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…

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