The Imaginary Builder

Piranesi and Architectural Fantasy

an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, April 7–September 9, 2001

Giovanni Battista Piranesi was a frustrated architect; the most notable of his few commissions was for the restoration of the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato in Rome. Born in Venice in 1720, he moved to Rome in his early twenties and turned to the production of souvenir views, or vedute, of the city. Until his death in 1778 he remained a celebrant of Rome’s massive buildings and ruins; he depicted them in an outpouring of etchings that, according to as impassive an authority as the Encyclopedia Britannica, are “the most original and impressive representations of architecture to be found in western art.” His first volume of representations, Architecture and Perspectives, Invented and Etched by Gio. Batt.a Piranesi, Venetian Architect, appeared in 1743 and consisted of twelve prints presenting idealized reconstructions of “an ancient capitol,” “a magnificent bridge,” “an ancient temple,” “an ancient mausoleum,” and so forth—Roman ruins extrapolated into a pristine, elaborately decorated timelessness.

Since Rome with its vast ruins, pompous post-medieval churches, and heroic hilltop vistas presented a medley already bordering on the fantastic, and since Piranesi was an aspiring architect bent on showing what his imagination could do, the viewer easily accepts the visionary quality of these early prints; their surprising extension into a fantastic underworld followed in 1749, in a set of fourteen plates titled, in Italian, Invenzioni Capric. di Carceri (Fanciful Images of Prisons). These imaginary carceri, inspired in part by the architect’s acquaintance with the immense Roman sewers, were to become Piranesi’s contribution to the history of art, as distinguished from the history of etching. After producing many superb etchings of actual Roman ruins in all their majestic dilapidation, Piranesi in 1761—the year in which he set up his own printmaking business—reissued the Carceri, heavily reworking the fourteen plates and adding two new ones.

It has been the happy inspiration of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, drawing solely from its own collections, to present the engravings of 1749 and of 1761 in juxtaposition. These large prints, roughly twenty-four by twenty inches, take up one room; a second room exhibits the work of artists contemporary with Piranesi or influenced by him, along with some pen and wash sketches by the artist, showing his “fiery brushwork” and thoroughly practiced eye for the anatomy of buildings.

But the Carceri are the main attraction, and the first thing this viewer was struck by was their extraordinary freedom and even fury of execution. Piranesi etched on large copper plates as freely as most artists use pencil and paper. He went, especially in the 1761 reworking phase, for the impressionistic effect, shading not only with parallel gouges of the graver but with an evolved scribble that can be seen these days in the cartoons of Edward Sorel. The result is as dashing and headlong as the music manuscripts of J.S. Bach. The meticulousness of his usual engravings, especially in his utilitarian albums of architectural ornaments (1769) and of “vases, candelabras, grave stones, sarcophagi, tripods, lamps, and ornaments” (1778),…

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