A heated debate regarding the reception of antiquity captivated Rome during the Enlightenment. Its intellectual circles disputed which was the “true fountainhead” of Western civilization—ancient Rome, as had been the general belief for centuries, or ancient Greece, as the German cultural historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768) increasingly urged. Winckelmann won this debate, a victory leading to the Greek Revival in architecture and to the general perception of the artistic superiority of ancient Greece that lingers to this day.

Greece vs. Rome: The Eighteenth-Century Quest for the Sources of Western Civilization, which goes on display Thurs., Jan. 7 at the Middlebury College Museum of Art, presents the Greco-Roman debate through the visual materials generated by its preeminent protagonists: prints of Roman antiquities by the Venetian architect and printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), and plates from the Antiquities of Athens by two British antiquarians, James Stuart (1713–1788) and Nicholas Revett (1720–1804). Contextualized within the debate, these documents are presented as rhetorical devices for the opposing sides.


Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Veduta dell’Arco di Settimio Severo (View of the Arch of Septimius Severus), 1772, etching on paper, 18 ½ x 27 7/8 inches. Middlebury College Museum of Art. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Armen Avedisian, 1985.012

Since the Renaissance, Rome has exerted a near-irresistible attraction on artists from all over Europe. Art and architecture—from antiquity and modern times (from the Renaissance onward)—provided models of inspiration, while the presence of patrons created a busy art market. Foreign artists sometimes spent large and formative parts of their careers in the Eternal City. It is within this long-standing tradition that Piranesi moved in 1740 from the Republic of Venice, where he was born and educated, to Rome. Before long Piranesi was sketching the ancient ruins in and around Rome and producing masterful prints that provided evocative renditions of them. Recalling the Baroque style of Rembrandt, Piranesi captured the lyrical beauty of the ruins.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, cultural pilgrims to Rome came to include not only intellectuals and scholars but also Grand Tourists—wealthy Europeans, often from England, whose visits to Italy were considered the culmination of a genteel education. This rendered Rome Europe’s most important stage for the development of intellectual and artistic ideas. Within this cultural microcosm, Piranesi began to compile his famous Views of Rome, large-format prints that featured the monuments of the city. In these views, Piranesi created dramatic and exaggerated perspectives to underscore the grandeur of Rome’s ruins, where both nature and architectural remains evoke the inexorable passage of time. His virtuosic style, with its emphasis on dramatic tonal contrasts, made Piranesi’s prints coveted souvenirs for Grand Tourists, who took the prints back home with them and, essentially, advertised the splendor of ancient Rome.

In 1755, while still in Germany, Winckelmann published a treatise challenging the centuries-old perception of ancient Rome as the cradle of Western civilization. Upon his arrival in Rome he entered the Greco-Roman debate as the champion of ancient Greece’s cultural supremacy. Winckelmann’s focus was primarily on sculpture and only secondarily on architecture. He never visited Greece and had little firsthand familiarity with Greek originals. Unlike Piranesi, he had limited artistic abilities.

Winckelmann formulated the first systematic history of art by linking ancient sculptures in Roman collections with primary sources such as Pliny’s Natural History. He published his History of Ancient Art among the Greeks in 1764, extolling the preeminence of Greek over Roman art by emphasizing ancient Greece’s aesthetic and moral superiority. The Romans, in his view, were not only imitators of Greek art but also spoilers of its purity.

In response to Winckelmann, Piranesi mounted a vigorous defense of ancient Roman civilization. He set to work on theAntiquities of Rome, published in 1756, and On the Magnificence and Architecture of the Romans, published in 1761. The grandiose title of the latter can only be understood within the context of the Greco-Roman debate. In the Antiquities of Rome, Piranesi systematically documented the monumental accomplishments of Roman architecture in scaled plans, sections, and restored views. Roman stonework, in his view, was derived from the ancient Egyptians by way of the Etruscans, direct ancestors of the ancient Romans. Thus he rejected the claim of Greek influence on Rome.

In the 1770s, Piranesi set out once more to demonstrate the grandeur of ancient Rome, producing large composite prints of the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. These monumental images represent Piranesi’s visual rhetoric at its best. As superb means to underscore the greatness of Roman architecture, he renders each of these columns on six connected plates that, together, reach a towering height of over ten feet.

