Piranesi drawings: visions of antiquity @ the British Museum

To mark the 300th anniversary of the Italian printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the British Museum has created a landmark FREE exhibition displaying the Museum’s complete collection of Piranesi’s drawings.

Piranesi (1720-1778) is often reckoned to be the greatest printmaker of the 18th century. He was extremely prolific, producing hundreds of views or veduti, of Rome in particular, focusing on its ancient ruins, sometimes portrayed as monstrously huge and elaborately decayed, in other series shown as if restored to their former glories.

Into these elaborately staged and dramatic scenes he introduced groups of vases, altars, tombs and other baroque details that were never actually present in ancient Rome, in order to produce finely detailed, elaborate and often fantastical views. (Note the very small chariot and people at the bottom centre of this amazingly cluttered composition.)

Fantastical view of the Via Appia. Engraving by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

The Enlightenment taste for ruins

It is fascinating to learn that the taste for ‘views’ of Roman ruins was growing in order to cater for the growing numbers of rich northern Europeans making the Grand Tour of classical sites. To cater for this growing market, Italian artists developed and named a new set of artistic genres, including:

  • veduta – a highly detailed print of a cityscape
  • capriccio – a whimsical aggregate of monumental architecture and ruin which never existed in real life
  • veduta ideata – idealised and larger-than-life depictions of the ancient ruins in their supposed glory
  • veduta di fantasia – architectural fantasies

As this list suggests, the taste of the times was for the fantastical, the awe-inspiring in age and size, curly-cued with fantastical details and elaborations. In fact so exaggerated were the size of many of Piranesi’s images of Roman ruins that when Northern tourists actually arrived, they were sometimes disappointed to discover the actual remains were far more modest in scale.

Goethe is mentioned as one of many Northerners who formed their ideas about Rome from Piranesi’s fabulously successful books of prints and, on finally arriving at the Eternal City, being disappointed.

Interior view of the Flavian Amphitheater, called the Colosseum (1766) by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Antiques dealer

Although he was born and educated in Venice, Piranesi came to Rome as a young man and made his career there. Not only a frustrated architect and very successful print-maker, Piranesi was also an antiquarian and antiques dealer. He not only dealt in the large number of Roman antiques to be found in and around the city (especially Hadrian’s Villa outside the city which was being uncovered during his lifetime) but he a) incorporated these vases and sarcophagi and reliefs and other detail into his prints and b) he restored many of the antiques to his idea of how they ought to look, often adding his own elaborations.

Thus there are a couple of pieces of sculpture in the exhibition (like the enormous marble horned lion emerging from a lotus) but the commentary also recommends you drop into the Enlightenment galleries back on the Ground Floor of the Museum to check out the two Piranesi vases there.

I’m glad I did, because they are vast, twice the height of a man and so monstrously heavy that, apparently, they simply could not be moved up to the Print Rooms and, if they’d tried, would have broken the floor.

The Piranesi Vase at the British Museum. The vase was discovered at the Villa Hadrian, then restored in Piranesi’s workshop, where other monumental elements were added. It is enormous.

Elements of Piranesi’s style

From below Architecture is most impressive if seen from below, looking up, especially if features like arches loom over the viewer’s head, as they do in most of the Imagined Prisons pictures.

From the side Classical art and classical architecture liked to view classical buildings head on, emphasising the clarity and balance of their design, and Piranesi did just that in some of the earliest architectural drawings in this exhibition. But as he matured, Piranesi preferred to look at buildings from the side, creating a more dynamic affect. Here’s a fairly mild example, View of the Campidoglio from the Side.

View of the Campidoglio from the Side. Etching by Piranesi (1761)

You can see how the subject matter is overwhelmingly architectural. Piranesi trained as an architect and throughout his life produced huge numbers of architectural plans, some sensible, some wildly extravagant, yet only once was he actually commissioned to practice some architecture (between 1764 to 66 he carried out restoration work on the Santa Maria del Priorato Church in Rome). There are people in this print, but they’re in a rather disorganised heap at the bottom left and their main contribution is to being out the scale and monumentality of the architecture and the architectural composition.

