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Piranesi’s Year

Almost every man of taste is in some degree a collector of prints,” wrote the author of a dictionary of engravers in 1785. Prints were, however, collected and valued for two quite different reasons. Some, the minority, were regarded like drawings as works of art in their own right, notably those by Rembrandt, Callot, and Castiglione which were admired for their freedom of handling. In An Essay on Prints first published in 1768—a very popular work reissued for the fifth time in 1802—William Gilpin stated that “unlimited freedom” was “the characteristic of etching. The needle, gliding along the surface of the copper, meets no resistance; and easily takes any turn the hand pleases to give it.” Of Castiglione’s prints he wrote: “Freedom, strength and spirit are eminent in them”; Tiepolo’s “best pieces were those in which he gave a loose to the wildness of his imagination,” commenting that “the subject of them is emblematical; but of difficult interpretation.” His praise of Piranesi was qualified but, he declared, “The great excellence of this artist lies in execution; of which he is a consummate master. His stroke is firm, free and bold, in the greatest degree; and his manner admirably calculated to produce a grand, and rich effect.”

Prints were also, and much more generally, collected for the visual information they conveyed, topographical, mechanical, scientific, and, of course, artistic. They were bought as reproductions before the invention of photography. Piranesi’s earliest etchings, made on his first visit to Rome, were of this informative type: little views of ancient and modern buildings intended as illustrations to a guide book. But gradually, and especially after he began to issue his large Vedute di Roma, the emphasis changed. They became more and more valued as works of art themselves and not merely as reproductions of other works of art. He published them himself, without an intermediary, and by the beginning of the 1760s was even issuing catalogues.

The rather prosaic printmaker Vasi under whom he worked for a while is said to have told him, “You are too much of a painter to become an engraver.” But this was of course the main reason for his success. Years later William Mason was to write of ruins (in a passage which seems to have escaped the Piranesi experts) that

They please, when, by Panini’s pencil drawn
Or darkly grav’d by Piranesi’s hand.

It is in the context of the later cult of ruins that Piranesi’s supposed Romantic tendencies have usually been discussed. His prints may well have contributed to the idea that ruins could be picturesque or even beautiful in themselves but there can hardly have been any closer connection. Even his romantic-sounding remark about “speaking ruins,” already quoted, is only superficially akin to the later Romantic attitude as expressed by Benjamin Constant—“Les édifices modernes se taisent, mais les ruines parlent“—and by Stendhal, who seems to have been the first to say in so many words that the Colosseum was more beautiful in his day than it had been in antiquity.

The public for Piranesi’s prints of Roman ruins naturally consisted mainly of visitors to Rome and those who longed to go there at a time when, as Dr. Johnson remarked, “a man who has not been to Italy is always conscious of an inferiority.” They seem to have been intended not merely to answer but to enlarge the taste of this public. The Grand Tour had become an institution for upper-class Englishmen early in the century. And by the time Piranesi settled in Rome the city was receiving each autumn shoals of pink-cheeked young milordi whose air of lackadaisical arrogance. Pompeo Batoni so skillfully depicted. Their aim was of course to complete the classical education they had been given at home, to tread “with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum” as did Edward Gibbon in 1764, and to seek out “each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell.” The more persevering toured the city with a cicerone, usually a British expatriate, and Gibbon refers with some feeling to the “daily labours of eighteen weeks” during which time “the powers of attention were sometimes fatigued.” Piranesi’s prints—modestly priced and easily transportable—provided the perfect memento to take back home and they were bought by visitors of all nationalities. In a guide for German tourists, J.J. Volckmann called them Vortrefflich—“they show the most beautiful churches, palaces, fountains and ancient monuments…. They are not at all elegant but etched in a very masterly firm manner and are given attractive settings. He often shows the ruins as they were rather than as they are nowadays. Their price is very reasonable and one can do without all others.”

Grand Tourists were almost equally fascinated by the contemporary scene, the colorful world of the pope, cardinals, and the great papal families. Significantly, nearly one third of Piranesi’s large Vedute are of post-classical, mainly baroque, buildings. Here he sometimes plays architectural critic. His view of the Lateran, for example, emphasizes how awkwardly the façade is tacked on to the nave of the basilica. In his print of the Trevi fountain, on the other hand, he “corrected” the architect’s design to give less prominence to the sculpture and much more to the water—in accordance with the published opinion of his friend Monsignor Bottari. But he sought, above all, to record the city as a whole with its opulent princely palaces, its exuberant baroque churches, the bustle of life on the Corso and the quay by the Tiber animated by those sudden juxtapositions of ancient and modern which still appeal so strongly.

