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Piranesi’s Year

John Wilton-Ely’s The Mind and Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi is a good deal longer and a more lavish production, with some 230 illustrations in the text and excellent reproductions of all 137 Vedute di Roma and the second edition of the Carceri. This is an eminently sound book which takes account of all the recent research and even the wildest of recent interpretations. Due attention is paid to Piranesi’s stylistic development, his technique as a draftsman and etcher, his designs for buildings and furniture, his theoretical writings, his activities as an archaeologist and antiquary, patching together Roman marblesw for sale to grand tourists from northern Europe, especially the English. It is hard to choose between this book and Jonathan Scott’s, which is no less level-headed, clearly expressed, and well illustrated. But Wilton-Ely’s is stronger on theory and the purely art historical issues: it will probably be the one to go on lists of “recommended reading” as the standard monograph.

Norbert Miller’s sparsely illustrated Archäologie des Traums is an entirely different kind of work, less a conventional “art book” than a literary and psychological study. The author is a young professor of Germanic literature at the Technisches Universität, Berlin, who approached Piranesi—so he tells us—by way of Victor Hugo and Gérard de Nerval and who consequently stresses those aspects of his work which most strongly appealed to the Romantics. He presents Piranesi, indeed, as a “Romantiker avant la lettre,” obsessed by the real relationship between the inner and outer world, dream and reality. Although he has made full use of virtually all the recent research, Miller’s aim is essentially interpretative rather than expository. He leads us through the mysteriously boundless spaces and around the massively solid forms of Piranesi’s etchings and makes them seem even more disturbingly strange. His long book—with just on 500 pages it is by far the longest to have been published on its subject—abounds in observations which are no less perceptive than original, though sometimes one feels that he is bending Piranesi’s work to meet his own conception of Romanticism.

Piranesi is a very difficult artist to categorize. Some of his early works could hardly be more frothily rococo. But before long he had swung to the other extreme. His prints of imaginary structures as well as his views of Roman ruins convey with unequaled force the solemnity, the sheer weight and immutability, of their subjects and they powerfully influenced the course of neoclassical architecture. As Robert Adam wrote in 1755: “so amazing and ingenious fancies as he has produced in the plans of the Temples, Baths and Palaces and other buildings I never saw and are the greatest fund for inspiring and instilling invention in any lover of architecture that can be imagined.” Architects of the late eighteenth century found him—as Fuseli said of Blake—“damned good to steal from.” An edition of his prints issued in France under the Empire was advertised as a “Cours complet d’Architecture” (as a contributor to Piranèse et les français points out, this was published with the collaboration of Durand, the great and enormously influential French academic theorist). Only a little later—and for entirely different reasons—he was “discovered” by the Romantics and, if Norbert Miller is right, may have played a part in the formation of their outlook.

In his own time Piranesi was regarded as an “original” in the eighteenth-century meaning of the word. “The most extraordinary fellow I ever saw,” Robert Adam called him after a first meeting, though he later complained that “he is of such disposition as bars all instruction, his ideas in locution so ill-arranged, his expression so furious and fantastic.”2 But he was also to discover, behind the eccentric façade, a man no less canny than himself—it was a case of anti-Grecian meeting anti-Grecian. Piranesi was very far from being a genius in the Romantic sense of the word, a solitary otherworldly artist-seer struggling against the current of his time. He could be astutely businesslike and was very ready and willing to answer the demands of the art market.

A few months before he died Piranesi wrote to his sister in Venice a very revealing letter now known only from an early nineteenth-century paraphrase (printed in full in the catalogue of the exhibition of prints at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice). In this he confessed that he had exiled himself from Venice simply because he could find no employment there and would never return because it was not—in his furious mixture of metaphors—“a theatre capable of giving pasturage to the sublimity of my ideas.” If he had to live elsewhere he would settle in London, for, he said, the English had been his most profuse patrons. Since he had been living in Rome he had built up a capital of between 50,000 and 60,000 scudi—between £12,500 and £15,000 in the English money of the day—a not inconsiderable sum at a time when £500 a year was regarded as a very handsome income. The Pope paid him 200 scudi a time for bound sets of prints to give to distinguished visitors. But it was probably from the sale of smaller groups and individual prints that he earned enough to begin dealing in antiquities and thus further augment his fortune.

The financial aspect of Piranesi’s enterprise is a subject of some interest, though one that has been explored only by Jonathan Scott. The artist’s price for single prints was a modest 2 1/2 or 3 paoli (there were ten paoli to the scudo). He claimed that he could take 4,000 prints from an etched plate. Since 400 was normally considered the maximum number this may partly account for the extensive reworking in the later copies. According to this calculation, and allowing for the cost of materials, a single plate could yield a profit of 840 scudi. It is a large amount when set beside the payments made to painters of the time. In 1754-1755 Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, then at the height of his fame, was paid very little more (1,000 scudi) for frescoing the entire surface of a large dome in a church in Venice. Canaletto began by charging less than 50 scudi for a painting of Venice and the 240 scudi he later asked was thought to be exorbitant. The most fashionable painter in Rome, Pompeo Batoni, expected no more than 100 scudi for a full-length portrait in 1765 though he had doubled this price by 1780.

