Giovanni Battista Piranesi  

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"Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi's Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist ... which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever: some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr. Coleridge's account) representing vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, etc., etc., expressive of enormous power put forth, and resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls, you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further, and you perceive it come to a sudden abrupt termination, without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him.---Thomas De Quincey in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1820)

The Appian Way as it appeared in Piranesi's imagination (1756), from Le Antichità Romane, fanciful figment or scientific illustration?
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The Appian Way as it appeared in Piranesi's imagination (1756), from Le Antichità Romane, fanciful figment or scientific illustration?

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Giovanni Battista (also Giambattista) Piranesi (4 October 1720 – 9 November 1778) was an Italian artist famous for his Vedute, etchings of the ruins of Ancient Rome and of the fictitious and atmospheric "Imaginary Prisons" (Carceri d'Invenzione). Piranesi has influenced writers as diverse as Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey, Aldous Huxley and Marguerite Yourcenar, and continues to be influential in fantastic art and in visionary architecture.

Contents

The Views (Vedute)

Vedute

The remains of Rome kindled Piranesi's enthusiasm. He was able to faithfully imitate the actual remains of a fabric; his invention in catching the design of the original architect provided the missing parts; his masterful skill at engraving introduced groups of vases, altars, tombs that were absent in reality; and his broad and scientific distribution of light and shade completed the picture, creating a striking effect from the whole view. Some of his later work was completed by his children and several pupils.

On the veracity of his composition, on their documentary value of Ancient Roman architecture and Ancient Roman topography, Arthur Mayger Hind said:

"In spite of Piranesi's extraordinary faculty of invention, he never allowed his topographical and archaeological plates to fall into the false picturesque. Scholars and students of Roman archaeology, such as Jordan, Lanciani, and Dr. Thomas Ashby, all recognize the value of his plates as topographical documents. And he seldom failed to combine this documentary truth with a noble dignity of composition".

Piranesi's son and coadjutor, Francesco, collected and preserved his plates, in which the freer lines of the etching-needle largely supplemented the severity of burin work. Twenty nine folio volumes containing about 2000 prints appeared in Paris (1835 - 1837).

The late Baroque works of Claude Lorrain, Salvatore Rosa, and others had featured romantic and fantastic depictions of ruins; in part as a memento mori or as a reminiscence of a golden age of construction. Piranesi's reproductions of real and recreated Roman ruins were a strong influence on Neoclassicism.

The Prisons (Carceri)

Carceri d'invenzione

The Prisons (Carceri d'invenzione or 'Imaginary Prisons'), is a series of 16 prints produced in first and second states that show enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and mighty machines.

These in turn influenced Romanticism and Surrealism. While the Vedutisti (or "view makers") such as Canaletto and Bellotto, more often reveled in the beauty of the sunlit place, in Piranesi this vision takes on a Kafkaesque, Escher-like distortion, seemingly erecting fantastic labyrinthian structures, epic in volume. They are capricci, whimsical aggregates of monumental architecture and ruin.

The series was started in 1745. The first state prints were published in 1750 and consisted of 14 etchings, untitled and unnumbered, with a sketch-like look. The original prints were 16” x 21”. For the second publishing in 1761, all the etchings were reworked and numbered I–XVI (1–16). Numbers II and V were new etchings to the series. Numbers I through IX were all done in portrait format (taller than they are wide), while X to XVI were landscape (wider than they are high).

Biography

Piranesi was born in Mogliano Veneto, near Treviso, then part of the Republic of Venice. His brother Andrea introduced him to Latin and the ancient civilization, and later he studied as an architect under his uncle, Matteo Lucchesi, who was Magistrato delle Acque, a Venetian engineer who specialized in excavation.

From 1740 he was in Rome with Marco Foscarini, the Venetian envoy to the Vatican. He resided in the Palazzo Venezia and studied under Giuseppe Vasi, who introduced him to the art of etching and engraving. 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 first work was Prima parte di Architettura e Prospettive (1743), followed in 1745 by Varie Vedute di Roma Antica e Moderna.

From 1743 to 1747 he sojourned mainly in Venice where, according to some sources, he frequented Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. He then returned to Rome, where he opened a workshop in Via del Corso. In 1748-1774 he created a long series of vedute of the city which established his fame. In the meantime Piranesi devoted himself to the measurement of much of the ancient edifices: this led to the publication of Antichità Romane de' tempo della prima Repubblica e dei primi imperatori ("Roman Antiquities of the Time of the First Republic and the First Emperors". In 1761 he became a member of the Accademia di San Luca and opened a printing facility of his own. In 1762 the Campo Marzio dell'antica Roma collection of engravings was printed.

The following year he was commissioned by Pope Clement XIII to restore the choir of San Giovanni in Laterano, but the work did not materialize. In 1764 Piranesi started his sole architectural works of importance, the restoration of the church of Santa Maria del Priorato in the Villa of the Knights of Malta in Rome, where he was buried after his death.

In 1767 he was created knight of the Papal States. In 1776 he created his famous Piranesi Vase, his best known work as a 'restorer' of ancient sculpture. In 1777-78 Piranesi published Avanzi degli Edifici di Pesto, (Remains of the Edifices of Paestum) a collection of views of Paestum.

He died in Rome in 1778 after a long illness.


Archaeologist

It is important to look at his contribution as an archaeologist, which was acknowledged at the time as he had been elected to the London Society of Antiquaries. His influence of technical drawings in antiquarian publications is often overshadowed. He left explanatory notes in the lower margin about the structure and ornament. Most ancient monuments in Rome were abandoned in fields and gardens. Piranesi tried to preserve them with his engravings. To do this, Piranesi pushed himself to achieve realism in his work. A third of the monuments in Piranesi's engravings have disappeared, and the stucco and surfacings were often stolen, restored and modified clumsily. Piranesi's precise observational skills allow people to experience the atmosphere in Rome in the eighteenth century. Piranesi may have recognised his role to disseminate remarkable information through meaningful images. He became the Director of the Portici Museum in 1751.

Major works

See also




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