Giuseppe Vasi's Panorama of Rome

Giuseppe Vasi's panorama of Rome and related publications

John E Moore, Professor of Art at Smith College, explores the world of Giuseppe Vasi: a Sicilian engraver who made Rome's topographical image the object of his life's work.

Rome has hardly lacked portraitists, and perhaps its most mesmerising is Giovanni Battista Nolli. Dating to 1748, his engraved map of Rome visualises a process of coming to terms with the city inflected by jurisdictional and administrative reforms, an increasingly dominant science of statistics, antiquarian studies, and the desire to emulate the marble plan of Rome, whose fragments Nolli had worked with extensively in 1742.[1] A close detail from the Eternal City’s fourth region, Campo Marzio, delineates elements of a millennial and modern urban armature: two ports along the River Tiber specifically destined for offloading timber, the Porto di Ripetta, walls, a city gate, squares, streets, churches and their chapels, palaces, apartment blocks, courtyards, a fountain and an obelisk, a public laundry, a horse trough, and gardens laid out with trees and other plantings.

Nuova Pianta di Roma

Nuova Pianta di Roma, data in luce de G. Nolli.

Nolli’s multi-sheet map of Rome is one of the most important examples of urban cartography; this part shows the Campo Marzio district. 

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Prospetto dell'alma Città di Roma visto dal Monte Gianicolo

Giuseppe Vasi's Panorama of Rome

Vasi's twelve-sheet panorama of Rome was a groundbreaking work, showing 390 sites and monuments

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Nolli’s map was printed from 12 copperplates; so, too, in 1765, was Giuseppe Vasi's etched panorama of Rome.[2] Measuring approximately 102 x 263 cm, it invites us to look up from the ground and to lose ourselves once again, this time in a breathtakingly expansive vision. Transfixed by the spectacle nature, art, and history have so inimitably conjured, viewers strive to identify towering antiquities (the Pantheon, for example, and the Column of Marcus Aurelius) and to recall the names of churches whose fabrics, often domed (but not always, as in the case of S. Ignazio), rise majestic and numerous below. Engraved numbers in the print correspond to a key below, rendered as an immense inscribed stone frieze, which distributes Rome’s monuments into eight groups, each corresponding to a theoretical day of visiting. In the distance lie hill towns more regularly visible in Vasi’s day than our own, which he locates by name – among them, Tivoli, site of Hadrian's Villa and two well-preserved Roman temples; and Frascati, where many impressive aristocratic retreats had been built beginning in the 16th century.

The prominent west-east axis in Vasi's panorama is defined first by the large achievement in the lower-middle foreground; then the extensive gardens and princely palace of the Corsini family; masonry embankments on the left bank of the Tiber; the Palazzo Farnese, which served as the embassy of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in Rome from 1735 forward and, from no later than 1749, as Vasi’s home and studio; the domes of the Pantheon, S. Andrea della Valle, S. Carlo ai Catinari, and SS. Trinità dei Pellegrini; the Palazzo Barberini; and, finally, the Palazzo del Quirinale, the usual papal residence in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

As was signally the case in Nolli’s map, Vasi included scores of directly observed, verifiable physical facts, yet by mixing them with elisions and touches of fantasy, he achieved magical effects, with poetry squarely on his side. To the immediate left and right of the escutcheon are engraved, as though carved into a cornice, two lines from an epigram (4.64.11–12) written by the first-century Roman poet Martial. These quoted words, also mentioned in Rome’s newspaper upon the panorama’s publication, invest the visual image with a potent locus classicus:[3] 'From this place you can see the seven principal hills and assess the whole of Rome', so writes Martial, who then proceeds to name the very same distant Alban and Tusculan hills that Vasi depicts. 'The few acres of Julius Martialis', we read, 'more blessed than the Garden of the Hesperides, lie on Janiculum's long ridge'.[4] 

This pleasurable retreat stood close to the city yet removed from its hubbub. The villa's generous owner and his guest, the poet, shared a name, which allowed the latter to insinuate himself into a literary creation meant to praise someone and something else. In a similar vein, Vasi furnishes a detail difficult to read as other than a self-portrait. In three-quarter view, wearing a tricorne and sitting cross-legged, a male figure leans backward and, looking southeastward, sketches Rome from a historically resonant vantage point and invites viewers to reflect upon the relationship between art and the reality it seeks to fix.

