by Roderick Conway Morris

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British Museum, London
An ornate triumphal arch with a grand staircase, c.1747-50

The wondrous works of Piranesi

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 15 May 2020


Architect, draughtsman, engraver, etcher, sculptor, designer, decorator, antiquarian and polemicist, Giambattista Piranesi was born in Venice 300 years ago this October. He spent most of his life in Rome, yet throughout his career continued to sign himself 'Architetto Veneziano [Venetian Architect]'. He had the misfortune to enter his field at the end of the Baroque era when building commissions were scarce. He turned himself instead into the greatest graphic artist of the 18th century, the unsurpassed recorder of the remains of ancient Rome and awe-inspiring creator of architectural dreams - and nightmares.

The tricentenary of Piranesi's birth is being marked throughout this year by a number of international events, including exhibitions at the Cini Institute in Venice, the Staaliche Museen in Berlin, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York and the British Museum in London.

Unlike the other major cities of Italy, Venice had little ancient Roman past and no monuments to boast of, having been founded by refugees from neighbouring cities and towns after the collapse of the Empire. But, paradoxically, Piranesi's birth in the Serenissima proved an excellent preparation for his future Roman endeavours, both in terms of upbringing and artistic inspirations.

His father was a master mason turned contractor from Istria (in the north-east corner of the Adriatic), source of the white marble on which much of Venice was built. On his mother's side, his uncle Matteo Lucchesi was an architect and engineer, supervisor of the Herculean murazzi, the sea defences constructed of massive blocks of Istrian stone that protect the lagoons from the open sea to this day. Matteo, who apparently gave Piranesi his first training in architecture, was also a scholar who championed Etruscan buildings as the prototypes of the glorious architecture of classical Rome.

At the age of 19, Piranesi joined the entourage of the Venetian Ambassador to Rome. The young tyro immediately immersed himself in exploring Roman architecture, boiling a single pot of rice to last him a week to avoid being distracted from his studies. He entered the studio of the printmaker Giuseppe Vasi to learn engraving, but the relationship was a short-lived and tempestuous one.

Giuseppe Vasi's exasperated remark to his young student: 'You are too much a painter, my friend, to be an engraver', represented both an acute assessment of the Venetian's talents and a failure to imagine that they could be applied with such astonishing results to the art of engraving. For Piranesi's stylistic models were not the local vedusti - or makers of views Rome for Grand Tourists - like Vasi, but the great topographical painters of his native city, Canaletto and Francesco Guardi, and that supreme Venetian artist of the era, the painter and etcher Giambattista Tiepolo (all three of whom were also masters of the capriccio, or imaginary scene of architectural ruins).

Piranesi pushed etching and engraving to unsurpassed limits, transforming them from what had been predominantly tools of illustration and reproduction into expressive art forms on a par with painting and sculpture. This was achieved not least because Piranesi did a great deal of his work directly onto the plates, using his etcher's needle and engraver's burin as a painter uses a brush or a sculptor a chisel, adding further nuances and subtleties by his handling of inks during the printing process.

His attitude to drawing was unconventional. As the British Museum's wonderful collection of Piranesi's drawings reveals, he was an inspired and extraordinarily skilled draughtsman, but his drawings were never intended to be faithfully replicated on the engraving plate, as was the standard practice. When asked why he did not produce finished drawings for this purpose, he replied: 'But can't you see that, if my drawing was finished, my plate would become nothing but a copy; while if, on the contrary, I create the final effects on copper, I've made it an original.'

And with his visionary views of Roman architecture and ruins - which although closely observed, often owed as much to his fantastic imagination - Piranesi soon revealed himself to be an artist like no other. Seen through his eyes, ancient buildings took on an awesome complexity and superhuman proportions, emphasized by his pigmy-like figures dwarfed by their overwhelming grandeur. Indeed, the German author Goethe could not have been the only one to visit Rome at long last after becoming familiar with Piranesi's prints and be disappointed to find that some of the city's monuments seemed less impressive than he had expected them to be.

