The Skeletons (Plate 1 of the Grotteschi)

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Italian, 1720–1778)

Catalogue Raisonné

Hind, p. 80, no. 24; Focillon 20; Robison 21, iv/v (Third Edition, Second Issue, through early printings of the Fifth Edition, c. 1790-c. 1835); Ficacci 105


Sheet: 51.5 x 68.8 cm (20 1/4 x 27 1/16 in.) Platemark: 39.4 x 55.1 cm (15 1/2 x 21 11/16 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Etching, engraving, drypoint, burnishing

Not On View


Europe, Prints and Drawings



Giovanni Battista Piranesi was the most powerful artistic force in printmaking in the Mid-Eighteenth Century. His polymathic interests, technical prowess, boundless energy, and prodigious imagination are embodied in an oeuvre of more than a thousand etchings. Though he is best known for his views of Rome, Piranesi’s pure fantasies form a distinct body of work that strongly manifests the irrational, emotional undercurrents ever present during the Age of Enlightenment. This dark taste for the Sublime was a precursor to the rise of Romantic art later in the century. Piranesi’s two greatest contributions to this feverish strain are his austere series of prisons and his set of four wildly chaotic grotesques.

The Grotteschi subverted Rococo style. While using the extremely active, asymmetrical line and mass of the Rococo, Piranesi turned the styles’ playful mood to dark humor. The vanitas images revel in the mortality of man and the temporal nature of his achievements. Overgrown ruins littered with human bones seem to erupt before our eyes. Social order expressed through architecture–supremely expressed in Piranesi’s monumental views of Rome and its antiquities–has fallen into absolute chaos. Trumpets, trophies, and tombs meant to proclaim might and valor have become little more than evocative debris.

Despite their subject, the Grotteschi are far from dreary. They delight the eye with intricate arrangements of light, line, and form. There is a seemingly endless variety of detail to be discovered. Piranesi openly acknowledges that he presents us with theatre and illusion: stage curtains surround one image, and a painter’s palette is found near his signature in another. The overall effect is highly decorative.


Gropper Art Gallery, Cambridge, Massachusetts; sold to Linda B. Hardenbergh, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Newport Beach, California, 1964; her gift to the MFA September 20, 2006

Credit Line

Gift of Linda B. Hardenbergh in memory of Thomas Eddy Hardenbergh III