and to realise how rewarding it can be to look closely at his work.
List of featured works
1 Denis Diderot (editor), Encyclopédie, ou, Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers (Paris, Chez Briasson, David l’Ainé, Le Breton, Durand), 1751–72, Rare Books collection, State Library of Victoria
2 Giovanni Battista Piranesi and Domenico Cunego, Portrait of Pope Clement XIII, etching, from Opere di Giovanni Battista Piranesi, vol. 7 (Paris, Francesco Piranesi), 1800–07, Special Collections, Baillieu Library, The University of Melbourne
3 Denis Diderot (editor), Encyclopédie, ou, Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers (Paris, Chez Briasson, David l’Ainé, Le Breton, Durand), 1751–72, Rare Books collection, State Library of Victoria
4 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Veduta del prospetto principale della Colonna Trajana (View of Trajan’s Column), originally published in Trofeo o sia Magnifica Colonna (Rome, Giovanni Battista Piranesi), 1774–79, this impression from Opere di Giovanni Battista Piranesi, vol. 11 (Paris, Francesco and Pietro Piranesi), 1800–07, Special Collections, Baillieu Library, The University of Melbourne
5 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Arco di Trajano in Ancona (Arch of Trajan at Ancona), etching, from Antichità Romane de’Tempi della Repubblica (Rome, Giovanni Battista Piranesi), 1748, Rare Books collection, State Library of Victoria
6 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Veduta dell’ Arco di Tito (View of the Arch of Titus), 1765–78 impression, etching and engraving, from Vedute di Roma, 1748–78, Rare Books collection, State Library of Victoria
7 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Veduta interna del Tempio della Tosse (Interior View of the Temple of the Cough), 1765–78 impression, etching and engraving, from Vedute di Roma, 1748–78, Rare Books collection, State Library of Victoria
8 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Avanzi d’un portico coperto, o criptoportico in una Villa di Domiziano (Ruins of a Covered Portico in a Villa of Domitian), 1765–78 impression, etching and engraving, from Vedute di Roma, 1748–78, Rare Books collection, State Library of Victoria
9 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Veduta di Campo Vaccino (View of the Campo Vaccino), 1765–78 impression, etching and engraving, from Vedute di Roma, 1748–78, Rare Books collection, State Library of Victoria
10 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Veduta interna della Basilica di S Pietro (Interior view of the Basilica of St Peter), 1765–78 impression, etching and engraving, from Vedute di Roma, 1748–78, Rare Books collection, State Library of Victoria
11 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Altra veduta degli avanzi del Pronao del Tempio della Concordia (Another view of the Temple of Concord’s vestibule), 1765–78 impression, etching and engraving, from Vedute di Roma, 1748–78, Rare Books collection, State Library of Victoria
'I hope this helps you begin to appreciate the remarkable gifts of this great artist, and to realise how rewarding it can be to look closely at his work'
- Dr Colin Holden
About this video
Italian 18th-century master-printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi was famous for his images of classical and baroque Rome. This 11-part video series reveals the details and meaning behind the figures depicted in prints featured in the Library's 2014 exhibition, Rome: Piranesi's vision.
In this video, exhibition curator Dr Colin Holden outlines the extraordinary technical skills and artistry displayed in Piranesi's works.
Watch the other videos in this series:
- View of the Piazza di Spagna (the Spanish Steps)
- The Outlet of Lake Albano
- Portrait of Giovanni Battista Piranesi
- Temple of Antoninus and Faustina
- Internal View of St Paul Outside-the-Walls
- View of the Cardinal Albani's Villa
- View of the Customs House
- Ruins of a Covered Portico in a Villa of Domitian
- View of two churches near Trajan's Column
- View of the Quirinal Palace Square
Dr Colin Holden is a historian, curator and author. He was awarded the Redmond Barry Fellowship in 2010 to research the majestic works of 18th-century Italian printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi and the associated 2014 State Library exhibition, Rome: Piranesi's vision.