Various Roman Ionic capitals compared with Greek examples from Le Roy [S. Maria in Trastevere, S. Paoplo fuori le Mura, S. Clemente, etc.], mid-18th century. Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Etching. Rogers Fund, transferred from the Library.
In 1758, the French architect Julien-David Le Roy published 'Les ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grèce' (The ruins of the most beautiful monuments of Greece) in which he proclaimed that the architectural orders were a Greek invention inherited by the Romans who imitated and subsequently debased them. Le Roy wrote of the Roman Composite order, "[I]t is only a fairly imperfect mixture of the Ionic and Corinthian and by altering the proportions of the column from the Doric order and by multiplying the moldings of its entablature, they have perhaps made it lose a lot of its male character, which was a distinguishing feature in Greece." Partly in response to such contemporary polemical salvos touting the significance of Greek architecture, including Marc-Antoine Laugier's 'Essai sur l'architecture' (1753), which demonstrated the evolution of wood to stone architecture as exemplified by the Greek Doric temple, in 1761 Piranesi published 'Della magnificenza ed architettura de' romani' (Concerning the magnificense and architecture of the Romans). Piranesi's lengthy essay in Italian and Latin expressed his conviction of the superiority of Etruscan design and was accompanied by thirty-eight engraved illustrations, including this foldout of Roman Ionic capitals. In the plate, Piranesi has surrounded Le Roy's own engraving of a capital from the Erechtheion in Athens with an elaborate array of more complex Roman variants. At the top of the plate is a quote from Le Roy: "The Ionic capitals one sees in Rome seem poor and defective," to which Piranesi responds by illustrating many of the "magnificent" Ionic capitals of Rome.