Virginia A. Myers, "Giovanni Battista Piranesi and Le Antichità Romane" in University of Iowa Museum of Art Bulletin, 1976.
A single volume from Le Antichità Romane would have made Piranesi a memorable etcher of eighteenth-century Italy. Besides three additional weighty volumes of this work, there are twenty-four volumes under other titles containing about 1,700 etchings.15 Most of these etchings are by his hand, but a few are by his two sons Francesco and Pietro, and a daughter, Laura.16
15. Arthur M. Hind, A History of Engraving and Etching (New York: Dover Publications, 1963), pp. 230-31.
16. Laura Piranesi was perhaps the second woman printmaker whom we can identify with a first and last name. Dr. Harold Joachim, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, suggests that the first was probably Diana Scultori (known also as Ghisi, although incorrectly). Born in Mantua about 1535, she was the sister of Giovanni Battista Scultori, a sculptor. About sixty engravings are attributed to her name. Virgin and Child with St. John (after Raphael) at the Art Institute reveals that technically she had not mastered the burin, that she did not understand the power and inventive qualities possible with burin cuts. The sometimes primitive qualities with which she invests her images are stiff and do not please the eye. But she is important because she is perhaps the earliest woman printmaker who left a body of work and whom we can positively identify. Also note reference in Thieme-Becker-K?nstler-Lexicon, 1936 edition, s.v. “Laura Piranesi.”
Even worse than the over-exposure was the fact that as the plates became badly worn20 from overprinting, the quality of the prints themselves changed. In repeated attempts to enrich the compositions, the plates were re-etched or reworked using a burin or gravure. With the encouragement of Napoleon's government, the Piranesi brothers and Laura [sic. Laura died circa 1790] moved to Paris in 1799, taking with them all their father’s plates and reissuing the twenty-four large folio volumes during the first decade of the nineteenth century. After Francesco died in Paris in 1810, the plates were acquired and editioned again by Firmin-Didot (1836-1839) before being returned to the Regia Calcographia in Rome, where more than 1,000 of the plates are still being printed to this day.21
20. When preparing an intaglio plate for printing, it is necessary to use a heavy paste-like ink which is forced into the crevices etched below the surface of the copper while the plate is warm. After the ink on the surface of the plate has been evened with a brayer, the printer wipes the warm plate using a soft tarlatan cloth. The action of the tarlatan and the abrasiveness of the ink cause the surface of the plate to become worn, reducing, in time, the depth of the lines and their capacity to hold ink.
21. Hind, A History of Etching and Engraving, pp. 230-2.
Every intaglio printmaker knows that substantial variations can occur in wiping and subsequently in the finished print itself, even when the plate is wiped by the same hand using the same ink. Further modifications occur when different papers or inks of varying composition and grind are used. Preparation of these materials and condition of the printing presses are absolutely crucial to the finished product. Nor does a first-rate printmaker ever learn all there is to know about wiping a plate. Even a plate made with one technique, such as line etching, in the example of Piranesi, has differing requirements to assure the pulling of superb prints. A successful intaglio printmaker becomes a connoisseur of inks, papers, and presses, as well as an expert in wiping the inked surface of the copper. Surely Piranesi did wipe some of the plates himself although his immense total production indicates that others assisted him, especially in the late works. Piranesi’s children, Francesco, Pietro, and Laura,33 are known to have helped him during his lifetime and to have printed his work after his death. Recalling that Le Antichità Romane was produced over a period of four years, variations from plate to plate are understandable. I suggest that these variations add charm and an intensity lacking in machine-made facsimiles, no matter how faithful to the originals these facsimiles appear. A special warmth and a wonderful connection to all of humanity is conveyed by a lovely handmade product, while the machine or an unthinking mind can only guarantee a result "untouched by human hands."
33. Prints signed by Laura Piranesi are rare. A. M. Hind reported in The Burlington Magazine (November 1923): “The only 19th century binding labeled 'Views in Rome' contains 18 plates by Laura Piranesi, the remaining prints being 47 of the small views by G. B. Piranesi in Volume I of Le Antichità Romane. The volume was evidently a chance collection, not a regular set. . . . They all measure 5-1/2 x 8, 17 being copies of G. B. Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma. . . . None . . . are slavish copies, details of the foreground and figures being frequently changed. Laura must have had a wonderful gift for etching as she reflects so exactly in small the touch of her father's work, with an almost equal spirit in drawing the fantastic figures which haunt the plates."
