Piranesi Drawings: Visions of Antiquity

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(British Museum, London, 20 February until 9 August 2020)

What do you think of when you think of Piranesi? Labyrinthine staircases and ominous prisons? The ruined monuments of ancient Rome? Marble vases brought home by Grand Tourists and Swedish kings? All of these would be absolutely correct, but each of them offers only one facet of the man. One way to get a broader sense of Piranesi’s achievements, as architect, designer, printmaker, publisher and art dealer, is by looking at his drawings; and, by happy chance, you can do just that at the moment here in London. In a completely shameless act of self-promotion, I wanted to flag a free exhibition at the British Museum (curated by me), running from tomorrow until 9 August 2020. Piranesi drawings: visions of antiquity presents all 51 of the Museum’s drawings by Piranesi. It’s one of the richest collections in the world, spanning his career from his arrival in Rome in 1740, as a young man of twenty, to his death in 1778 as one of the most influential and admired advocates of ancient Roman architecture. There’ll be traces of ‘your’ Piranesi here, whether you know him best as a visionary printmaker or a methodical antiquarian, but I hope you’ll also get a sense of just how exuberant and wide-ranging his talents were. Join me below the line for an unofficial romp through Piranesi’s life and work.

The earliest surviving drawings by Piranesi don’t look like Piranesi at all. These elegant, cool-toned views show buildings in strict perspective, like structures from a theatrical backdrop. That’s significant. Imagine the young Piranesi, training to be an architect in his native Venice in the years between 1730 and 1740. He learned a whole range of skills, designed to keep him afloat even at times where there was no call for him to design buildings. The strings to his bow included: being able to advise on ancient monuments and, if necessary, to restore them; being able to discourse on theoretical issues; and being able to design elegant backdrops for the theatre or the opera, using his knowledge of perspective and architectural design. That’s the world we’re in with these earliest drawings. We see a young Piranesi who’s been formed in the world of Canaletto and Palladio. Some scholars believe that he spent time studying with the Bibiena family, the leading producers of stage sets at this period. It would make sense.

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When Piranesi arrived in Rome in 1740, his drawings were cautious, careful, seeking to be liked. Of course, it didn’t take long for him to start experimenting. He was too restless, too creative, not to develop his own style at an early stage. He starts probing at the edges. The symmetrical structures shift off-centre, with angled perspectives borrowed from stage designs, and they become looser and more expressive as he gains confidence in his own visions. His earliest independent publication, the Prima Parte (1743), is a catalogue of ideas, a stall set out to advertise his architectural talents to potential patrons. No one takes the bait. Perhaps Piranesi’s ideas were just a little too ambitious. After all, it was a case of wrong-place, wrong-time. He’d come to Rome at the tail end of the Baroque building boom and there were few people looking to build the magnificent Palladian churches or courtyards that he depicts in these early compositions. There was no opening for the next Bernini or Borromini. This was a blow, of course, because Piranesi thought of himself as an architect, not as a printmaker. Throughout his life, he defined himself as ‘architetto veneziano‘ (‘Venetian architect’), and I believe that many of the capriccios he designed – from his prisons to his views of fantasy Roman forums and beyond – acted as an outlet for the creative energy he wasn’t able to satisfy in reality.

So what could an architect manqué do in 18th-century Rome? Piranesi initially turned to making views of the city, tourist souvenirs. Working as part of a team, he helped to produce a whole series of loose views, which could be bought piecemeal to be bound into visitors’ guidebooks. Think of them like postcards. But he didn’t really want to be a simple vedutista. He was passionate about ancient Rome – had been ever since he was a boy, when his older brother would tell him stories about the heroes of the Republic – and he dreamed of producing learned treatises that would convey the magnificence and brilliance of ancient Roman architecture. Fortunately, this goal would be more of a success – but it took time. There was a brief glitch in the mid-1740s when Piranesi was called home to Venice by his father, who noted that his son hadn’t yet found a way to support himself. He wasn’t able to keep up Piranesi’s allowance any longer. For a couple of years, Piranesi returned to studying in his native city – a moment that left a fleeting trace in his work. The British Museum only has one of his very rare ‘Venetian’ drawings, but to my mind it’s one of the most wonderful (I would say that though, wouldn’t I?).

