Piranesi’s Visions of Rome

The meeting of the Via Appia and the Via Ardeatina, seen at the second milestone outside the Porta Capena, c. 1750-56.

The Trustees of the British Museum
The meeting of the Via Appia and the Via Ardeatina, seen at the second milestone outside the Porta Capena, c. 1750-56.
How the greatest printmaker of the 18th century taught us about the ancient world

How the greatest printmaker of the 18th century taught us about the ancient world

The Trustees of the British Museum

A monumental staircase in a vaulted interior with columns, c. 1750-55.

Piranesi drawings: visions of antiquity is on view through August 9, 2020, at the British Museum.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi was the greatest printmaker of the 18th century. Although he consistently signed his work ‘architetto,’ he is famous for his engravings of the monuments of ancient Rome, and in fact constructed only one building in his entire career. This building, the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato on the Aventine Hill in Rome, the monastery of the Knights of Malta, is not a masterpiece. The façade is overloaded with decorative details that break the grace of the architecture and confuse the eye. But not all architects can build, and Piranesi’s brilliance was on paper.

This year is the 300th anniversary of Piranesi’s birth and to mark the occasion the British Museum in London is holding an exhibition, Piranesi Drawings: Visions of Antiquity. While the most recognizable of Piranesi’s works are the evocative prints of Roman ruins in 18th century landscapes and the haunting etchings of grotesque prisons, the British Museum exhibition instead focuses on 51 ink and chalk drawings in its collection, highlighting his expertise as a draftsman.

On display are examples which span Piranesi’s working life from the 1740s to 1770s. We see the influence that Piranesi’s training as a set designer for the theatre in Venice had on his approach to perspective vistas, and the subsequent transformative impact that his move to Rome had on the subject matter of his work. The majority of the drawings are architectural scenes. While some are preparatory studies that were later worked up as engravings, most of the sketches are not directly relatable to known finished pieces. Indeed, Piranesi went against the common practice of making highly-detailed drawings for transfer onto copperplates (the method of engraving), remarking that, “if my drawing was finished, my plate would become only a copy.”

The Trustees of the British Museum

Fantastical façade of an antique building, c. 1765-69.

There is a sense of freedom to Piranesi’s compositions in their content and execution. Many of the architectural scenes do not faithfully reproduce particular buildings, but instead borrow different elements and combine them in new settings. One drawing shows a domed structure based on Rome’s pantheon spliced with what appears to be the dome of St Peter’s basilica, although neither is an exact reproduction. Sarah Vowles, the curator of the exhibition, points out that it is unlikely many of these drawings were made on site and that Piranesi was instead pulling such ideas from “his great mental storehouse or library.”

Another fantastical architectural scene shows Piranesi’s mastery of depicting space–a skill that defines many of his engravings. It comprises a monumental staircase, dotted with diminutive figures, beneath a domed interior, supported by two enormous columns. Here, Piranesi freely employs ornamental features modeled after ancient vases and a sarcophagus, which as Vowles observes is shown inexplicably “floating up the columns,” adding to the imaginative nature of the scene.

Possibly frustrated by his lack of commissions for designing actual buildings, Vowles sees these drawings as “Piranesi’s outlet.” They are works of “incredible creativity and sheer exuberance as ideas seem to be spilling out of his mind.” This sense of speed and energy comes from his technique, which at times borders on the impressionistic: Architectural elements can be little more than a series of dashes, ornament is shown with swirls, and people or statues indicated by squiggles. But taken together, and through the use of dark washes to create shadows and depth, clear and complex compositions emerge.

Piranesi’s interest in ‘capriccio’—the bringing together of discrete buildings and objects in imaginary scenes—is brilliantly realized in his drawing of the ancient Roman road, the via Appia. The image does not depict the ruinous tombs and empty landscape of his own day, but instead reimagines its ancient splendor, with innumerable funerary monuments, statues, and inscriptions piled upon one another. This is not how the via Appia actually once looked, nor how it appeared in the 18th century, but rather Piranesi’s vision of what ancient Rome was. Architecture dominates his scenes of Rome; it is overpowering, but unlike his prints of prisons, is not oppressive.

A colonnaded atrium with domes, c. 1740-43.
The Trustees of the British Museum

A colonnaded atrium with domes, c. 1740-43.

Part of a spacious and magnificent Harbor for the use of the ancient Romans opening onto a large market square.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Part of a spacious and magnificent Harbor for the use of the ancient Romans opening onto a large market square, c. 1749-50.

View of a large structure, remains of the Tomb of the Metelli on the Appian Way about five miles from Porta S. Sebastiano.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

View of a large structure, remains of the Tomb of the Metelli on the Appian Way about five miles from Porta S. Sebastiano, published 1756-57.

The perceived grandeur of Rome’s monuments is further achieved by Piranesi’s inclusion of diminutive figures. Both in his imaginative creations and views of the contemporary city, people are drawn at a smaller than life-size scale so that the structures they walk past or lean against tower over them. Such was the effectiveness of this technique, that 18th century visitors to Rome who knew the city primarily through Piranesi’s engravings, including the German writer Goethe, were disappointed to find that its buildings were not as large as they had come to expect.

Piranesi’s emphasis on the monumentality of ancient Roman architecture also played into a wider agenda. In 1758, the French architect Julien David Leroy published a volume of drawings showing the monuments of Greece, followed shortly after in 1762 by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett’s Antiquities of Athens. This exposure to Classical Greek architecture coincided with a growing debate, at times bitter, in the arts about the superiority of the culture of ancient Greece over Rome, encapsulated by the German art historian Johann Joachim Winkelmann’s theories of sculpture. Piranesi pushed back against this trend. If advocates of Greece praised the simplicity of its architecture, Piranesi responded by underscoring the inventiveness of Roman structures. In the exhibition, the drawing of an elaborate interior of cross vaults and semi-domes–features associated with ancient Roman buildings–is annotated in Piranesi’s hand with the ironic comment, “Example of the abuse the Romans have made of the Greek manner.”

Piranesi was an architect, printmaker, and art dealer (indeed, his creative approach to antiquity is also apparent in how he ‘restored’ and then sold ancient objects), and through the drawings in this exhibition, as Vowles points out, “we get a feel for his wider practice.” The freedom with which he sketches and the imaginativeness with which he composes these scenes encourages us to look again at his better-known engravings. Vowles underscores that “we see Piranesi responding to antiquity very creatively,” which is an important message to bear in mind for those who want only to see his prints as documents of what the remains of ancient Rome and what the 18th century city looked like.

About the Author

Christopher Siwicki

Christopher Siwicki is an architectural historian, specializing in the ancient world. He lectures at John Cabot University Rome and is an honorary research Fellow at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Architectural Restoration and Heritage in Imperial Rome (Oxford University Press).

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