The author saw an original print by Laura at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and would enthusiastically concur with Hind’s observation regarding her "gift," and would add that Laura's print, compared to any of those seen by Francesco Piranesi, demonstrates much greater sensitivity and understanding of the copper plate and the etching process.
Heather Hyde Minor, Piranesi's Lost Words (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015).
Laura Piranesi was preparing for her wedding. She would take to her new home her quadruple strand of pearls, her clothes, and household furnishings such as linens and silverware. Her dowry also included less tangible but perhaps more valuable assets. Her father taught her how to etch, a skill she practiced with greater artistry than her brothers. She made small vedute of Rome. She would stop exercising this talent after her wedding. Her father also taught her how to be wily, an ability she did continue to practice after leaving his house in 1778. She used her craftiness to compel her brothers to pay her in exchange for renouncing her claim to her father's estate. She also drew upon the aptitude to defy a judge, in order to help her husband flee the city when his debts overtook him. She passed this inheritance on to her own daughter, who fought fiercely for the return of her grandfather's copperplates when they were stolen by Neapolitan troops in 1799.
Laura Piranesi (1754–1789) was an Italian etcher working in Rome towards the end of the 18th century. She was an active participant in her family's print workshop, run by her father Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an Italian artist, etcher, and antiquarian. Participating in the veduta genre, Laura's prints consist of stylized views of Roman architecture and ruins that aim to capture the spirit of the city through landscapes. Vedute and architectural prints were particularly popular among travelers participating in the Grand Tour, and as Laura lived and worked during the height of the Grand Tour, her prints catered to the souvenir market. Her use of chiaroscuro and free-flowing lines reflect the rising popularity of Romanticism, which prioritizes emotion over accuracy.
Her life and career has long been overshadowed by her father, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, and brother, Francesco Piranesi.
Laura Piranesi was born in Rome in 1754. The eldest of five Piranesi children, Laura had four younger siblings: Francesco Piranesi (1758/59-1810), Angelo Piranesi (1763-1782), Anna Maria Rosalia Piranesi (b. 1766-?), and Pietro Piranesi (1773-?). Laura and her brothers were trained by their father in the family craft of etching; it is unknown whether Anna Maria, who entered the Bambin-Gesù on Via Urbana in 1783, was trained in etching. Well-educated, Laura could write in Latin.
On November 9, 1778 Giovanni Battista Piranesi passed away, sending his family into legal and financial turmoil. Though Laura was the eldest child, inheritance laws in 18th-century Rome dictated that the workshop was to be inherited by the next male heir, Francesco Piranesi. Not only was the workshop in Francesco's hands, but Laura and her youngest siblings were under his guardianship as well; within three days of Giovanni Battista's death, Francesco drew up an initial dowry contract for Laura's betrothal to carpenter Giuseppe Svezzeman. In May of 1779, a final contract was agreed upon and her dowry was used by Svezzeman to open three financially unsuccessful shops in Rome.
In 1780, Laura and Giuseppe had a daughter, Luisa Clara Maria Gertrude Fortunata Svezzeman. Over the next decade, debt and ill-health followed the family, involving the couple in numerous court trials.
Laura is now known to have been alive in 1789, though scholarship previously thought her to have passed by 1785. She was certainly dead by 1799, when the remaining Piranesi family members fled to Paris following the collapse of the Roman Republic.
Career and Reception
In an era when it was rare for a woman to produce art professionally, Laura is a rare example of a female artist creating for a specific and viable market. In addition, Laura played a role in managing the family workshop--written sales records and inventories of her father's prints exist in Laura's hand, helping modern scholars to date his prints.
Laura's prints are undated, making it uncertain when she produced her prints, and whether she produced them before or after her father's death.
Laura's prints have been largely neglect by historians as nearly all are reinterpretations of her father's etchings. Labelled as copies, art historians from the 18th century to today have overlooked the unique aspects of Laura's work. In the 1920s, however, the Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, Arthur Mayger Hind took an interest in Laura's prints when the museum acquired 20 prints by her. Hind recognized a liberty of design and unique style in Laura's prints. Due to the delicate nature of paper, many of Laura's prints have been lost, damaged, or destroyed.