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This is a fantastic drawing of two skeletons, posed as if in melancholic contemplation. They’re drawn with a lightness of touch, an airy freedom, that is so very different from what people think of when they think of Piranesi. It’s thought that he might have spent some time, in Venice, working in Tiepolo’s studio and – when you look at this playful, macabre, vivacious drawing – you can believe it. The most amazing thing is that, despite the dazzling competence of this drawing, Piranesi didn’t stick to this Venetian style. You get the sense he was trying it on for size: only a few such drawings survive (a gondola; a dramatic assassination scene; a shell). Then, in 1747, he found a way to go back to Rome and his drawing style shifted once again, away from Venetian lightness, into a denser, more tonal, more brooding style which perfectly suited what Piranesi did next.

‘Next’ was the Carceri (1749-50): a print series showing claustrophobic prisons, which many people will know and love, and which has defined much of Piranesi’s popular image. (Think of Susannah Clarke’s forthcoming book, Piranesi: not about Giovanni Battista per se, as far as I’m aware, but her hero lives in a maze-like house which is constantly changing and expanding. I’m tickled that it coincides so neatly with my exhibition year. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with.) The British Museum only has three drawings which are directly related to the Carceri, but there are many, many more that show Piranesi experimenting with the same playful approach to space. One thing I’m really keen to get across: drawing, for Piranesi, was about so much more than simply getting the composition ready for the copper plate. One of his contemporaries actually asked him why he didn’t make highly finished preparatory drawings like other printmakers. Piranesi said, why would he do that? If so, his print would be nothing but a copy. As it was, he gave himself the freedom to add and amend directly on the plate, meaning that the finished print was also an original work of art. That, I think, says volumes about his approach to creativity.

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Fittingly, none of the three drawings related to the Carceri are standard preparatory studies. One is a much earlier drawing, used by Piranesi the starting point for a new composition for a print. One (above) is a record of a finished print, kept in the studio and probably used as a reminder when Piranesi started work on the second edition of the series (1761). And the third is a free variation on the same theme as a print. In this way, you see, prints and drawings bounce off one another, not acting as parts of a progressive series, but engaged in a creative storm of reflection and refraction, in which compositions were constantly reinvented. That’s why it’s so exciting to look at Piranesi’s drawings. You can feel the energy behind them: the sense that his mind was so full of ideas that they simply kept spilling out onto paper, where he obsessively sketches fantasy structures and interiors, channelling his ferocious imagination. The drawings look dynamic – honestly, some of his late works are so forceful and expressive that they look modern – and they testify as objects to his habit of using whatever pieces of paper were to hand. Drawings in the British Museum have been made on the back of a price list of Piranesi’s prints; a letter; and part of an etching.

The bulk of the drawings in the show are of this type: inventions, fantasies, capriccios, in which Piranesi deconstructs his understanding of classical architecture and reinvents it. These are the kind of things that didn’t make it through into many of his finished prints. But the exhibition also, of course, includes some of his signature views of ancient Rome. The most impressive are the large scale views related to his prints. My favourite is probably his view of the Via Appia, a splendid, exuberant view of a crossroads made as a frontispiece for his Antichita Romane series (1756). The aim here is not to be archaeologically exact. On the contrary, Piranesi wants to impress the viewer by bringing together sculptures, monuments and artefacts into a vertiginous display of Roman ingenuity. The result is astonishing, even more so when you see it in the flesh. He was more sober in his depiction of the Campidoglio, a preparatory study for his Vedute di Roma (1746 onwards), where he focuses on the statues ranged along the square’s balustrade. This is much more concerned with accuracy, and it’s fun to get up close and spot the statues which are still there today – you can even see Marcus Aurelius on his horse in the background.

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These publications on ancient Rome were what really mattered to Piranesi. They brought him international acclaim: he was elected as an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries and a member of the Accademia di S. Luca in Rome. He was greatly admired for his methodical prints focusing on Roman and Etruscan antiquities, down to details of their engineering – how they paved roads and built sewers – and he became passionately committed to promoting the superiority of Roman architecture. Unfortunately, not everyone agreed. The art and architecture of ancient Greece (particularly Attica and Athens) was becoming more widely known at this time, and some scholars – especially in France – began to argue that Greek culture was superior to Roman, by virtue of its purity and simplicity. They claimed that Roman culture was derivative and unsophisticated. Piranesi’s works extolling the supremacy of Roman invention began to receive critical reviews and, to cut a long story short, Piranesi – never one to avoid an argument – got into a spirited literary dispute with Pierre-Jean Mariette, a French scholar who had challenged some of his conclusions.

