The Godfather of Engraving

Few people need to be convinced about the magnificence of ancient and modern Rome, but for almost two hundred years the magnificence of the eighteenth-century engraver, Giuseppe Vasi da Corleone, went under the radar. In recent decades, scholarly attention has turned to Vasi’s life and works.

Giuseppe Vasi was born in 1710, in Corleone, Sicily. In the mid-1730s, he moved to Rome where he would live until his death in 1782. A successful engraver, Vasi made his living in Rome selling vedute (view paintings) to the constant flow of Grand Tourists. Grand Tourists were upper-class European men, who traditionally toured Europe when they had come of age, often collecting art and literature throughout their travels.

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Title page of Volume I, ‘Della magnificenze di Roma antica e moderna’.

In 1747, Vasi began publishing the first of ten volumes of his etchings of the monuments of Rome. The volumes are titled Delle Magnificenze di Roma antica e moderna, translated as ‘The Magnificences of Ancient and Modern Rome’. Each of the ten volumes are devoted to a different aspect of the city: 1. Gates and walls; 2. Piazzas, obelisks, columns; 3. Basilicas and ancient churches; 4. Palaces and streets; 5. Bridges and buildings along the Tiber; 6. Parish churches; 7. Convents and clergy houses; 8. Monasteries for women; 9. Colleges, hospitals and pious foundations; 10. Villas and gardens.

On the title page Vasi describes himself as ‘Pittore Incisore Architetto et Pastore Arcade’, or ‘painter, engraver, architect and Arcadian shepherd’, the latter referring to the Accademia degli Arcadi of which he was a member. The Academy, founded in 1690, sought to reinstate Italy’s place as the leaders in literature, science, and art.

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Vedute of Piazzo del Colosseo, Plate 33, Volume II.

The volumes are not purely Vasi’s engravings – they are accompanied by explanatory texts regarding the monuments and buildings included. The first volume was written by Giuseppe Bianchini Veronese, while volumes II–X were accompanied by the reluctant writings of Vasi himself. As Bianchini was busy with his own success, Vasi was left as both writer and engraver.

The illustrations and plates would have been created using intaglio printing, a method where the drawing is incised into the metal. Engraving involves using sharp tools to draw directly onto the metal, in this case copper plates, while etching involves covering the copper plate in wax, and drawing into the wax. This waxed plate is then dipped into an acid bath, which eats into any metal not protected by the wax. The plate is then used to print directly onto the sheet.

Vasi was once a mentor to the Venetian engraver, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, in the early 1740s. A four-decade rivalry between the two ensued as Piranesi went out on his own. Vasi faded into relative historical obscurity, as his student delved deeper into the popular vedute ideate – which were views that combined authentic buildings with fictional settings. Following Piranesi’s death in 1778, his biographer Bianconi framed young Piranesi as a jealous student, claiming that he had stabbed Vasi or threatened his life with the belief that his mentor was withholding techniques from him. An aging Vasi was called on by Piranesi’s son Francesco to testify that this claim was false, and Bianconi’s publication was ordered withdrawn by the Pope. The misconception that Vasi was stabbed by his student is still presented as fact today.

Regardless of Piranesi’s success, Vasi’s business did not suffer – he continued to supply vedute to Grand Tourists, while also enjoying the patronage of notable families, and ambassadors. He dedicated the first volume of Della Magnificenze… to King Charles of the Two Sicilies, who later became the King of Spain (Charles III). In return, King Charles allowed Vasi and his family to live in Palazzo Farnese, where he also had a studio. Volume 4, published in 1754, focuses on palaces and contains an engraving of Palazzo Farnese. This volume is dedicated to Elisabeth Farnese, King Charles mother, who by then was Queen Dowager of Spain following the death of King Philip V in 1746.

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Vedute of Palazzo Farnese, Plate 72, Volume IV.

UCD Special Collections house all ten volumes, which are bound into four books (Shelfmark W1.E.1–4). The books are quarter bound with their original vellum, though the boards have been replaced with marbled boards as part of preservation efforts over the years. In total, the volumes contain 41 illustrations and 203 plates.

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Historiated initial from Volume I; Vellum spines of Volumes I through X, bound in four books.

  • This post was researched and written by Laura Ryan, Library Assistant, UCD Special Collections and National Foklore Collection.


Further Reading

Tice, James T., and James G. Harper. Giuseppe Vasi’s Rome: Lasting Impressions from the Age of the Grand Tour. Eugene, Oregon: University of Delaware Press, 2010.

“Giuseppe Vasi’s Panorama of Rome and Related Publications: British Library – Picturing Places.” The British Library. The British Library, November 16, 2016.

Bevilacqua, Mario, Peter Glendening, and Heather Hyde Minor. “The Young Piranesi: The Itineraries of His Formation.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome. Supplementary Volumes 4 (2006): 13-53.

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