Views of Rome more or less derived from the works of Giovanni Battista Piranesi are so omnipresent in the city itself—in shopwindows, on wrapping paper, in hotels and homes—that they have become virtually impossible to see for what they once were. Although Piranesi's monumental achievements, his many books and hundreds of prints, were founded on those of earlier generations of antiquarians, his work was strikingly original in its own time. At once faithful to the actual appearance of monuments and dramatic in their visual rhetoric, Piranesi's etchings provided views of the city shaped by the mind of an architect and antiquarian. Despite all this, for many viewers the singularity of these images is all but invisible because of the superficial familiarity of Piranesi's prints—itself a sign of their broad legacy.

Into the breach has come Heather Hyde Minor, who with Piranesi's Lost Words restores the artist's errant images to the books where they belong. She demonstrates that Piranesi's greatest ambition was as an author, and that only accidents of history have obscured this fact. In so doing, she restores not only the full physical and material presence of Piranesi's books, bringing into focus the relation of text and image, but also the social and intellectual worlds his work addressed.

Minor begins with the question, “Why did Piranesi want to be an author?” (5). He was already an architect and a printmaker, and it is not obvious why he sought to excel in yet another arena. Minor argues that writing brought prestige and authority, and put Piranesi into dialogue with the premier scholars and antiquarians of Europe. It put him at the center of eighteenth-century debates about the classical legacy of Greece and Rome, allowing him to wield both the pen and the etcher's needle as his weapons of choice. The marriage of text and image was not a perfect one, however, because Piranesi's way with words could not always match his visual acuity and flair. The tension between these realms forms one of the core subjects of Minor's book.

The book is organized into seven chapters. The first two focus on Piranesi's monumental publication the Antichità romane, a four-volume work published in 1756, comprising 72 pages of text and 214 plates. The book included city views, plans reconstructing ancient buildings, inscriptions, and images of assorted sculpture and ornamental features. Intriguingly, Minor frames her discussion by reading back from the twenty-first century, allowing us to grasp the unique physicality of the volumes and the experience of turning their pages. In chapter 2 she considers how eighteenth-century readers would have read and understood the text and images differently than we do. She discusses such rarely addressed issues as who Piranesi's collaborators were, how much the books would have cost, and how one would have bought one. She also suggests that readers were not universally enthralled. She quotes Tobias Smollett, a Scottish author, who indicated that Piranesi was “apt to run riot in his conjectures; and with regard to the arts of antient [sic] Rome, has broached some doctrines, which he will find it very difficult to maintain” (61).

A complex topic that Minor broaches in chapter 2, one woven throughout the book, is that of Piranesi's borrowings from other sources, both visual and textual. For example, for the Antichità Piranesi used some plates from earlier books by other authors. Minor writes, “Whether we view this as sampling or as piracy, these practices were common and were part of how large illustrated books were produced in eighteenth-century Rome” (55). Of course, modern readers may find such attitudes challenging to grasp, given the current fixation on copyright and plagiarism, as well as the legal framework surrounding them. Minor's task in contextualizing these practices is even more difficult when it comes to Piranesi's textual borrowings. Minor quotes one of his eighteenth-century biographers, Giovanni Ludovico Bianconi, who went so far as to assert that Piranesi's work was written by others: “He cleverly enrolled some eminent men of letters who, in admiration of his genius and his etchings, were not above working for him, composing text to fit his beautiful prints, and generously permitting him to publish them under his own name.…Eventually, Piranesi persuaded himself that these books, composed by so many distinguished hands, were entirely his own work and woe betide anyone who did not agree—even the authors themselves” (61). While rescuing Piranesi from this character assassination, Minor offers a nuanced assessment of his collaborative working methods, which were the norm rather than the exception in his day. She also points out where the writing is most obviously his own, in particular in his on-site observations of monuments.

Minor's aim is to make the case for Piranesi as “not just a fiercely talented artist but an extraordinary author” (209). To do so, she must not only describe the content of books unknown to her audience (and largely unavailable except to readers of Italian) but also demonstrate that texts containing large chunks of copied material can still be original. Specifically, she argues that Piranesi “practiced incredible originality through copying” (208). Whether readers find this persuasive may depend on how much they are willing to free themselves from the modern-day cult of the single author and embrace the eighteenth-century practice of collaboration. Minor attempts to help readers along the way, but without firsthand knowledge of the texts, some may strain to grasp this point.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 take on three of Piranesi's other major publications, the Campus Martius antiquae urbis (1762), Della magnificenza ed architettura de’ Romani (1761), and Diverse maniere d'adornare i cammini…(1769). For each, Minor provides a sense not just of the book's contents but also of how it was read and used. She conveys the physicality of each book as well, even including an image of herself holding open the pages of one (85, fig. 55). In this she contributes to a new emphasis on the materiality of the book, already established in other fields but relatively new to early modern studies.1 

The final two chapters trace the loss of Piranesi's legacy, due mainly to the gross incompetence of his surviving heirs, and its recovery at the hands of modern and postmodern architects. According to Minor's vivid picture, to call Piranesi's family dysfunctional would be an understatement and an anachronism. Toward the end of his life, Piranesi thought his family was trying to kill him. Beyond its soap operatic interest, Minor's family portrait explains how Piranesi's careful curation of his legacy was undone. The final chapter, which tracks how Rudolf Wittkower brought Piranesi to the attention of modernists, may be of special interest to architects. Indeed, the resurrection of Piranesi as a forefather of modern and postmodern architecture is a rich enough story for a book of its own.

Throughout the book, Minor brings historical figures vividly to life, opening each chapter with a vignette: “Robert Adam had given up hope” (83), or “Laura Piranesi was preparing for her wedding” (183). More typical of a novel than a scholarly book, these scenes draw the reader in and keep him or her engaged as Minor builds the story out to include an account of the myriad forces at work in the creation and reception of Piranesi's oeuvre.

Minor's light touch—her absorbing anecdotes and engaging prose—belies the depth of her scholarship. Piranesi was nothing if not prodigious, and sorting out his relations to his contemporaries cannot have been easy. But the effort does not show, and, despite its serious scholarship, the text, like Piranesi's prints, is not without whimsy. Minor points out a street urchin urinating on the Pantheon in one print, and she describes a book's binding, with “its brown faux leather spine and bright turquoise and olive marbleized paper cover,” as “the equivalent of the era's polyester leisure suit, ready for a night out at a disco” (15).

When reviewing a book called Piranesi's Lost Words, it may be unfair to lament that it is not enough about images. Rather than see this as a deficit, I will simply say that the richness of Minor's discussion of texts made me wish for a broader, more integrated view. Focusing primarily on text, Minor has avoided Piranesi's own flaw: she has sidestepped the hazards of redundancy by discussing texts largely ignored by scholarship. But as a writer, she holds considerably more promise than Piranesi ever did, and this reader at least could not help but wish she had been willing to tread again on well-trodden ground so as to paint the whole picture of the whole Piranesi. The good news is that unlike Piranesi, whose sheer volume of prose is likely to leave a reader exhausted, Minor leaves us wanting more.


See, for example, the discussion of John James Audubon's books in Jennifer L. Roberts, Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014). See also Leah Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012).