Piranesi believed completely and utterly that Rome represented the culmination of human achievement and, for the rest of his life, it became his mission to convey this in his theoretical and artistic works. In his treatises, he argued that Roman was superior because it had the flexibility to embrace motifs from other cultures – not just Greece, but also Egypt and Etruria – which made it richer. He created his own melanges of motifs to make his point, like the elaborate drawing I’ve used at the top of this post. In his drawings and prints, he focused more and more on the grandeur of Rome. Sometimes that takes the form of imagined Roman-style buildings or forums, as I mentioned earlier. Sometimes he focuses on real sites and monuments, like the Campidoglio or Pompeii, showing them populated by tiny figures who seem to gesticulate in awe at the sheer towering weight of history. This could sometimes backfire. The story is often told of how Goethe arrived in Rome for the first time, having learned about the city from Piranesi’s prints, and was actually disappointed by the reality – having expected something slightly bigger. But this also goes to show how influential Piranesi’s visions were. His prints and books were cherished and admired all across Europe, where they defined the idea that generations of armchair travellers had of Rome. His visions entered the popular imagination – and there they stay.

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Although the focus of the exhibition is very much on Piranesi’s drawings, I’ve included nine prints for a bit of context – mainly those for which we have related drawings. But perhaps the most exciting contextual objects are two Roman fragments, also from the Museum’s collection. These were bought for Charles Townley, the great 18th-century antiquarian and collector, from Piranesi’s studio. I desperately wanted to include these, because Piranesi’s work as a restorer and dealer of antiquities was a key part of his later career. It’s difficult to convey this through drawings alone, especially because the British Museum only has two small, swift studies of such reconstructed objects – a candelabrum and a tripod. But these two sculptural pieces help visitors to understand the kind of fragments that were being found at Hadrian’s Villa and other sites, and which Piranesi sold to wealthy visitors. Both pieces were restored in the 18th century, so they aren’t perfectly original, but they allow us to see what Piranesi was working with. Often, of course, such fragments would be combined to make a much larger vase or candelabrum, one which owed more to Piranesi’s brilliant imagination than to archaeological accuracy. If you fancy seeing one of these grand pieces, you can head downstairs after finishing the exhibition, and admire the Piranesi Vase in the Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1). In an ideal world, I’d have had that as a centrepiece for the exhibition, but had to give up the idea when someone warned me that the floor would probably collapse. Oops.

As you can see, I can talk about Piranesi for a long time, so I’d better wrap up. I hope this has given you an idea of his work and his interests, and encouraged you to come along to see his drawings for yourselves. They are so varied, so lively and so fresh – even after three hundred years – that I hope they’ll work their magic on you as they have on me. If you happen to be in London on Wednesday 29 April, you can come along to the exhibition gallery at 13:15 and hear me giving a free talk. Alternatively, if you can’t get to London, there is a little book which has really lovely images of all the drawings.

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The exhibition has been very kindly sponsored by the Tavolozza Foundation, to whom I am indebted. Also, a note on the images used here: in due course I will add links so that you can click through to read catalogue entries on the British Museum’s online database. Unfortunately said database is currently a bit erratic so I’ll have to wait until it’s working properly again before adding the links. All drawings are from the British Museum’s collection and are on view in the exhibition.

3 thoughts on “Piranesi Drawings: Visions of Antiquity

  1. la Clarina says:

    How wonderful! I’ve always liked Piranesi – but, I now realize, in a sketchy way. The Carceri, mostly… Now I truly itch to see your exhibition. I must find time for a quick trip to London, if only to see it. And by the way, what a marvelous job you have!

  2. Barbara Ruder says:

    Wishing the dates of the exhibit stretched into September when I will be visiting … but, your written entry helps tremendously with my not wandering the walls with my own eyes! Bravo for your presentation for folks to see and share in all their visions of Piranesi.

  3. Mattia Negrello says:

    That is fantastic! Thanks for putting together this exhibition! I love Piranesi and I collect his prints. I will definitely visit the exhibition. I can’t wait to see his drawings.

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