Prospetto di Roma verso ponente

Preparatory drawing for the engraving "Prospetto dell'alma città di Roma visto dal Monte Gianicolo", which was first published by Giuseppe Vasi in 1765

The original preparatory study for Vasi's pioneering panorama of Rome

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The preparatory drawing for Vasi's panorama (above) exists today in the collection of the Getty Research Institute. In a close detail we see a bend in the river, the church of S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini with its distinctive tall drum and dome, the colossal base of the Castel S. Angelo, and some boats and mills bobbing on the water. Vasi has written in the name of one institution – the 'Spedale di S. Spirito in Sassia' on the right bank of the Tiber, and the river’s name in Italian, 'Tevere', which also appears not far from the Porto di Ripetta, the only complex identified in the closely packed Campus Martius.

From the preparatory drawing we learn that Vasi had not yet secured a dedicatee for the print. In the lower-left corner, the she-wolf suckles Romulus and Remus right next to three architectural fragments – a column capital, a fluted column shaft, and a block meant to record the dedication. The block has three lines of thick inked markings and a generic title in majuscules, 'Prospetto di Roma verso ponente,' even though the view is oriented eastward, not westward. Still, the printmaker had a monarch in mind, namely, Charles III, who ruled as king of Spain from 1759 to 1788. In the escutcheon, four distinct lines divide the shield’s oblong field quarterly and likewise bisect each of the four sides of a smaller central shield, a shield not present in the arms of Charles III’s predecessor, Ferdinand VI. This rough sketch dictates an absolute terminus post quem of 6 October 1759 for the preparatory drawing. It was on that day that Charles – until then Carlo di Borbone, king of the Two Sicilies – abdicated; the following day, he sailed westward to Spain to mount the throne left vacant by his stepbrother, who had died childless on 10 August 1759. According to the exacting requirements of heraldry and the new monarch’s wishes, an appropriate coat of arms was devised no later than 11 March 1761, and Vasi would have seen the form that it took in the immediately following months.[5] 

In the etched panorama, shown in profile and looking toward the shield, the figure on the achievement’s proper left rests the point of an olive branch on a volute. A trophy consisting of standards, two fasces and a morning star (proper right), and a cannon (proper left) is fully elaborated in the print, as is a fringed swath of drapery on which the Spanish arms and crown rest. From the volute-framed achievement hang elements associated with the insignia of three royal chivalric orders – from proper right to left, that of St. Januarius, the Golden Fleece, and the Holy Spirit, associated, respectively, with the kingdoms of the Two Sicilies, Spain, and France. This arrangement gives pride of place to the order founded in Naples by Carlo di Borbone on 3 July 1738, during festivities held to celebrate the arrival in the realm of his bride, Maria Amalia of Saxony.[6] 

In both drawing and print, the cracked inscription block in the lower left is invaded by plant materials and leans against a fluted column drum; in the print, a ruined stone block behind the column serves as an additional prop. Whether wearing the Neapolitan or the Spanish crown, the king had long been a sponsor of Vasi’s endeavors. Between 1747 and 1761, the printmaker brought out ten richly illustrated volumes titled Delle magnificenze di Roma antica e moderna, in which the city’s monuments are grouped typologically, as was the case in the engraved index that accompanies Nolli’s map. 

Delle magnificenze di Roma antica e moderna

Title Page to Giuseppe Vasi's Delle magnificenze di Roma antica e moderna

From piazze to palazzi, Delle Magnificenze di Roma is a visual tour through 200 of Rome's most celebrated sites and monuments

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Conforming to a heuristic tradition that stretches back to the medieval Mirabilia urbis Romae, the first volume of the Magnificenze treats of the gates and walls of Rome. Vasi, who was born in the Sicilian town of Corleone, dedicated this work to King Carlo di Borbone, who was, at the time, the artist’s sovereign. Alone among all ten volumes, this dedication is elegantly and expensively engraved into a copperplate. The material distinction was not lost on Vasi, who when writing of 'these copperplates more lasting than marbles,' unambiguously invokes Horace’s 'monument more lasting than bronze' (monumentum aere perennius; Odes 3.30.1).