In the second half of the 1740s, Piranesi began compiling his 'Vedute di Roma' (Views of Rome), a series of etchings that he added to throughout the rest of his life, finally totalling 135 prints. At end of this decade, he produced the first version of his most enigmatic and personal work, the 'Carceri' (Prisons) series of 14 plates. Roman ruins, the Gothic, the Baroque, Venetian capricci and theatrical scene painting - which Piranesi as a youth had apparently studied for a spell with the famous Bibiena family of theatre designers - all played a part in their creation. These visions of man-made hells are terrifyingly timeless, the interiors conjured up in them at once limitless and crushingly confining.

Piranesi returned to the plates, reissuing them with two additional ones in 1761 under the ambiguous title 'Carceri d'invenzione', meaning either 'Invented Prisons' or 'Prisons of Invention'. The new version represented a radical reworking. Spectral human figures, arches, staircases, bridges, ladders, beams, pillars, scaffolds, iron rings, spikes, hooks, winches, hanging ropes, chains, extinguished lamps and huge mysterious instruments of torture were added, palpably thickening the inky gloom pierced by feeble shafts of light to intensify the sepulchral chiaroscuro, bringing the 'Carceri 'to the state of perfection that was to guarantee their lasting fame and influence on countless artists, architects, designers and film-makers.

Even from his early days in Rome, Piranesi began to make a major contribution to the foundation of scientific archeology, meticulously recording and measuring ancient buildings and uncovering the secrets of Roman materials, construction and engineering techniques. The demands of greater detail and panoramic breadth encouraged him routinely to employ bigger plates. His achievements in this field were recognized when he was made an Honorary Member of the Society of Antiquarians in London in 1757, and his status as a leading artist among his Italian peers was confirmed in 1761 by his election to the venerable Accademia di San Luca in Rome.

The 1760s saw him enter the arena as an academic polemicist in the evermore heated debate on the comparative virtues of Greek and Roman architecture. Those arguing for the primacy of the Greeks were led by the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, and Pierre-Jean Mariette and Julien-David Le Roy from France, who maintained that Roman architecture was an inferior derivative of the Greek.

Piranesi vigorously championed the primacy of Roman building, with its soaring arches, vaults and domes (all architectural features developed by the Romans), both in terms of engineering and richness of ornament, tracing its origins not to the Greeks but the Etruscans. As usual, Piranesi's principal weapon was the print, and his commitment to supporting his case and his prodigious energy gave rise to a further series of majestic works covering a wide range of topics.

During this period Piranesi also finally secured the only building commission of his career, the remodelling of the façade, piazza, monumental gateway and gardens of Santa Maria del Priorato, the church of the Knights of Malta on the Avertine Hill. His patron was Cardinal Giovanni Batista Rezzonico, Grand Prior of the Knights and nephew of the Venetian pope Clement XIII. Piranesi efficiently completed the works between 1765-7, producing an aesthetic gem, replete with subtle symbolic references to the Knights, the Rezzonico dynasty and the ancient site's sacred Etruscan and Roman past.

In the last decade of his life, before his death in 1778, he allowed himself more time to exercise his genius in the decorative arts. He transformed the interiors of the Caffè Inglesi (now Caffè Greco) at the foot of the Spanish Steps, produced books on chimney pieces, vases, candelabras, gravestones and sarcophagi, which became style bibles for many late 18th- and early 19th-century designers. Prominent among these was Robert Adam, who became friends with Piranesi when he was in Rome in the mid 1750s and to whom the Venetian dedicated one of his archeological works in an elaborate trompe-l'oeil monumental Roman frontispiece.

To reward his work at Santa Maria del Priorato, in January 1767 Clement XIII made Piranesi a Knight of the Golden Spurs by papal decree. To mark the event the artist signed one of his latest prints, of the 'Great Falls' at the papal villa at Tivoli, with his new noble title and the date 1766. This long puzzled scholars, until it was realized that, ever the true Venetian, Piranesi was following not the Roman calendar, which commenced in January, but the Serenissima's traditional year, which began on 25 March.

Piranesi Drawings: Visions of Antiquity by Sarah Vowles, British Museum/Thames & Hudson (£20)

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024