Inspired by the mounting debate, Stuart and Revett set out from Rome for Greece in 1751 to explore firsthand the civilization of ancient Greece. Spending most of their time in Athens, they meticulously recorded, measured, and drew its ancient ruins. Their four-year expedition resulted in the momentous Antiquities of Athens, published in four volumes between 1762 and 1816. The Antiquities became arguably the most influential architectural publication of all time.

James Stuart, A Doric Portico at Athens, from Antiquities of Athens, Vol.1 (1762), Ch. 1, Pl. 1. Middlebury College Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Special Collections. Gift of James Morton Paton

Each monument featured in the Antiquities of Athenssystematically included a view of the structure as it appeared in the eighteenth century. In addition Stuart and Revett provided plans, elevations, and sections representing what they surmised each building’s original appearance to be. The first volume of theAntiquities was published in 1762 and focused primarily on small monuments of the ancient city, many of them constructed after the High Classical period, dating instead to Hellenistic and Roman times. With only this one volume of the Antiquitiespublished in time to have a direct impact on the Greco-Roman debate, Stuart and Revett’s emphasis on Roman remains in Athens disappointed Winckelmann and his fellow advocates of Greece’s artistic supremacy.

Publication of the second volume of the Antiquities of Athens, in 1787, scored a lasting victory for the proponents of the glories of Greek civilization. It arrived just when Greek Revival architecture was gaining popularity. In the course of their recording work, Stuart and Revett had developed a standardized mode of representation for the Greek architectural orders. This template allowed architects to apply the same orders on their own buildings in an archaeologically correct manner while also eliminating the necessity of firsthand observation.

Toward the end of his life, Piranesi set out with his son Francesco (1756/8–1810) to record the newly discovered ruins at Paestum, the ancient Greek city south of Naples. These depictions were published in Paris, where Francesco reestablished the engraving business upon his father’s death. Despite Piranesi’s initial loyalty to ancient Rome, his majestic images of the temples at Paestum rank among the most powerful depictions of ancient Greek architecture ever made.

Yet even while he mounted the defense of ancient Rome, Piranesi had, in a sense, moved beyond the Greco-Roman debate, essentially arguing that artists and architects should not slavishly imitate historical models—Greek or Roman. Instead he became the first to defend artistic freedom forcefully. Piranesi, moreover, prevailed in the long run. He is now recognized as a visionary artist whose dramatic images of haunting architectural spaces are best exemplified by the Imaginary Prisons (1750 and 1761). These evocations of endless and oppressive architectural spaces, seemingly aimless yet simultaneously dramatic, anticipated Romanticism. Since the eighteenth century, numerous artists and authors have been affected by Piranesi’s vision. Even today, prominent architects such as Peter Eisenman and Daniel Libeskind claim artistic and intellectual inspiration directly from Piranesi.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Frontispiece: Fantasy of Ruins with a Statue of Minerva in the center foreground, 1748, 19 1/2 x 25 1/4 inches (495 x 630 mm), from: Vedute di Roma (Rome, c. 1748–1778; reprint Paris, 1800–1807). Middlebury College Museum of Art. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Lawson Stewart, 1993.010

Greece vs. Rome was organized and researched by students in a Fall 2009 seminar taught by Pieter Broucke, Prof. of History of Art and Architecture. Support from the Parnassus Foundation, Ridgewood, New Jersey, the Bread Loaf Corporation in Middlebury, and the Friends of the Library at Middlebury College made possible the restoration of Middlebury’s original copies of the Antiquities of Athens.

The Museum will offer a school program in conjunction with Greece vs. Rome. For more information, please visit the Museum’s website or contact Sandi Olivo, curator of education, at (802) 443-2248 or olivo@middlebury.edu.

The Middlebury College Museum of Art, located in the Mahaney Center for the Arts on Rte. 30 on the southern edge of campus, is free and open to the public Tues. through Fri. from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sat. and Sun. from noon to 5 p.m. It is closed Mondays. The Museum is physically accessible. Parking is available in the Center for the Arts parking lot. For further information, please call (802) 443–5007 or TTY (802) 443–3155, or visit the Museum’s website at museum.middlebury.edu.