The wealthy tourists who streamed into Rome as part of their Grand Tour focused their energies on visiting ancient Roman monuments, viewing Renaissance and contemporary art, and exchanging ideas with intellectuals, artists, and other tourists. Tourism had become Rome’s bread and butter, and Italy’s economy and society would have been moribund without it.

While Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765) catered to ultra-wealthy clients by painting commissioned canvases to commemorate their trip, another artist, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), sought to reach a broader sector of this tourist market. By creating prints of Roman ruins that could be reproduced in volume, Piranesi targeted the merely wealthy, or at least those who did not have the time to sit for a portrait or have the inclination to develop a patron relationship with an individual artist during their travels.

This difference in the targeted audiences of the two artists are manifest in the distinct visions for and content of their art. Panini worked to flatter the individual patron by painting him among representations of Rome’s famous art and monuments, thereby validating, or perhaps elevating, his social position by associating him with the highest forms of human artistic achievement. Piranesi, on the other hand, depicted peasants and the lower classes mulling around ancient ruins, perhaps, as one scholar has suggested, to capture the scene more accurately. But I think their purpose is to carry through his main theme of connecting the splendor of the past to the ruins of the present, which extended even to the state of the people who now live among Rome’s ruins.

“View of the Campo Vaccino (Roman Forum with the Temple of Castor and Pollux to right)”, from “Vedute di Roma” (Roman Views), part II by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (The Metropolitan Art Museum)

Piranesi originally started out as a draftsman and architect before learning etching and engraving. He first sold prints to tourists from his workshop in the Strada Felice in Rome and eventually opened a printing house in Palazzo Tomati in 1760. Piranesi was most famous for two print series, Vedute di Roma (1748) and Antichità Romanae (1756), which became popular purchases by those on the Grand Tour, either as a complete series or as individual prints. Piranesi produced his etchings and engravings in large-scale format so as to capture the grandeur of the Roman ruins, and he printed and sold them throughout his career.

Prints of buildings and cities date back to the late fifteenth century in Europe, and by the eighteenth century such prints were produced as a form of armchair tourism. Piranesi was unique, though, in that his vedute, or views, depicted identifiable buildings and monuments in a style that emphasized their dilapidation as both a reminder of human frailty and that nothing is permanent. He also heightened the scale and proportion of the monuments in his prints to remind viewers of the emotional experience they felt when first seeing them. Scholars often point out the drawback to this approach: travelers who came to Rome after first having seen Piranesi’s prints were said to be disappointed when encountering the real thing.

Piranesi outperformed other artists in the Grand Tour souvenir market by producing dramatic and compelling scenes in and around popular tourist spots. Indeed, he sold so many prints that they are ubiquitous even today.

“Another view of the remains of the Pronaos of the Temple of Concord [The Temple of Saturn with Arch of Septimius Severus in left background],” from “Vedute di Roma” (Views of Rome), part I by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The blending of the past and the present in the artwork of Piranesi gave those on the Grand Tour an appreciation of Roman ruins as ruins. Fanciful paintings of Roman buildings brought together to impress viewers fell out of fashion in favor of works that reminded tourists of the dichotomy of past splendor and present decay. This new appreciation led to a new “science of the past” that continues to guide us today. Ruins are now left alone as imperfect relics of the past that can both be subjected to scientific inquiry and can bring us in closer contact with that past. Their stones are no longer pillaged for use in contemporary buildings, nor do people try to fix the ruins to make them look like they did long ago. Ruins as they stand today are now seen as containing their own beauty, even if we can no longer fully experience their former grandeur.

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The Napoleonic invasion of Italy in 1796 essentially put an end to the Grand Tour as it had been experienced for over a century. Once tourism revived in 1802, visitors were no longer carrying back large pieces of art—whether they be plundered originals or monumental works created specifically for a patron. Now, tourists acquired small snuffboxes or carved shell cameos to remind them of their travels.

In many ways, the Grand Tour marks the beginning of how we in Western society think of souvenirs today. Pilgrims in the Middle Ages acquired pilgrim badges, relics (or at least what they thought were relics), or objects that contained spiritual power by virtue of some kind of contact with a “true” relic. But those who acquired such objects did not do so to help remind them of their trip, but rather because they had a specific, spiritual meaning. Pilgrimages served as an allegory of one’s journey through life, and the objects the pilgrims collected also had an allegorical relationship to the spiritual journey they had just undertaken. Both the journey and the objects specifically referred to a pre-determined narrative (i.e., one’s pilgrimage through life) that everyone understood and shared.

The souvenirs of the Grand Tour, on the other hand, were commodities, and, like all commodities, their meaning was essentially allowed to run free. Such objects could serve as reminders of one’s travels, but they could also demonstrate one’s education and learning and project one’s wealth and power. This more secular function for objects collected during one’s travels would now be the norm going forward.

Works Consulted

Bellacosa, Juliette and Tatyana Johnson. “Giovanni Paolo Panini: Viewmaker of Ancient and Modern Rome.” Piranesi in Rome. Web exhibit:

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1999.

Black, Jeremy. “Italy and the Grand Tour: The British Experience in the Eighteenth Century.” Annali d’Italianistica 14 (1996), 532-541.

Furlong, Gillian. “33: The Ruins of Rome, Seen through 18th-Century Eyes.” Treasures from UCL. London: UCL Press, 2015.

Gillespie, Richard. “The Rise and Fall of Cork Model Collections in Britain.” Architectural History 60 (2017), pp. 117-146.

Kain, Sarah. “Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Venetian Who Defined Rome’s Image.” Piranesi in Rome. Web exhibit:

Puchner, Martin. Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2023.

Seidmann, Gertrud. “Grand Souvenirs.” RSA Journal 144:5474 (November 1996), 37-39.

Wunder, Richard Paul. “Panini’s View of Roman Monuments.” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 56:258 (Winter, 1961), 54-56.

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