Light in the distance Another trick Piranesi used regularly was to make the foreground of an image dark and clotted with the middle distance light and airy. This gives the visual impression of size and scale, as if the building is rising up into a more sunlit region. It’s a trick he used in what are probably his most famous series, the Carceri d’invenzione or Imaginary Prisons, a series of 16 prints that show enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and awesome machines. (And look at the size of the tiny human figures shuffling along floor or gesticulating on various walls and platforms; it looks like an illustration for an H.G. Wells story about the distant future.)

Carceri Plate VI, The Smoking Fire by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1745)

The Imaginary Prisons series went on to inspire the Romantics and, a lot later, the Surrealists, with their sense of mysterious but looming forces.

People are small So obvious it barely needs mentioning, but just review how minuscule the human figures are in the Appian Way or the Colosseum or the Imaginary Prisons: this is a monumental architecture of the imagination which is intended to dwarf and overawe mere mortals, including the viewer.

Defender of Roman art

It was fascinating to learn that during the 18th century a controversy developed among critics and writers and artists about the relative merits of ancient Roman and Greek art. More was being learned about ancient Greek architecture and ideas, and its defenders claimed it had greater purity and simplicity, and accused the later Romans of copying everything that was good about Greek architecture and then blowing it up to elephantine proportions and encrusting it with unnecessary details.

By his stage Piranesi had established his reputation as one of the great illustrators of Roman buildings and art, not least via the successful four-volume series Roman Antiquities. he had been elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquarians in London, and a member of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, so it was not, maybe surprising, that he found himself drawn into controversy with the French Hellenophile Pierre-Jean Mariette.

Piranesi defended the more advanced technology used by the Romans to build larger buildings; the awe-inspiring magnificence of their buildings; but also the Romans’ willingness to absorb motifs from other cultures: not just ancient Greek, but Etruscan and even Egyptian, creating a rich and original synthesis.

In other words, it’s fascinating to learn that his works aren’t just whims and fancies, but the putting-into-practice of a thoroughly worked-out theory of art and art history resulting in the conviction that borrowings from exotic sources and bizarre combinations are the paths to originality and creativity.

Piranesi’s drawings

All the foregoing is by way of introducing Piranesi, his main achievements, his interest in architecture and the fantastical, and his patriotic defence of Rome and its artistic legacy.

But this is not an exhibition of Piranesi’s famous prints. It is a comprehensive display of the British Museum’s entire collection of Piranesi drawings.

Throughout his career Piranesi made detailed architectural drawings, first as an apprentice draughtsman and then for all sorts of reasons: as preparations for the prints, as working sketches of antique pieces to either market them or as studies for larger compositions. Some drawings are huge and portrays vast, fantastical, imaginary scenes which he later converted into prints, while others are relatively small detailed studies of particular aspects, like the drawing here of a sword, or a vase.

The 51 drawings are placed in simple chronological order so the visitor can track Piranesi’s artistic evolution from sensible architectural draughtsman to impresario of the fantastical. Here he is in his early 20s, being sensible and factual.

A colonnaded atrium with domes by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (c. 1740-43) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ten years later, here is the source drawing for the hyper-fantastical vision of an Appian Way that I opened this review with, a helter-skelter surfeit of impossible buildings and exotic details.

The meeting of the Via Appia and the Via Ardeatina, seen at the second milestone outside the Porta Capena by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (c. 1750-56) © The Trustees of the British Museum

If we compare this drawing with the print the differences are immediately apparent. The composition is the same but drawn with surprising freedom and vim, with multiple lines sketching out perspectives and shapes, and with a very loose colour wash creating light and shade.

This lightness of touch and freedom characterises all the drawings which have an expressive charm of their own. I particularly liked the early design for a temple he had drawn, along with careful notes on scale and aspect and then, right at the end, he thought ‘Blow it’ and added a pyramid to the composition.

“If in doubt, add a pyramid,” is not a bad rule for life.

When he came to Rome he adopted a yellow paper and washes (as opposed to the more factual white tonalities of his earliest Venetian work) and this palette is compounded in the many later drawings where he used red ink or crayon to really ram home the vibrancy of the composition.

A monumental staircase in a vaulted interior with columns by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (c. 1750-55) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Although the exhibition features nine prints (including the ones of the Colosseum and the Side View of the Campidoglio and several of the Imaginary Prisons) to give context and show what some of the drawings were preparatory drawings for, many of the 51 drawings weren’t preparations for prints at all, but were finished works in their own right, or studies of details.

