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Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Della Introduzione book etching
Della Introduzione book etching (getarchive.net)

(1720-1778)

This month’s essay deals with one of the 18th century’s most interesting and talented personages. Not only was he an artist, but he was also an Italian classical archaeologist and an architect. He was most famous for his etchings of ancient and baroque Rome, some of which appeared as fanciful restorations of ancient remains that defied reality. His complete architectural oeuvre of over a thousand etched plates and large prints depicting the buildings of classical and postclassical Rome and its vicinity contributed considerably to Rome’s fame throughout Italy and Europe. Through this work, he also influenced the growth of both classical archaeology and the Neoclassical movement in art. He was also famous for his grandiose architectural constructions of his own imagination, especially his fictitious and idiosyncratic “prisons” (Le Carceri d’Invenzione, the Imaginative Prisons).

CELEBRATED: Artist, printmaking
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ASSOCIATIONS: Archaeologist, Architect
ADDITIONAL KEY INFO: Study of ancient Rome
BORN: 1720 Century
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: Venice
Tomb of the Metelli on the Appian Way
Tomb of the Metelli on the Appian Way (metmuseum.org)

Giovanni Battista (or Giambattista) Piranesi was born in Mestre, near Venice, on October 4, 1720. He was baptized on November 8 in the Church of San Moise in Venice. His father, Giacomo, was a stone mason and master builder. His mother, Laura Lucchesi Piranesi, was the daughter of a sea captain, Valentino Lucchesi; she was also the sister of Matteo Lucchesi, who was a leading architect in the Magistrato delle Acque (The Magistracy of Water), which was the state organization responsible for engineering the water system and restoring historical buildings in Venice. Giovanni’s brother, Andrea Piranesi, a Carthusian monk with an exhaustive knowledge of the classics, introduced him to Latin literature and ancient Greco-Roman civilization, both of which were to influence and fascinate him for the rest of his life.

Another important influence on Giovanni’s early development was Francesca Corraghi, a young woman who came from Rome to live with friends in Venice after her parents died. She became close friends with the 17-year-old Giovanni, and talked to him about the wonderful art treasures in Rome. She whetted his appetite to see and study them, and she encouraged him to leave Venice and family to go to Rome. Although he had strong feelings for her, she soon after married the Conte d’Amalfi and left his life.

Piranesi’s family expected him to be an architect from his childhood, and he was brought up in the architectural world of Venice. He first studied architecture while being apprenticed to his uncle, Matteo, and learned the means of masonry construction—the use of scaffolding, winches, hawsers, pulleys, and chains—all of which stayed with him for the rest of his life.

He learned to know and love architectural classicism from the works and ideas of Palladio taught to him by Matteo. He developed his skills by beginning his own career working with the architecture of the Venetian theatrical stage. He worked on various theatrical productions and learned to perfect the art of stage design by discovering how to render light and shade with dramatic effect, drawing architecture from unique angles, and taking risks with perspective. All of these would be influential later in the development of his unique style.

In 1740 Piranesi finally was able to go to Rome, serving as an inexperienced draftsman on the staff of Marco Foscarini, who was the Venetian ambassador to the court of the new pope, Benedict XIV. He lived in the Palazzo Venezia and spent his free time sketching everything he observed in the city: temples, palaces, bridges, aqueducts, and all of the fragments of Rome’s past which were, at the time, only just being uncovered and restored. Trained as an architect but unable to find commissions, in 1743 Piranesi published a book of prints of his own stylized imaginary buildings of enormous scale, inspired by the architecture of imperial Rome. The project was a financial failure.

Felice Polanzani, CC
Felice Polanzani, CC

He also apprenticed himself to Giuseppe Vasi, who was the most famous producer of etched views of Rome. Vasi taught him the art of etching and engraving Rome and its monuments. These were sold to tourists as enduring souvenirs of the Roman experience on their Grand Tour. Vasi found Piranesi’s talent much greater than that of a mere engraver. According to an early biography of him written by Jacques Guillaume Legrand, Vasi told Piranesi that “you are too much of a painter, my friend, to be an engraver.”

After his studies with Vasi, he collaborated with pupils of the French Academy in Rome to produce a series of vedute (views) of the city. His main creative energies at this time were concentrated on developing the architectural fantasy, or capriccio, as a device for formal experiment, creative release, and a stimulus for contemporary architects, whose designs he thought had failed to measure up to the ruined grandeur around them. His first work in this series was Prima Parte di Architettura e Prospettive (First Part of Architecture and Perspectives, 1743), which was followed by another in 1745, Varie Vedute di Roma Antica e Moderna (Various Views of Ancient and Modern Rome).

