Every scholar’s snook worthy of the name has a tasteful print by Giovanni Battista Piranesi on its wall. The Italian master was born 300 years ago this year and still evokes an abiding image of the classics as refined and melancholy.
The British Museum opened Piranesi drawings: visions of antiquity on 20th February. It was the first exhibition of Piranesi drawings ever and I was luckily enough to attend before lockdown.
Piranesi was born in Venice in 1720 to a moderately well off family. He was apprenticed to his uncle, an architect, but left soon after for Rome. He described himself as a Venetian architect throughout his life. In Rome, he learnt engraving from Giuseppe Vasi. At this time, he created his first professional prints of views of Rome for the tourist market.
He briefly returned to Venice and worked in the studio of Tiepolo, before returning to Rome. Piranesi was also inspired by the Venetian Ferdinando Galli Bibiena, a designer of Baroque stage settings. It is perhaps this combination of fine art, architecture and stage which lends his buildings their power.
It was in Rome that Piranesi made his name.
He was a combination of shrewd business man and lover of antiquity. He chose Rome as his base of operations because of the richness of its archaeology, but also because he recognised it as an untapped market where demand outweighed supply. At the time, Rome was a poor but proud city.
He sold his prints individually for the then equivalent of 65-75p which was quite good valued compared to his near contemporaries Hogarth and Gillray. It was also good value compared to say Canaletto who painted for the tourist market.
He also sold his works in printed books. The pope kept a supply of his complete works as a gift for visiting foreign dignitaries.
Piranesi is most famous for his prints. With an exact and sensitive hand, he depicted the ancient buildings of Rome, creating an imposing sense of the splendour of antiquity with subtle variations of light evoking Italy’s sensuous atmosphere.
Piranesi had an abiding and genuine love of archaeology. This is clearest in his Antichita romane a massive four volume collection of prints and learned text. It contains some of his most famous images.
But more interesting, I would argue, are his cross sections. Drawing on his architectural knowledge he showed how buildings were put together, almost as an imaginary excavation.
He had an intuitive sense of architecture and could read buildings. He realised, for example, that the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome, would have had different entrances for the seats, which were themselves organised along class-lines. This meant that social distinction was physically embedded in Ancient Rome.
He was however more enthusiastic than expert. He relied on learned friends, his “bevy of abbes” as Scott called them. Piranesi however, would often forget that his text was ghost written by other people.
This didn’t help when he got into a major argument with Wincklemann, the brilliant German art historian, also in Rome at the time. Wincklemann argued that Greek art was the source for all art and that later Roman art was a decayed form. Piranesi was having none of it and believed the Romans improved on Greek art and that Greek art was inspired by the Etruscans anyway. Of course, they were both wrong- Greek art was inspired by Egyptian art, but that’s a different article.
There is an attention to detail in Piranesi, which is never quite fastidious. His prints tend not to have detailed depictions of people. He often shrunk people, increasing the size of monuments. Goethe was disappointed to visit Rome, when he found out how small the monuments were compared to the images in his head created by Piranesi.
Although Piranesi was an advocate for Rome and the primacy of Italian art, he was also interested in other cultures, not least Egypt.
He depicted the steep pyramid tomb of Cestius both on its own and also in various imagined settings such as the Meeting of the Via Appia and the Via Ardentina. He also depicted sphinges in many imaginary Roman settings such as Entrance to an Ancient Gymnasium.
Perhaps, however, the greatest work of his, inspired by Egyptian modes was his interiors. In Diverse Maniere he created several ornate Egyptian inspired chimney pieces which impressed both Thomas Hope and Sir William Hamilton (husband of Emma Hamilton and a noted collector of Greek vases in his own right).
His greatest achievement was perhaps the English Cafe at the top of the Spanish stairs in Rome. Replete with sphinges, anubii, mummies and various animal gods, it was “Egyptomania” decades before the French and British invasions of Egypt. Piranesi was probably inspired by both the Egyptian artefacts from Italy and also the Palestina Mosaic which depicted the Nile valley.
