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Piranesi’s Year


Exhibition catalogue by John Wilton-Ely
Arts Council of Great Britain at The Hayward Gallery (London), 135 pp., £5.50

Piranesi: The Early Architectural Fantasies 1978-October 1, 1978

exhibition at the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), June 1,

Piranesi: Incisioni, rami, legature, architetturae

Exhibition catalogue, Fondazione Giorgio Cini (Venice), edited by Alessandro Bettagno
Neri Pozza (Vicenza), 373 pp., 15,000 Lire

Disegni di Giambattista Piranesi

Exhibition catalogue, Fondazione Giorgio Cini (Venice), edited by Alessandro Bettagno
Neri Pozza (Vicenza), 93, 85 pl pp., 5,000 Lire

Piranèse et les français, colloque tenu à la Villa Médicis

edited by Georges Brunel
Edizioni dell’Elefante (Rome), 611 pp., 70,000 Lire


by Jonathan Scott
St. Martin’s Press, 336 pp., $50.00


by Nicholas Penny
Oresko Books Ltd. (London), 96 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The Mind and Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi

by John Wilton-Ely
Thames and Hudson, 304 pp., $39.95

Archäologie des Traums: Versuch über Giovanni Battista Piranesi

by Norbert Miller
Hanser Verlag (Munich), 492 pp., DM 68

Rome: The Biography of Its Architecture from Bernini to Thorvaldsen

by Christian Elling
Westview Press, 532, 212 illus pp., $65.00

Piranesi year is over. His drawings and etchings have returned to their solander boxes in the print rooms of Europe and America, his great bound folios have been put back in place and—presumably—additional shelving has been set up to support the weight of the avalanche of recent publications devoted to him. Specialist students all over the world seem to have taken the opportunity to expound their diverse theories, and to promise such further productions as complete catalogues raisonnés of his prints and drawings. His current popularity is, nonetheless, difficult to explain. He was a masterly draftsman and etcher but hardly to be compared artistically—though some enthusiasts do compare him—with Tiepolo and Canaletto, let alone Rembrandt and Goya. The vast majority of his etchings, and those on which his fame in his own day was founded, are of Roman Imperial architecture which does not at present arouse much admiration from either scholars or the general public. His works of architectural theory were too confused and eccentric to have ever had much influence. As an archaeologist he was more imaginative than scientific. And although he styled himself an architect, his “practice” was limited to refurbishing a single, quite small building, Santa Maria del Priorato in Rome, which cannot be described as a masterpiece.

He has, however, held a peculiar fascination for writers ever since the eighteenth century. To describe his fantasies became an exercise in literary skill, one undertaken by Horace Walpole, Thomas De Quincey, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset (who cheated by translating De Quincey), Théophile Gautier, Herman Melville, and in our own time Aldous Huxley, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Piranesi is very much a writer’s artist. This may indicate something of his essential quality. And it partly accounts for the flood of art historical writing devoted to him in the past thirty years. He must now be among the most written-about of all eighteenth-century artists, Watteau, Boucher, Tiepolo, and such architects as Juvarra and Vanvitelli lagging far behind.

Despite fierce competition for loans, four exhibitions were held to mark the two hundredth anniversary of Piranesi’s death (November 9, 1778). The one organized by John Wilton-Ely for the British Arts Council and shown at the Hayward Gallery in London was the most ambitious. Here an attempt was made to set Piranesi in the context of his time. Some of his earliest drawings, done in his native Venice, were shown in the company of works by Canaletto, Tiepolo, and Francesco Guardi and designs for theatrical scenery by Filippo Juvarra and Giuseppe Galli-Bibiena. We were thus able to see him emerging out of his Venetian and Roman background.

One of Panini’s characteristic paintings of ruins, sharply lit and neatly gathered together, illustrated the cor ventional early eighteenth-century view of the marvels of ancient Rome which Piranesi was to transform by the prints he etched after settling there in 1745. His drawings of the 1740s and 1750s were displayed alongside those of some of the young architects of the French Academy whom he knew, and of Robert Adam with whom he struck up a friendship in 1755. There were various drawings of prison scenes for comparison with his more famous Carceri etchings, one or two experiments in the Egyptian style to set beside his in the same vein. It is a pity that this comparative material could not be illustrated in the catalogue for it was very intelligently selected, and demonstrated both the similarities and the very vital differences between Piranesi and his contemporaries.

An exhibition in the new East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington was devoted mainly to etchings (with a few drawings) of imaginary architecture made by Piranesi between 1743 and 1751 though subsequently revised. Great emphasis was laid on the revisions, all quite apparent from impressions made from the same copper plate at different times. To most people who are not print collectors the study of such “states” may seem no more than a kind of higher philately, and so it all too often is. But the ways in which an artist alters his work, whether to improve it or simply to repair damage, may have some further significance for us.

And Piranesi’s Carceri, which became ever darker and more overwhelmingly oppressive the more he revised and reworked them, are perhaps the most revealing of all instances of this. They allow us rare insights into the creative process. Piranesi reworked and adjusted his etchings mainly in order to gain cogency, to make the constructions they depict more logical so that the great flights of stairs, for example, visibly connect with each other: yet the pictorial space seems paradoxically to become more disturbingly hallucinatory the more clearly and precisely it is defined. In the introduction to the “guide” to the Washington exhibition both its organizer, Andrew Robison, and the director of the National Gallery, J. Carter Brown, remark on the similarities between Piranesi’s fantastic architecture and the interior of the new East Building.1 It is curious to note that this is intended as a compliment to the architect Ieoh Ming Pei.