There’s are some of the scores of drawings he did of human figures (Standing man in profile), the detailed studies of a Roman sword I mentioned above, studies of ancient vases and what are called candelabra, multi-storeyed stone confections – and countless experiments in architectural fantasy, taken from a wide range of perspectives and points of view – as well as a selection of drawings he did when he visited the newly excavated ruins of Pompeii.

View of the Strada Consulare with the Herculaneum Gate in Pompeii by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (c. 1772-78) © The Trustees of the British Museum

By the time of his death Piranesi was one of the most influential interpreters of ancient Rome. His prints and treatises were popular across Europe and his grand, and grandiose, visions of the Eternal City would define the idea of Rome for generations of travellers and armchair tourists.

This exhibition is a fascinating glimpse into the engine room of his creativity, a look behind-the-scenes of the brightly finished and smooth prints at the much more creative, extempore, roughly finished and, in many ways, more exciting drawings.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Ribera: Art of Violence @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

The first painting in this exhibition of the Spanish Baroque painter, draughtsman and printmaker, Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), is the best, and epitomises Ribera’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera

It is the loving and exquisite depiction of a scene of gruesome violence. St Bartholomew the Apostle is being tied down in preparation for being flayed alive. The figures at left and right stare out at us with leering, evil grins. The saint was condemned, back in Roman times, for refusing to worship a pagan statue, and knocking it down – the head of the smashed Greek statue is beneath his bottom.

On the plus side, this is an enormous and spectacularly dramatic painting, which totally dominates the dark room it hangs in. In this painting more than any of the others on show, you can see the influence of Caravaggio, in the dramatic use of deep jet black over large areas of the canvas, from which the saint’s chest and thighs and right arm emerge with stark clarity, and from which the leering faces of his torturers also loom grotesquely.

Not only that, but the anatomic realism of the saint’s body is stunning, his long left thigh, bony hips, wrinkled belly and detailed shoulder bone, muscle and ligature. Then there is the superbly realistic dark folds of the cloth at bottom right, and the astonishingly realistic Greek statue head. Taken together, all these elements make for a gripping and thrilling visual experience.

And it is an experience, a staging, an enactment. There is no doubting the way that the leering faces pull the viewer in, giving us a sort of central role in the scene, not as passive onlookers but as active participants – and that the whole thing amounts to an artfully staged scene from the great theatre of Christian suffering and redemption.

On the down side, of course, it is also the precise and loving portrayal of an act of unspeakable violence which, if you really focus on the excruciating agony of what is to come, revolts the mind. That is the catch-22 which any fan of Ribera is caught in.

The exhibition

This is the first UK exhibition of works by Ribera, routinely described as a master of the Spanish Baroque. In several places the promotional material and press release they say the aim of the show is to question and reassess the conventional view of Ribera as a portrayer of violent and gruesome scenes of torture.

In which case it pretty much fails, since almost all the material here shows scenes of violence and torture. If, like me, you knew nothing about Ribera before you visited, images of tormented, tortured, tied up and screaming men is definitely the impression you take away.

The exhibition consists of eight paintings and 30 or so drawings and sketches. The paintings show the flaying of St Bartholomew (twice), the flaying of Marsyas by Apollo, women treating St Narcissus after he’s been shot dead with arrows, big portrait of a  skin flayer standing holding a flensing knife and the skin of a man he has just detached from his body. Violence against men, in other words, depicted with astonishing realism and gripping drama.

Marsyas and Apollo by Jusepe de Ribera (1637) Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples

Marsyas and Apollo by Jusepe de Ribera (1637) Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples

This depiction of Apollo calmly starting to flay the satyr Marsyas is incredibly disturbing. As with Bartholomew, we note the amazing details – the musculature and anatomy of the old satyr is shown in staggering detail, while the pink cloak and seraphic expression of Apollo are as perfect as Titian. Over on the right Marsyas’s wailing fellow satyrs look like characters from Goya.

But then you notice the big red gash at the upper right of the painting, a red wound, into which the calm, expressionless Apollo is inserting his right hand. This appears to be the opening in Marsyas’s flesh which the god will now calmly extend over his whole body, slowly calmly unpeeling the man while he screams and screams.