In Rome’s newspaper, Vasi announced his intention to publish additional volumes of the Magnificenze and to provide 'a large map [una Pianta grande]', which must refer to the panorama.[7] He also established selling prices that offered a hefty discount to those who purchased the whole book as opposed to individual prints.[8] Vasi sought and received permission to dedicate the panorama to Charles III, a point proved in a letter written to the king on 15 January 1765 by Bernardo Tanucci, secretary of state of the kingdom of the Two Sicilies.[9] 

In 1763, Vasi published a guidebook, the Itinerario istruttivo di Roma antica e moderna, dedicating it to Rome's patron saints, the apostles Peter and Paul. Of course, many in the Roman Catholic world venerated those saints’ lives and believed their perceived intercessory acts to be efficacious. Still, in 1766, a lawyer in Rome felt the need to explain a dedication to 'the prince of the apostles' rather than his 'distinguished benefactors' when sending 'a book of such small moment' that he had written.[10] The title-page vignette represents a draped and helmeted personification of Rome – seated on a trophy, holding a lance upright in the right hand and, in the left, supporting a globe upon which a winged victory balances with a wreath in the right hand and a palm frond in the left. In the background rises the north elevation of the Porta del Popolo, the first element of Rome's venerable urban fabric that greeted those approaching the city along the Via Flaminia. To the left is a view of the Castel S. Angelo, at whose summit the figure of the Archangel Michael artfully reverses the pose of the winged victory. Between these two monuments stands a less-distinct yet identifiable partial elevation of the portico in St. Peter's Square. 

On the title page of the first book of the Magnificenze, this same vignette appears, and its reuse proves that Vasi, like all contemporary European printmakers, did not hasten to throw away expensive copperplates. Indeed, being thrifty also enabled him to link two different but intimately related publications with a visual image, just as the words antiche e moderne magnificenze from the guidebook pick up the full title of the Magnificenze. The guidebook’s preface expresses Vasi’s desire to provide a compendium of the information set out in that series. Yet he also refers to the 'large panorama' and its index in the present perfect tense, implying that the complete object was available for purchase, which was not yet the case.[11] Nevertheless, the numeration of monuments in the Itinerario istruttivo exactly conforms to that found in the Magnificenze and in the etched panorama, such that Vasi systematically devised a whole, each part of which could stand on its own yet also awaken readers’ interest in the others and spur additional purchases.

Indice Istorico del Gran Prospetto di Roma

Front Cover of George III's copy of Vasi's Indice istorico del gran prospetto di Roma

Vasi's guidebook to Rome was so popular it went into a second edition; this is George III's personal copy. 

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In 1765, a second edition of the guidebook appeared under a new title, Indice istorico del gran prospetto di Roma, which spells out the connection to the panorama. And here, Charles III replaced the sainted dedicatees of 1763. Added watercolor painting enhances the volume’s visual appeal. Books in 18th-century Europe were normally sold unbound, so bound impressions increased the object’s expense and prominence. Once housed in George III’s library, the binding of an impression of the Indice istorico is of particular interest. Decorations include marbling in discrete shades of brown; elaborately tooled gilt and polychrome designs consisting of two intersecting lengthwise frames with complex outlines, variations on the acanthus motif, and small stars; a gilt text block; and marbled endpapers. The front cover’s Latin inscription reads REX LETABITUR IN DEO, from Psalm 63:11; the full verse in the King James translation is: 'But the king shall rejoice in God; every one that sweareth by him shall glory: but the mouth of them that speak lies shall be stopped'.[12] On the back cover is another biblical quotation, here the beginning of Ps. 61:6, DIES SUPER DIES REGIS ADICIES, which the King James translation renders as follows: 'Thou wilt prolong the king's life: and his years as many generations'.[13] 

The spine of the British Library impression is divided into six panels. On a pasted-down piece of gold-tooled red leather, the second panel from the bottom reproduces George III's cipher. Surmounted by a crown, the juxtaposed majuscules G and R are framed with decoration markedly different from that seen in the other panels, such that fabrication in a different atelier seems more than likely. The added cipher personalises the book but also suggests that George III was not its first owner. Moreover, the verso of the front endpaper bears the manuscript notation 'V. large roll 5 Table 2.d', indicating that the guidebook and the panorama entered the British royal library at the same time and were meant profitably to be associated with each other, not only by their maker and seller, Vasi, but by knowledgeable librarians.


[1] For activities bearing fruit in the 1740s that collectively focus on municipal issues, see Massimo Cattaneo, '“Una città nella città”: Il rione Trastevere nel Settecento', in I luoghi della città: Roma moderna e contemporanea, edited by Martine Boiteux, Marina Caffiero, and Brigitte Marin, Collection de l'École française de Rome 437 (Rome: École françase de Rome, 2010), pp.29-50. For the marble plan, see Olivier Michel, 'Les péripéties d'une donation. La Forma Urbis en 1741 e 1742', Mélanges de l'École Française de Rome, Antiquité, 95:2 (1983): 997–1019.