Not everyone was impressed. One Welsh visitor called it:
“a filthy vaulted room, the walls of which were painted with Sphinxes [sic], Obelisks and Pyramids, from capricious designs of Piranesi, more fitted to adorn the inside of an Egyptian Sepulchre than a room of social conversation”.
Prisons of the mind
His other notable series of works are the Imaginary Prisons (Carceri). Piranesi was intrigued or haunted by visions of underground chambers, expanding into the darkness. He printed these in two states and it is notable that the second states often expand on the first state: walls disappear and become flights of stairs. Perhaps he was inspired by his ancient authors, Tacitus and Suetonius.
De Quincey, the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater, recognised the images in Coleridge’s description of them in his opium visions. Piranesi was not known to be an opium user, but people did take Laudanum (an alcoholic tincture of opium) for illnesses. Could this be where Pirenesi got his visions? Who knows. The argument that drugs are the inspiration for anything beyond the ordinary is a sop for the banally minded and can be easily ignored. Nevertheless the Carceri prints have risen in popular at times where the surreal has risen in predominance: the 1920s and 1960s.
Piranesi never left his home without a sketch book and pen, yet very few of his drawings have survived. This is partly due to historical accident. His sons had to flee Italy during the Napoleonic period and could only take so much with them. In 1975, Scott was hopeful some might be found. In 2015, his optimism was proved correct when a large cache of drawings was found in Karlsruhe.
The drawings on display in the British Museum are fluid, quick and expressive. Some are clearly working notes, whereas others are accomplished works of art. Piranesi preferred ink and wash. The brown ink evoking moods and scale as suggestive as his prints. Even the indeterminate quality of air is expressed. The churches are thick with incense and the dust of centuries and cities are hung with pollution.
There is a drama here that comes completely from the architecture. In A classical forum with steps and a column, Piranesi uses a red chalk for the sky. It dates from his Carceri period. The viewer follows an imagined forum up stairs, past a river god couchant (perhaps the Vatican Tiber) and up to a Baroque dome. It is a dramatic scene, which belies the absence of people.
The prints have a stateliness to them, such as one finds in the plays of Corneille. The drawings often made on the run, in the street, have something of the earthy quality of Shakespeare.
Architecture fantasy with boats beneath intersecting bridges is a fast sketch similar to the Carceri work in its complexity, but the smell of the river, the movement of the crowd and the noise of the people are all suggested. This is how you draw non-visual qualities: the voices of the fishwives, the songs of the gondolari and the speed of the boats. It looks forward to the 1920s and could be compared with Nevinson’s depiction of Manhattan.
Any show of drawings by a major artists, always faces the question of whether the work can compare with the other masterpieces which made their name.
In Piranesi’s case this is a hard question to answer. Some drawings are valuable because they reveal how the artist planned his work. An overhead plan of a church and quick cross sections of columns, perhaps, have no implicit artistic merit, but they do reveal how carefully Piranesi studied buildings, which is contrasted with the seeming ease of other drawings on display.
You can not walk away from this show, without feeling impressed.
It is not so much an uneven show, as two shows bustling against each. The first an examination of Piranesi, the working artist; how he gathered his materials and developed his ideas. The second celebrates Piranesi the artist-drawer, whose visions of urbanity and culture perhaps chime with the contemporary world, an art world inspired by Pablo Bronstein’s queer historical portraits of London.
Yet it is testament to the curator’s vision, that this tension works so powerfully to create a multilayered portrait of the Artist as Artist.
Piranesi drawings: visions of antiquity takes Piranesi off the scholar’s wall and back into the street, bringing alive the poetry and movement of this exquisite artist. If you (ever) have the chance, do visit the exhibition, otherwise buy the book.
What is your favourite Piranesi image? Tell us in the comments.