Beyond flaying

The exhibition includes a section about the importance of skin – both as an organ to all of us, and as a symbolic theme for artists. It contains an anatomical textbook from Ribera’s day, showing a completely flayed man in order to illustrate and explain the complexity of human musculature. Next to this is what I thought was a parchment but turns out to be human skin with emblems tattooed on it, and next to this, some wall labels explaining the cultural significance of tattooing.

This is an example of the way the exhibition attempts to take us beyond the obvious subject of flaying, crucifixion and torture, in order to persuade us that Ribera described these subjects as part of a wider intellectual framework.

This is epitomised by the one painting of the eight, which isn’t about torture. This shows a shabby tramp holding an onion, with an orange blossom and garlic on the table in front of him. It was one of a series Ribera painted about the senses, showing the attributes of the five bodily senses in a manner derived from medieval science and philosophy.

Also non-flaying is the series of drawings Ribera made for students to study from, academic studies of faces, noses, mouths, ears and eyes. These are all done with great skill if, admittedly, a noticeable taste for the grotesque which remind the viewer of similar studies by earlier Old Masters, such as Leonardo.

Studies of the nose and mouth by Jusepe de Ribera (1622) © the trustees of the British Museum

Studies of the nose and mouth by Jusepe de Ribera (1622) © The trustees of the British Museum

But the effort to dilute the horror of the main images by persuading us that they are part of

  1. Ribera’s broader artistic activity
  2. 17th century Italy’s wider cultural concerns about the power of the senses and the importance of the skin

is undermined when we move on to the next room, which is devoted to images of men – generally old helpless men, like Bartholomew – tied to trees.

The lucky ones are just tied in painful positions. The less lucky ones have been bound to trees and are being whipped. The really unlucky ones have been tied to trees and are being… flayed alive. The audio commentary astonished me by saying that no less than a quarter of Ribera’s entire surviving output consists of images of men tied to trees.

Mostly these are drawings and sketches, often done in red chalk and, as a fan of draughtsmanship, there is much to admire about the often hurried sketchlike appearance of the drawings which, nonetheless, vividly convey the sense of tied and suffering humanity.

An exception which proves the rule is this rare engraving, showing much more detail than the drawings do.  It depicts, of course, Ribera’s favourite subject, an old man tied to a tree and being tortured. I think the man on the right is using scissors or a knife and has already flayed the skin off Bartholomew’s entire forearm. The man on the left is holding two sticks linked by a fine chain, no doubt some implement of further torture, and is leering knowingly out at us, the same device Ribera uses in the paintings, to implicate the worldly viewer in this appalling scene.

Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1624) etching © The New York Public Library

Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1624) etching © The New York Public Library

Note the hand emerging from the clouds and holding a martyr’s crown for the old man. All the consolation a believer needs, though scant consolation for those of us without faith.

Imagine the fuss if an artist of this era had devoted his life’s work to depicting the binding, tying, flaying and torturing of women. Imagine the controversy if a gallery devoted an entire exhibition to the depiction of women being bound, flayed and tortured!

But an artist who devoted his time to the loving depiction of torturing old men, to obsessive reiteration of images of the male body being bound and flayed and hanged and speared? Meh. No problem. Taken for granted.

Dark and gloomy layout

I’ve been visiting Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions for over ten years. The exhibition space consists of a straight line of three smallish rooms, interrupted by a kind of small corridor into the museum’s mausoleum, then three more rooms. And the rooms are generally well lit so you can enjoy the works of E.H. Shepherd or Tove Jansson or Ravilious or David Hockney in a light and airy space.

For this show they have made what I think is the most drastic alteration to the layout I’ve seen. First of all they’ve created partitions with entrances on alternating sides, so that walking through feels like more of a slalom or zigzag between than a stately progress through individual rooms.

Second, all the walls have been painted a very dark grey bordering on black. Third, the lighting has been turned way, way down. It is dark and gloomy throughout. Entering the first room is more like entering a church than a gallery, a Baroque Catholic church in Italy packed with images of torture and suffering.

This layout and design give the big pictures, with their eerie combination of artistically exquisite detail and stomach-turning subject matter, a tremendous impact.