From 1744 to 1747, Piranesi was often in Venice where he was working in the studio of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, a leading artist in Venice. (It was Tiepolo who expanded the restrictive conventions of reproductive, topographical and antiquarian engravings). It is from this period that Piranesi’s etchings, called grotesques, were produced. These etchings consisted of rococo shapes interlaced with fragments of ancient ruins. He returned to Rome in 1747, this time to stay. He took a consignment of prints (not his own) with him to sell as a publisher’s agent, thus making it possible for him to get a financial foothold.

Etching provided Piranesi with a livelihood, allowing him to turn to one of his favorite activities, drawing and making prints of the ancient and modern buildings of Rome, which ultimately became a lucrative source of income for him. By 1747, he had begun the work for which he is best known, the series of prints entitled Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome), and he continued to produce plates for the series until he died. These popular Vedute, which eclipsed earlier views of Roman landmarks through their dynamic compositions, bold lighting effects, and dramatic presentation, shaped European conceptions of Rome to such an extent that Goethe, who had come to know Rome through Piranesi’s prints, was somewhat disappointed on his first encounter with the real thing.

Piranesi’s first real success began around 1745 when he started his etchings entitled Carceri d’Invenzione (Invented or Imaginary Prisons), which are often considered his masterpieces. They consisted of 16 large plates depicting ancient Roman ruins converted into fantastic, visionary dungeons and enormous subterranean vaults filled with mysterious stairs, scaffolding, huge machines, and instruments of torture. Later, when he reworked the copperplates, he made the shapes sharper and darker, creating new drama but destroying the translucency of light found in the older plates. In these prints, he explored the possibilities of perspective and spatial illusion while pushing the medium of etching to its limits.

Piranesi’s biographer A. Hyatt Mayor commenting on the plates before they were reworked wrote: “Only a stage-struck engineer could have conjured up these endless aisles, these beams draped with tons of chain, these gangplanks teetering from arch to arch, these piers that stand like beacons for exploring loftiness and light.…Piranesi rendered such more-than-Roman immensities like a true Venetian by letting his etching needle scribble and zigzag until it sketched areas of shade as translucent as a Guardi wash.” (Francisco Guardi was an Italian painter and nobleman. He is considered to be among the last practitioners, along with his brothers, of the classic Venetian school of painting.).

Piranesi’s willingness to embrace the profession of printmaking was conditioned by his ties to Venice, which was the only city in 18th century Italy where the greatest artists turned their hands to etching. Piranesi returned to his native city twice in the mid-1740s and each time was influenced and encouraged greatly by seeing the prints being produced by Venetian artists. Carceri d’Invenzione was begun soon after this encounter with the lively printmaking scene in Venice.

In 1752, at age 32, Piranesi married Angela Pasquini. He put his wife’s dowry towards a supply of huge copper plates, allowing him to establish and sustain his independent career as a printmaker. The couple had five children over the course of the next two decades. The eldest was Laura (1754-1789?), who was very well educated for a woman of the time (she could read and write in Latin). She was followed by Francesco (1758/59-1810), Angelo (1763-1782), Anna Maria Rosalia (1766-?), and Pietro (1773-?). Laura and her brothers were trained by their father in the family craft of etching; it is not known whether Anna Maria Rosalia, who entered the Bambin-Gesù school and convent on Via Urbana in 1783, was trained in etching.

Carceri d'invenzione (Imaginary Prisons) - (metmuseum.org)
Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons) (metmuseum.org)

During the 1750s archaeology became increasingly important to Piranesi. He began the task of recording the ruins of ancient Rome. It was to become the biggest project of his life. In 1756, after more intensive archeological studies than any known previously, studies that were much implemented by his knowledge of civil engineering, Piranesi published his Le Antichità Romane (The Antiquities of Rome), four huge volumes containing over 200 plates. In this work, he pioneered new archaeological methods and techniques of illustration, and its publication quickly won him international recognition. He was made an honorary member of the Society of Antiquaries in London in 1757. In Rome, the artists welcomed him into the Academy of St. Luke in 1761.

Given his admiration for Rome and his contentious nature, Piranesi could hardly refrain from entering into the debate that began at mid-century over the relative merits of Greek and Roman art. He became a leading protagonist for Rome in the furious controversy provoked by the excessive claims of Hellenic originality by promoters of the Greek revival. Here, too, etching served him well as a means of supporting his arguments. His Delle Magnificenza ed Architettura de’ Romani (Of the Magnificence and Architecture of the Romans, 1761) advanced the view, shared by other scholars, that the Romans had learned not from the Greeks—as British and French scholars of the time had begun to argue—but from the earlier inhabitants of Italy, the Etruscans. Piranesi used his knowledge of ancient engineering accomplishments to defend the creative genius of the Romans, but devoted even more space to a celebration of the richness and variety of Roman ornamentation.