In New York the Pierpont Morgan Library put on show its magnificent collection of drawings by Piranesi and issued a finely produced and very modestly priced catalogue, which is the best bargain of the year. This is the largest and most interesting single collection of the artist’s drawings anywhere, illustrating the full range of his artistic interests and the various phases of his stylistic development. Designs of about 1744-1745 for frilly asymmetrical wall panels and a spectacular festival gondola with human figures and birds emerging out of a froth of ornament show him at his closest to the Venetian rococo. He appears in a more solemn mood at about the same time, copying the illustrations in the great Austrian Baroque architect J.B. Fischer von Erlach’s Entwurf einer historischen Architektur that pioneered an attempt to compare the architectural styles of different civilizations. The increasing selfconfidence and freedom of his draftsmanship are revealed in designs of imaginary buildings.

There are also many careful drawings which indicate the loving attention he paid to fragments of ancient Roman carving. Two very interesting groups of sheets dating from the mid-1760s are devoted to designs for the apse of San Giovanni in Laterano, which he hoped to rebuild and redecorate, and for his church of the Knights of Malta, S. Maria del Priorato. Furniture designs of the same period retain some reminiscences of his early rococo work but all their ornamental motifs are derived from ancient Rome, or Egypt. The latest drawings in the Pierpont Morgan collection, of ruins at Pozzuoli and Pompeii, date from the 1770s and are marked by a greater firmness, almost rigidity, in handling and an insistence on spatial clarity in tune with the work of neoclassical painters. It was at this time, too, that he drew the austere Doric ruins at Paestum, forgetting his former fulminations against the Grecian taste.

Venice celebrated Piranesi year with two exhibitions at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. One assembled a representative selection of drawings, the other prints. The catalogue of the latter is of interest not only for the large scale and very well reproduced illustrations but also for the brief essays in which a number of scholars introduce the various sections. It provides, in fact, a kind of “variety show” in which each of the experts does his “turn.” Thus Maurizio Calvesi contributes a brief essay on The Fall of Phaeton, a spectacular and longlost architectural fantasy which he discovered in 1965, and reiterates his belief that it expresses ideas derived from Vico. John Wilton-Ely writes about the illustrations to Piranesi’s contentious theoretical works. Andrew Robison, who has done much to clarify the dates of the early prints, summarizes his findings about the Vedute di Roma. The exhibition also includes photographs of the little Roman church of S. Maria del Priorato with an introduction by Manfredo Tafuri, who seeks, rather portentously, to unravel the hidden meaning and significance of its decorations.

The French jumped the gun by mounting a notable exhibition, Piranèse et les français, shown in Rome, Dijon, and Paris in 1976. Piranèse—what exactly does the assimilation of a foreign name into French signify? Admiration? Or just familiarity? In any event Piranesi is the only eighteenth-century artist to have been francisé and thus enrolled in the select company from the previous century of le Guide, le Dominiquin, les Carraches, and, of course, Caravage. The publication of the twenty-eight papers read at a colloque organized in association with the exhibition was deferred until 1978. This is a handsome volume, a characteristic product of the Edizioni dell’Elefante in Rome.

Piranesi himself is but a shadowy figure in the background to several of the studies, notably an excellent account of the Egyptian taste and Villa Borghese with which Piranesi was, of course, only rather remotely connected. However, his relations with and possible influence on French painters and architects (especially Ledoux) are investigated by several scholars and an overingenious theory about his indebtedness to a minor figure, Jean-Laurent Legeay, is anathematized with “twenty-nine distinct damnations one sure where another fails.” Two of the contributions are of more general interest than their titles might suggest—Georges Brunel’s study of the Pagliarini brothers who published Piranesi’s first book and Nicola Giobbe to whom it was dedicated (with an inventory of the latter’s library and collection of works of art), and Madeleine Barbin’s list of the drawings and prints by Piranesi which passed through the French sale rooms between 1756 and 1820. Of this, more by and by—as Carlyle would have said.

Perhaps the most valuable part of Piranèse et les français is, however, the transcript of the manuscript life of Piranesi written in 1799 by J.-G. Legrand, often used by his later biographers but previously printed in full only in an elusive mimeographed periodical of very limited distribution. Legrand, who was closely associated with Piranesi’s sons, is the sole source for a great deal of information as well as the best and most vivid anecdotes. It is he who describes, as if from personal observation, Piranesi’s method of etching, working directly on the copper plate from memory and rough sketches rather than finished drawings (such as were generally used by printmakers). He recounts the story of Piranesi measuring a subterranean cavern so oddly dressed in a short coat and vast hat and so excitedly gesticulating and talking to himself that he was mistaken for a sorcerer. It is Legrand, too, who tells us of his calling for a volume of Livy on his deathbed.

The fundamental importance of Legrand’s text was first pointed out by Henri Focillon, who made use of it for his Giovanni Battista Piranesi published in 1918. Despite the large number of Piranesi’s works (mostly drawings) that have come to light since then and the increase generally in our knowledge of artistic life in eighteenth-century Rome, Focillon’s book has never been entirely superseded. An Italian translation with a useful introduction by Calvesi was issued in 1967 but it was not until 1975 that the first new full-length study appeared, by Jonathan Scott. Three further books came out last year. That by Nicholas Penny provides an excellent, well-balanced introduction which one only regrets is not longer, so observant and intelligent are his comments, and written with such a neat turn of phrase—he describes the figures in Piranesi’s prints as “waving dislocated arms in desperate conversation with deaf companions.”

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    The guidebook is no longer in print, but a catalogue raisonné of Piranesi’s early architectural prints and drawings based on the National Gallery exhibition is being prepared by Andrew Robison.

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