In a letter sent from Rome in the summer of 1755, the budding Scottish architect Robert Adam remarked that Giovanni Battista Piranesi—one of the “friends, cronies and instructors” with whom he undertook sketching trips in and around the Eternal City—was “always brisk, always allegro.” This view of Piranesi (1720–78) as a wild man of the eighteenth-century architectural scene—Adam also described him as un peu sauvage—remains with us to this day.
There must be some truth in it, for it is well attested by both friends and enemies. One of Piranesi’s early biographers, Jacques-Guillaume Legrand, held that the Italian
never made detailed sketches. A broad stroke of red chalk which he reworked in pen or brush, and even then only in parts, sufficed for him to secure his ideas; but it is almost impossible to make out what he thought he was putting on paper because it is nothing but a chaos out of which with his admirable art he only extracted a few elements for his plate.
Legrand relates how Hubert Robert, the French artist active in Rome who shared some of Piranesi’s antiquarian fascinations, did not understand how Piranesi “could manage with such slight sketches. Seeing his astonishment, Piranesi said: ‘The drawing is not on my paper, I agree, but it is all here in my head. You’ll see it in the plate.’” Less flatteringly, the architect and painter Luigi Vanvitelli described him as a “lunatic” and a “madman.” How much of this was Piranesi’s personal myth is unclear; his purported claim that “I need to produce great ideas, and I believe that if I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would be mad enough to undertake it” certainly suggests he was a cultivator of the unhinged aesthetic.
His most famous etchings, the sixteen so-called Carceri d’invenzione (“Imaginary Prisons”), do little to dispel the idea of a mad genius of architectural design, a man so overflowing with ideas that he could scarcely stuff them all into single compositions—sinister prisons with intersecting staircases to nowhere. Two carceri etchings are on display in the Morgan Library’s new show of Piranesiana , titled “Sublime Ideas: Drawings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi.” The Morgan is well positioned to put on a major Piranesi show, holding what the director Colin B. Bailey hails as “arguably the world’s largest and most important collection of drawings by the artist.” The exhibition features over one hundred works, many of them original drawings and not the more common etchings, and gives a panoptic (to keep with the prison theme) view of the artist. The breadth of the Morgan’s Piranesi collection has allowed the museum to return repeatedly to the Piranesian well, having staged exhibitions of his work in 1978, 1989, and 2015. As an introduction to the artist’s life and oeuvre, the current show, which fills the entire Morgan Stanley Gallery West, is unlikely to be matched.
The first section of the exhibition, entitled “Architectural Fantasy & Theory,” introduces us to a young Piranesi, the son of a mason, newly moved to Rome with the intention of continuing his studies as an architect (he had begun an architectural apprenticeship in his native Venice). Early sketches give little hint of the inventiveness of the work for which Piranesi became renowned; we get workaday architectural fantasies that could have come from any of the countless aspiring painters and architects then teeming in Rome. Soon enough, however, Piranesi focused his attention, devising to produce a book entitled the Prima parte di architetture e prospettive (1743). The imaginative mind was at work, repurposing sketches of various Roman ruins (in his introduction to the work, Piranesi called them “speaking ruins”) to create compositions realistic but not real, such as Architectural Fantasy with a Colossal Façade from circa 1743–45. Here Piranesi combines elements of the Pantheon with a central obelisk, fantastical semi-equestrian statues, and a massive colonnade, filling the scene out with dozens, maybe hundreds, of hastily sketched human figures. Similar to a plate in the Prima parte depicting what Piranesi called the “Ancient Capitol,” this unreal rendering of a Rome-that-never-was traps the viewer in a world that can only be described with the anachronism “uncanny.” It was a short step to the carceri.
The next section reminds us that Piranesi was not a Roman but a Venetian and suggests that sojourns back to his hometown in the 1740s impressed upon the young artist the vibrancy of the painter and printmaker Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s energetic style. A figurative sketch from this period in pen and brown ink and wash over red chalk, Assassination Scene (1744–45), confirms that Piranesi, whatever he took from Tiepolo, had his true métier in architectural drawing; the confused scene appeals for its instantaneity but remains just lines on paper, as opposed to the architectural drawings that winningly match immediacy and imagination.
Piranesi was unafraid of eclecticism, indeed positively reveled in it.
A further section details Piranesi’s work as a designer of furniture and interiors. The same visionary historicism that informed the architectural drawings and etchings was present in his interior designs, so much that a sometime associate, Thomas Jenkins, mockingly dubbed Piranesi “Cavalier Pasticci.” The magpie combination of antique forms was particularly suited to the design of chimneypieces, a point John Marciari, the exhibition’s curator and the author of its handsome catalogue, makes well. “One attraction may have been that the chimneypiece presented Piranesi with an ideally blank canvas. Free of ancient precedents, he could use it as the ground to which a range of ancient ornament might be applied,” Marciari writes. Piranesi was unafraid of eclecticism, indeed positively reveled in it. Raiding Etruscan, Greek, Egyptian, and of course Roman iconography, Piranesi mixed and matched disparate elements to create chimerical forms. Marciari tells us that “his motifs combine and evolve. A ram’s horn might turn into a serpent, or a serpent into a ribbon, if that curving form better fit Piranesi’s purposes.” In a drawing presented here, Design for a Chimneypiece with a Tablet and a Medallion with the She-Wolf on the Lintel, and Rams’ Heads, Serpents, Medallions, and Greyhounds on the Jambs (ca. 1764–67), a serpent serves as the jamb’s volute, its sinuous tail curving around the neck of a greyhound underneath it, acting almost as a collar and leash. The central medallion of the lintel features the Roman she-wolf, hurrying us to another corner of the animal kingdom. In a trilingual essay fronting his 1769 book of interior design, the Diverse maniere, Piranesi maintained that “What I pretend by the present designs is to shew what use an able architect may make of the ancient monuments by adapting them to our own manners and customs.” Some monuments, and some manners—with that greyhound–snake–ram’s head–she-wolf concoction.
A madcap mind may be useful for the production of prints, but it hardly served Piranesi as a practicing architect. Commissions were slim on the ground, though the Morgan exhibition includes drawings from Piranesi’s proposals for a renovation of San Giovanni in Laterano (never executed) and those from Piranesi’s one built project, a renovation of the church of Santa Maria del Priorato. An entrance wall bears Maltese symbols, ships, and shields—all nods to the Knights of Malta, whose church it is—but the decorative program is positively restrained considering the delirious drawings on show in this large exhibition. What worked so well for Piranesi on the page was unfeasible in stone: reality broke in. A visit to “Sublime Ideas,” however, is pure fantasy, and all the better for it.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 9, on page 47
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