While Piranesi championed the art of Rome, he was not indifferent to the charms of Greek art, nor to that of the Egyptians, as is evident from his fanciful design for an Egyptian fireplace or his decorative Egyptian scheme for the walls of the Caffè degli Inglesi (Coffee House of the English), the British cafe located in the Piazza di Spagna, which was destroyed by fire in the 19th century. In his preface to the Diverse Maniere d’Adornare i Cammini (Different Ways of Adorning Chimneys, 1769), which includes both of these etched plates along with designs in the Etruscan, Greek, Roman, and even Rococo styles, Piranesi argued for the complete freedom of the architect or designer to draw on models from every time and place as an inspiration for his own inventions. Piranesi’s etchings of his eclectic mantelpiece and furniture designs in this work circulated throughout Europe, influencing decorative trends, and even functioned as a sales catalogue to advertise the objects he fashioned from ancient remains. Soon after publication, it was introduced into England by his friend Robert Adam, and a generation later, it became the basis for the style known today as “Empire.” Some of the fireplace designs included in the Diverse Maniere were actually executed under Piranesi’s direction, utilizing antique fragments discovered in excavations of the day.

Piranesi spent much of his last decade involved in producing a number of imaginatively restored antiquities from excavated fragments, notably represented by large vases and ornamental candelabra primarily for the British market. The restoration of such fragmentary remains, a process that might range from simply providing an ancient Roman vase with a suitable antique base to such elaborate assemblages as the candelabrum of Newdigate in Surrey, England became a profitable new business for Piranesi during the last years of his life.

Following a long decline in health, Piranesi died in Rome on Nov. 9, 1778 at age 58, after working on drawings of the newly discovered three ancient Greek temples (Doric Order) at Paestum, a major ancient Greek city on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea in Magna Graecia, south of Naples. Ironically, his final work, completed and published posthumously by his son Francesco, was a potent contribution to the Greek revival in the form of etchings of these Doric temples at Paestum. On the day of his death, Piranesi reportedly refused to rest: saying that repose was unworthy of a citizen of Rome. He spent his last hours working with his drawings and copperplates. He was buried in the church he had helped restore, Santa Maria del Priorato; his tomb was designed by the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Angelini.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Egyptian chimeny decoration (www.metmuseum.org)
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Egyptian chimeny decoration (www.metmuseum.org)

Some Final Thoughts

Even though Piranesi lived in Rome for the majority of his life, and used Rome as his main source of inspiration, he stated frequently that he considered himself a subject of the Republic of Venice. The title page of his famous Vedute di Roma contains the words: “Drawn and engraved by Giambattista Piranesi Venetian architect,” signifying the importance Piranesi assigned to his Venetian origins.

Long before his death, his prints of his adopted city had caught the imagination of much of Europe. In 1771 Horace Walpole urged his fellow Englishmen to “study the sublime dreams of Piranesi, who seems to have conceived visions of Rome beyond what it boasted even in the meridian of its splendour. Savage as Salvator Rosa, fierce as Michelangelo, and exuberant as Rubens, he has imagined scenes that would startle geometry, and exhaust the Indies to realize.”

Perhaps the ultimate legacy of Piranesi is his unique vision of antiquity, which had a profound impact on such leading figures of Romanticism as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Victor Hugo, and has continued to inspire writers and poets as much as artists, architects, and film directors over the centuries.

 

 


Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from:

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Giovanni Battista Piranesi.” Encyclopedia Britannica website, March 30, 2022;

“Giovanni Battista Piranesi.” Biography.yourdictionary.com website;

Hunter, George Leland. “Famous Architects Series No. 2: Giovanni Battista PiranesiPart 1.” American Architect and Architecture (Journal). New York: The American Architect, Volume 108, Number 2063, July 7, 1915, pp. 1-32. (Digitized by University of Michigan on April 22, 2011);

Kain, Sarah. “The Life of Piranesi.” Omeka.Wellesley.edu website;

Mayor, A. Hyatt. Giovanni Battista Piranesi. New York: H. Bittner and Company, 1952;

“Piranesi, Giovanni Battista (1720–1778).” Encyclopedia.com website, May 2018;

Thompson, Wendy. “Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–, October 2003;

Wikipedia website.

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