So even if Piranesi exaggerated the number of prints he could pull from a plate, he clearly profited very handsomely from his self-appointed task of recording the ruins of Rome before, as he said, they totally crumbled away. In his first publication he had written of “queste parlanti ruine“—these speaking ruins—but it would be ungenerous to suggest that they gave him only practical advice about lining his own pocket. Piranesi seems to have been, nonetheless, among the first of all those who have managed to do rather well for themselves out of the threats of doom hanging over our “artistic heritage” (as it is called nowadays)—not least in Italy.

Piranesi’s financial success also depended on his ability to cater for a large public—large by the standards of his day and by no means small even by those of ours. Eighteenth-century painters, sculptors, and architects normally worked for a very limited patronage. The printmaker’s wider and mostly anonymous public—for very few of them would be ever know personally—may have led him to feel more free of the constraints of patronage, but, if so, it was largely an illusion. Choice of subject matter and even style were necessarily conditioned by the tastes of those who bought the prints, and Piranesi was no less ready to answer their demands than any other eighteenth-century printmaker. But writers about him have rarely inquired who these people were: they often imply that he was simply working out his ideas on his own, “doing his own thing” without thought of the morrow.

Hence the importance of the article I’ve already mentioned, by Madeleine Barbin in Piranèse et les français, which informs us precisely on this matter. A surprising variety of French collectors owned specimens of his work in the eighteenth century, ranging from great noblemen and rich financiers to artists and writers, including that master of elegant eroticism Crébillon fils who bought no fewer than 125 Piranesi etchings. The artists are a somewhat odd bunch, mainly former students at the French Academy in Rome, and neoclassicists by no means predominate. In fact Piranesi was not represented at all in the library of Etienne-Louis Boullée. As one might expect, the views of Rome are the prints most often listed in inventories and sale catalogues. But there are also fairly frequent references to the Prisons, curiously mistitled on one occasion as “Des Caprices d’architecture en treize pièces, d’après Piranèse par Carceri.”

In the preface to his first independent publication, Prima parte di architetture e prospettive (1743), Piranesi remarked that in default of opportunities to build on the grand scale of Ancient Rome, “there seems to be no recourse than for me or some other modern architect to explain his ideas through his drawings.” Rather too much has been made of this as evidence of his frustration as a practicing architect. It seems likely that the book was addressed primarily to artists, architects, and especially amateurs at a time when many members of the upper classes fancied themselves as architects and were very closely involved in the design of the buildings they commissioned (much to the annoyance of the professionals they employed).

Horace Walpole was probably thinking of the prints in this volume (or those added to later editions) when he wrote in 1765 that the

delicate redundance of ornament growing into our architecture might perhaps be checked, if our artists would study the sublime dreams of Piranesi, who seems to have conceived visions of Rome beyond what it boasted even in the meridian of its splendor. Savage as Salvator Rosa, fierce as Michel Angelo, and exuberant as Rubens, he has imagined scenes that would startle geometry, and exhaust the Indies to realise. He piles palaces on bridges, and temples on palaces, and scales Heaven with mountains of edifices. Yet what taste in his boldness! what grandeur in his wildness! what labour and thought both in his rashness and details!

As its title indicates, Prima parte was a kind of manual of architecture and architectural draftsmanship, and this may account for much of its popularity. The Carceri, which Piranesi began to etch in about 1745 and published in volume form with a reissue of the Prima parte as Opere varie in 1750, may well have been understood in the same way—simply as demonstrations of how complex interior spaces could be delineated.

The volume of 1750 also included four prints of a different kind entitled Grotteschi, fantastic compositions of architectural fragments with abundant vegetation, water and snakes slithering among tumbled antique sculptures. A great deal of ingenuity has been devoted to unraveling their meaning. They have been plausibly associated with the poetic effusions of the Roman literary society of Arcadians. They have been interpreted by Maurizio Calvesi as allegories of the four seasons, times of day, the elements of earth, water, air, and fire and the “humours” of the body—with Masonic symbols thrown in for good measure. (Odd that the Freemasons who jealously guarded the secrets of their “craft” should be supposed to have been so prodigal in scattering its emblems in works of art!) In all probability they were just exercises in fanciful composition—in the manner of Marco Ricci’s and Tiepolc’s Capricci.

  1. 2

    These and other passages from Robert Adam’s letter are quoted in nearly all the books under review and were published in Robert Adam and His Circle (1962), by John Fleming, which was reprinted last year (John Murray, London).

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