Eye witness to torture

Ribera was born in Spain but moved to Naples (which was under the control of the Spanish crown in the 17th century) where he picked up commissions from church and secular authorities. The Catholic Counter-Reformation (from the 1620s onwards) as a cultural movement, placed great emphasis on the depiction of physical suffering. It coincided with the rise of opera as an art form in Italy. These all tended to a great theatricality of presentation. Caravaggio from the generation before him (1571-1610) was a startling innovator in the art of the dramatic use of light and dark dark black shadow, and it is easy to detect his influence on the best of Ribera’s work.

Given the complex political, religious and cultural background of the times, it is striking that the commentary and wall labels spend less time on his biography than I’m used to, and a lot more time trying to situate his obsession with torture in the wider context of the culture of the day – not only the Counter-Reformation interest in the depiction of suffering and martyrdom, but – as mentioned – an intellectual interest in the workings of the body, of anatomy, the senses and so on. Hence the tramp epitomising the sense of smell, the training sketches of eyes and ears.

But this aim was, for me, once again trumped in the penultimate room by a section about Ribera’s work as an eyewitness to the numerous public hangings and tortures of his day. A huge painting, Tribunale della Vicaria, by an unknown contemporary artist shows the square in front of the law courts of Naples. Initially all you notice is the busy throng of 17th century folk going about their everyday business, from  lords and ladies to beggars via various street sellers and performers. It takes a while before you notice, at the centre of the busy scene, a man dangling from a rope in front of the hall.

Public hangings, executions, burnings and torture were commonplace, and the exhibition devotes this room to a) explaining this fact and b) displaying a series of pen and ink sketches which Ribera obviously made, sometimes in a rush, of these scenes.

He seems to have been particularly attracted to the use of the strappado, whereby a man’s hands were bound behind his back and then strung up from a scaffold. This had the effect of slowly wrenching the arms out of their sockets, causing immense pain. Here is just such a man being interrogated by officials from the Inquisition, apparently drawn from life. Imagine being there. Imagine watching this take place. Imagine hearing the screams.

Inquisition scene by Jusepe de Ribera (1635) pen and brown ink. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Photo by Erik Gould

Inquisition scene by Jusepe de Ribera (1635) pen and brown ink. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Photo by Erik Gould

Apparently, earlier critics have accused Ribera of himself being a sadist, with an unhealthy interest in these scenes and an unrelenting focus on sadism. This is the slur which the curators are keen to refute.

I’m happy to go along with their ‘reassessment’, and I read and understood their attempt to put Ribera’s paintings and drawings in a broader artistic, cultural and social context, where scenes of torture were everyday occurrences and scenes of Biblical martyrdom were part of the state and church-approved culture. In other words, it wasn’t just him.

Indeed, the curators include half a dozen prints by Ribera’s almost exact contemporary, the Frenchman, Jacques Callot (1592-1635), from his series, Les Grandes Misères de la guerre, which display comparable scenes of public hangings and torture.

In many ways I preferred the Callot prints because they are more journalistic, detached and show a larger public context. They look, if it’s an appropriate word, sane. Comparison with all the Riberas you’ve seen immediately makes you realise the intensely close-up nature of Ribera’s images. He focuses right in on the guts of a scene, as if you are on stage during a gruesome play, or on the set of a violent movie.

The Hanging from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre by Jacques Callot (1633)

The Hanging from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre by Jacques Callot (1633)

So I think I understood the layout and intention of the exhibition, a contextualisation and reassessment of Ribera’s art. And I found the technique of the best two oil paintings, the Bartholomew and the Flaying of Marsyas, absolutely breath-taking.

But, as a normal, liberal human being from the year 2018, I also found much of the exhibition completely disgusting.

Darkness and light

At the very end of the exhibition you emerge through heavy curtains, from the dark rooms full of tortured men, into the sunlit openness of the main Dulwich Picture Gallery and the first thing you see is Thomas Gainsborough’s full length portrait of Elizabeth and Mary Linley. It is quite literally walking out of darkness into light and it feels like walking out of madness into sanity, out of hell and into heaven, from barbarism into civilisation.

Elizabeth and Mary Linley by Thomas Gainsborough (1772)

Elizabeth and Mary Linley by Thomas Gainsborough (1772)

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

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