A very rare engraved book on Rome is in Montreal

In a cozy room on the fourth floor of the University of Montreal's Library of Letters and Human Sciences, we approach The Magnificences of Rome The 276-year-old work was opened before us after cleaning our hands so as not to contaminate it.

“You shouldn't approach pencil with ink,” interrupted librarian Eric Bouchard, handing me a pencil for my notes. Even the slightest drop of ink from this extremely rare volume could forever affect its authenticity and value.

Following a fundraising campaign aimed at raising $8,000, Montreal bookbinder Vianney Bélanger restored the large-format book a few years ago, presenting a journey through ancient Rome in engravings.



Title page of Baranesi's Magnificence di Roma, held by the University of Montreal. Its exact provenance before 1954 is unknown, except that the block passed through the School of Architecture.

Photo by Ms

“But it's more of a fictional Rome than reality,” says Matthew Thomas, another special librarian. By gracefully turning the pages, he shows images of characters imprisoned in vast spaces filled with stone structures, walkways and staircases.

If librarians don't want to tell a group of price details that such a book would be worth on the art market, so as not to attract the attention of thieves, let's say the only series is 13. Prisons (Prisons) sold at Christie's in 2019 for $225,000.

And there are 101 works in the volume…



Special Librarians Mathieu Thomas (left) and Eric Bouchard (right).

Carceri's Plate X: Prisoners' Platform

Wikimedia Commons / Domain Public

Lovers of Rome

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), also known as Piranesi, was born in Venice, but when he visited Rome for the first time at the age of 20, he fell so madly in love with Rome that he never wanted to leave the city. Initially trained as an architect, he became famous as a meticulous, productive and daring engraver.

We know that Piranesi and his sons, Francesco and Pietro, reproduced the impressions from the original plates, which means that authentic works are not uncommon today in the great museums of the world. What constitutes originality Magnificence From the University of Montreal, it coincides with the master's first major works.



Special Librarians Mathieu Thomas (left) and Eric Bouchard (right).

Plate #8 of the Carceri series, “The Trophy Staircase”.

Photo by Ms

Inevitably Montreal

With this work in its vaults, Montréal positions itself among the world capitals of France. In 2001 the art historian Myra Nan Rosenfeld (who died last year) declared that it was “impossible to study Baranesi seriously without going to Montreal.”

Originally hired by Phyllis Lambert to advise the Canadian Center for Architecture on the acquisition of works, the expert was not at the end of his surprises when he enlisted Montreal's Piranesi. Before UdeM and McGill read the book, Morgan found the original engraving in the store's archives, which contains the important binding (Various works)

The funny thing is, we don't know the exact provenance of the special collections treasure, which puts the University of Montreal's library service among the privileged few to own. Magnificence Origins (New York Public Library, Sir John Soanes Museum in London, Accademia di San Luca in Rome, Bibliothèque Public de Geneve, Bibliothèque National de France in Paris, and the National Gallery in Washington)

If we focus on the quality of protection, Mme During our meeting Rosenfeld placed the UdeM copy among three important ones.



Special Librarians Mathieu Thomas (left) and Eric Bouchard (right).

A detail from plate #7 of the Carceri series.

Photo by Ms

Imaginary Rome

On the cover page, we can admire a wonderful self-portrait of the engraver. But this is a series Prisons It's very impressive.

The specialty of these carvings is that Mr. Thomas notes that the design is rarely painted. “These are not elaborate works. The artist randomly evoked imaginary prisons where stairs lead nowhere. It’s very strange,” he continues.

Like Escher's paintings, which he was inspired by, Baranesi's prisons are dead ends, corridors devoid of logic. “We also think of the stairs in Harry Potter,” said Mr. Thomas says.



Special Librarians Mathieu Thomas (left) and Eric Bouchard (right).

Artist's signature.

Wandering human ants

Reality or not, Prisons They have inspired countless French writers, including Victor Hugo and Alphonse de Lamartine, and English poets such as Thomas De Quincey and Thomas Coleridge.

Marguerite Yourcenar devoted a complete book to this series of works in 1959. The black brain of Piranesi. “True horror Prisons “These human ants are less in some mysterious torture scene than wandering about in gigantic spaces, and its various groups do not communicate with each other, or notice their presence, while the condemned man is tortured in a dark corner,” he writes.

It is interesting to note that the Library Committee's collection of rare books is available to researchers and the public. Guided tours are arranged upon request.



Special Librarians Mathieu Thomas (left) and Eric Bouchard (right).

Self-Portrait of Piranesi.

Wikimedia Commons / Domain Public

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