The Discovery of Piranesi's Final Project
Stephen Lauf

20 June 2022
Assigning a date to the "Caracalla" plate requires educated guesswork. Piranesi's description of the 'Circus of Caracalla' in the Calcographie des Piranesi suggests the beginning of a work in progress, whereas, the description of the Villa Adriani,11 also in the Calcographie des Piranesi, suggests a project well underway. 1777 is the date of Piranesi's preparatory plan drawing (now in Naples) of Hadrian's Villa, and "shortly before his death in 1778 [November 9] Giovanni Battista Piranesi supervised the transfer, by means of tracing, of the Naples drawing to the copper plates from which the Pianta were printed."12 If, as the respective texts in the Calcographie des Piranesi suggest, work on Hadrian's Villa predates work on the Circus of Caracalla, then Piranesi may well have commenced field survey work, one last time in the spring of 1778, at the (so-called) Circus of Caracalla site, and the "Caracalla" plate was etched by the summer solstice, when Piranesi asked for the "Pianta dell antico Foro Romano" and three of the "Ichnographia Campus Martius" copper plates to be brought to his work tables. Thus commencing more "curious and interest work."13

11. "Villa Adriani" General plan of the breath of this villa of an extent of several miles. Another plan of the interior level of his buildings. Plans, divisions and details of all the other buildings remarkable for the elegance, the variety, the very oddity of invention in architecture. The Emperor Hadrian had these monuments executed on the model of what he had noticed most beautiful in Egypt, in Greece; he gave them the Greek names of Prytanée, Pécile, Canopi, etc. It is in this same villa that he brings together the magnificent monuments in sculpture, architecture, in precious marble, the fruit of his conquests and his trips. Also the Villa Adrienne will always be an abundant source of ancient monuments of a generally recognized richness and usefulness.
12. William L. MacDonald and John A. Pinto, Hadrian's Villa and Its Legacy (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 257.
13. And speaking of "curious and interesting work," I found the Calcographie des Piranesi, ou, Traité des arts d'architecture, peinture et sculpture : développés par la vue des principaux monumens antiques et modernes 6 June 2022 on a "francesco piranesi" search at, specifically seeking information on Francesco's 'Icnografia del Circo de Caracalla fuori della Porta Capena in oggi S. Sebastiano.' A copy of the Calcographie des Piranesi from the Getty Research Institute is among the first search results. I dimly recognize the book from many previous "piranesi" searches, but never looked inside the book before. It's all text, no images. Unfortunate, but luckily I think to do a text search of the word "caracalla," and that's when I find an actual text, in French, all about the enigmatic, unsigned site plan of the Tomb of Romulus and the Circus of Maxentius, otherwise "commonly known as Caracalla." Then, after reading the translated text, and even laughing because of the last sentence, "Curious and interesting work," it later dawns on me that those are the words of Giovanni Battista Piranesi himself. Eureka, but now what's curious and interesting is the non-existence of mention of or reference to the Calcographie des Piranesi, ou, Traite´ des arts d'architecture, peinture et sculpture : de´veloppe´s par la vue des principaux monumens antiques et modernes in Scott 1975, Wilton-Ely 1978, MacDonald and Pinto 1995 (who even confidently contemplate an intented Villa Hadriani publication project, which the Calcographie des Piranesi succinctly describes), and Minor 2015 (who writes profoundly of Piranesi's lost words, yet never found Part II of Calcographie des Piranesi, ou, Traite´ des arts d'architecture, peinture et sculpture : de´veloppe´s par la vue des principaux monumens antiques et modernes which is essentially Piranesi's dying wish list).

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