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

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