Robert Adam arrived in Rome on the 24th of February 1755 and was immediately captivated by the city. He wrote to his sister Peggy that “Rome is the most glorious place in the universal world. A grandeur and tranquillity reigns in it, everywhere noble and striking remains of antiquity appear in it”. He was able to tell his mother he had seen Cardinal York (Bonnie Prince Charlie’s younger brother) in his coach and it was through the Jacobite abbé Peter Grant of Blairfindy, the Scottish Catholic Agent at Rome, that Adam, like so many other grand tourists, was introduced to Roman society.
By June Adam had begun a friendship with the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) who, Adam wrote, “is I think the most extraordinary fellow I ever saw … and said I have more genius for the true noble architecture than any Englishman ever was in Italy.” Adam’s confusion over his nationality aside, his exposure to the creative genius of Piranesi would broaden his “conception of the grand” and, through a proposed dedication in one of Piranesi’s works, promote his reputation as an eminent architect. Aside from a shared appreciation of each other’s talents Piranesi and Adam’s friendship was forged by a passion for Rome’s classical ruins and the composition of imaginary landscapes. So picturesque were Piranesi’s views of Rome that grand tourists who had seen his work before visiting the city were sometimes disappointed with the real thing.
Piranesi proposed, so long as Adam would agree to purchase a number of copies, to dedicate the plan he was producing for inclusion in his Campus Martius antiquae urbis which would eventually be printed in 1762. In fact Piranesi did better than that, placing Adam’s name prominently on the title page, including a dedication covering two pages in parallel Latin and Italian and again including Adam’s name in a view of the Campus Martius: originally a publicly owned area outside the city of Rome but which from the first century BC began to be built upon. Piranesi’s reputation meant that for the aspiring Robert Adam the dedication was a great coup.
The National Library of Scotland holds a fine collection of Piranesi’s publications from the mid to late-18th century, representing some of the greatest and most ambitious depictions of Roman architecture ever produced.
A display of Robert Adam’s work and other architectural treasures from the Library’s collections entitled ‘The Beautiful Spirit of Antiquity: Robert Adam and his influences’ runs at the National Library of Scotland until September 18 2016. http://www.nls.uk/exhibitions/treasures/robert-adam