The city portrayed by Piranesi is the subject of a long, fascinating, and beautifully illustrated book by the late christian Elling: Rome: The Biography of its Architecture from Bernini to Thorvaldsen. When this work first appeared in Danish in 1950 many American and English students of eighteenth-century architecture hoped it might be translated into a language they could understand. Yet the appearance of an English version four years ago seems to have passed almost unnoticed. Elling is concerned mainly with the street architecture of eighteenth-century Rome—interiors are seldom mentioned and none is illustrated—not only the exteriors of churches and palaces but also of prisons, hospitals, stables, workshops, monasteries, and apartment blocks, so that we are given as by no one else since Piranesi the very “texture” of the city. The book’s great and all too rare merit is that architecture is invariably presented as a setting for human activity and Elling provides in the text one of the best available accounts of life in eighteenth-century Rome, with a great range of source material cited in the notes. The miseries as well as the splendors are described. Elling reminds us that in the eleven-year reign of Clement XIII (Piranesi’s most lavish protector) 4,000 people were murdered in the Eternal City—a fact which makes the ragged figures among Piranesi’s ruins seem more sinister than picturesque. It is rather surprising that none of the authors of the books under review so much as mentions Elling’s work (though an old article by him, translated into French, is printed in Piranèse et les français). But he was not an enthusiastic admirer of their hero.

Eighteenth-century Rome is Gibbon’s Rome and, of course, Casanova’s, Winckelmann’s, and Goethe’s. Piranesi was just as much a foreigner there as they were and so was perfectly equipped to interpret it for them. Nowadays his “Prisons” appeal much more strongly and his Roman views are admired in so far as they share the same disturbingly mysterious quality. As John Wilton-Ely points out, this excessive admiration for the Carceri has created “a serious distortion to his reputation,” while Jonathan Scott remarks that modern psychological interpretations of them would “have been unintelligible to Piranesi himself,” which can hardly be denied. “To see them solely in terms of psychological disorder is easy, exciting and wrong.” Just how far such interpretations can be taken is shown by an article in which Manfredo Tafuri—a distinguished Italian architectural historian and critic—uses all the paraphernalia of psychoanalysis, Marxist historical theory, linguistics, and structural anthropology to describe them as visions of a “negative utopia.”3

A valiant attempt to drag the Carceri back into the eighteenth century is made by Maurizio Calvesi with the ingenious suggestion that they were primarily intended simply as evocations of the prisons of ancient Rome. There is much to recommend this theory, especially in view of the Latin inscription referring specifically to ancient Roman prisons on a plate which Piranesi added when he reissued the Carceri in 1760. It does not, however, go very far to account for their later appeal, which is surely due to changing attitudes to the subject matter. The real prisons of Piranesi’s day were not in the least dramatic or sinister, just extremely squalid and dingy.4 Visitors to Rome occasionally noted (as Elling remarks) figures crying through the barred windows: “Monsiu! Milord! give a penny to the poor prisoners.” But only a few reformers took more than a passing interest in prisons or their occupants, among whom there were usually madmen as well as criminals.

Goya was to convey with unequaled directness the horror of such inhuman places of confinement. But there is no suggestion of all this in Piranesi. His etchings are anything but denunciations of a current social evil. They stress the grandeur of impregnable walls, not the plight of the incarcerated. It was the French Revolution which brought the prison dramatically close to the consciousness of upper-class Europeans. And in the years of the Restauration shadows of the prison house fell on everyone with liberal sympathies. At least one early nineteenth-century stage setting for Fidelio derived from Piranesi. So too did Stendhal’s description in La Chartreuse de Parme of the Farnese Tower with its great columns and spiral staircases and huge sculptures of skulls.

In the seventeenth century Pascal had likened the world to a prison populated with criminals awaiting execution. To thinkers of the Enlightenment such a view was, of course, abominable and Voltaire sharply remarked that “le sort naturel d’un homme n’est ni d’être enchainé ni d’être égorgé.” But Pascal’s image survived, though often shorn of its religious implications, to be taken up by the Romantics—as in Alfred de Vigny’s “cette prison nommé la vie.” The prison also became a metaphor for the human mind with its dark recesses. In this context Piranesi’s Carceri took on a new significance. And these unnervingly potent inventions with their complex spaces which are at once confined and apparently limitless, rational and enigmatic—“vernünftig und rätselhaft” as Hans Magnus Enzensberger puts it in the poem with which Norbert Miller ends his book—have continued to unfold further levels of meaning. Today they may even seem a protest against the rationalist architecture they partly inspired, a terrifying demonstration of the tyranny of reason.

  1. 3

    This article, which is frequently cited but, one suspects, a good deal less often read, first appeared in the Atti del Convegno B. Vittone (Turin, 1972).

  2. 4

    An illuminating discussion of “Cages, Prisons and Captives in Eighteenth-Century Art” by Lorenz Eitner was recently published in Images of Romanticism: Verbal and Visual Affinities, edited by Karl Kroeber and William Walling (Yale University Press, 1978).

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