[2] The British Library houses another impression (K.Top.81.26.2.TAB.2), which is printed in several colors a la poupee, with applied watercolor and gouache.

[3] 'Il Cavalier Giuseppe Vasi avendo da più anni terminata la voluminosa descrizione di Roma divisa in 10. libri ricca di rami, e di erudizioni sagre, e profane, ha ora compito l'incisione del gran Prospetto di Roma, preso dal monte Giannicolo, di dove appunto M. Val. Marziale il Poeta dice al lib. 4 epig. 64. Hinc septem dominos videre montes, et totam licet estimare Romam'; Chracas, Diario ordinario [newspaper published discontinuously in Rome], no. 7578 (25 Jan, 1766), p.13.

[4] Martial, Epigram 4.64.3: 'Iuli iugera pauca Martialis / hortis Hesperidum beatiora / longo Ianiculi iugo recumbunt'; trans. as in D.R. Shackelton Bailey, Martial: Epigrams (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), vol.1, p.331.

[5] Faustino Menéndez Pidal, El escudo de España (Madrid: Real Academia Matritense de Heráldica y Genealogía, [2004]), pp.246–47.

[6] 'It is remarkable that tho’ this order consists of 46 Knights, there is not one Scrub in it'; this comment precedes the titles and names of the order’s first members: 'London Letter from Vienna, August 2', Daily Post (London), issue 5900 (8 Aug, 1738).  

[7] 'e sua Pianta nel fine diligentemente numerata, a segno che minutamente si dimostreranno li proprj siti di dette vedute, oltre di una Pianta grande, in cui si vedrà delineato tutto ciò, che in essi cinque Libri del primo Tomo si contiene; il tutto esattamente disegnato, & inciso dallo stesso Sig. Giuseppe Vasi'; Chracas, Diario ordinario, no. 4698, 2 Sep. 1747, 14-15. When the last volume of the Magnificenze was published in 1761, the series has reached ten volumes.

[8] 'Da questa Stamperia Chracas è uscita alla luce un Opera il di cui frontespizio è il seguente: Delle Magnificenze di Roma Antica, e Moderna Libro primo …. La medesima Opera si vende dal detto Sig. Giuseppe Vasi, ed anche nella stessa Stamperia, un zecchino il Corpo, e le sole stampe de i Rami delle Porte pavoli 12'; Chracas, Diario ordinario, no. 4695, 26 Aug. 1747, 12.

[9] 'Si è dato a Vasi incisore, e custode delle antichità di palazzo Farnese in Roma la permissione di dedicare a Vostra Maestà il gran prospetto che vuole stampare della città di Roma'; Maria Grazia Maiorini, ed. Epistolario. Bernardo Tanucci, vol. XV, 1765 (Naples: Società Napoletana di Storia Patria, 1990, 73, Tanucci 'Al Re Cattolico', Naples, 15 Jan. 1765.

[10] 'Non si meravigli l’E.V. di grazia, che un Libro di sì picciol momento l’abbia io dedicato al Prencipe degli Apostoli, poichè dopo morto Benedetto XIV. di Santa Memoria il Cardinal Millo Dataraio e ‘l Cardinal Argenvillers Uditore miei insigni Benefattori […] non mi son curato mai d’altra Protezzione se non del solo San Pietro'; Archivio di Stato, Naples, Casa reale antica 871, Michele Paleolo to Tanucci, Rome, 3 Dec. 1766.

[11] 'così ora, affinchè riesca facile ad ognuno, che viene a Roma trovare da per se tutte le parti più riguardevoli di quest'Alma Città, senza lasciare inosservata cosa alcuna, che sia di particolare erudizione, ho preso il carico di farne un breve ristretto, e regolarlo secondo l'indice del gran Prospetto, che medesimamente ho fatto di questa Metropoli'; Vasi, Itinerario istruttivo, unpaginated letter titled 'AL LETTORE'.

[12] Vulg. Ps. 62:12: 'Rex vero laetabitur in Deo; laudabuntur omnes qui jurant in eo, quia obstructum est os loquentium iniqua'; Douay-Rheims Bible []; King James Bible []

[13] Vulg., Ps. 60:7: 'Dies super dies regis adjicies; annos ejus usque in diem generationis et generationis’; Douay-Rheims Bible
[]; King James Bible []

  • John E. Moore
  • John E. Moore is Professor of Art at Smith College, Massachusetts.