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Piranesi, Giovanni Battista

Entry updated 26 February 2024. Tagged: Artist.

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(1720-1778) Italian architectural designer, builder and artist, in Rome from 1740, where he became best-known for two series of etchings, the views mostly of Rome and generally referred to as the Vedute ["Views"] or "capriccios" [ie fantasies] and the imaginary prisons generally referred to as the Carceri ["Prisons"], published and distributed variously, at points confusingly. The first twelve etchings in Prima Parte di Architetture, e Prospettive inventate ["Part One of Architecture and Perspective"] [for all full or fuller titles see Checklist below] (graph 1743) are designated by Miranda Harvey in Piranesi: The Imaginary Views (graph 1979) as specifically "imaginary views"; the four Grotteschi appear in the 1750 version of the above assemblage (see checklist). However they are titled, the views depict fantastications of some great City easily understood as Rome in a manner that inextricably mingles the ancient and the contemporary, the ruined and the populous, the vertical and the subterranean, all effects conveyed through a profoundly Romantic use of chiaroscuro; it is clear that in his passion to capture the essence of Rome Piranesi felt entitled to imagine the original state of ancient structures so modified by time that his renderings of them are profoundly "imaginary". One of the frontispieces attached to a later but connected sequence – "Two Roman Roads Flanked by Colossal Funerary Monuments" in Le Antichità Romane (graph 1756 4vols) – almost literally transforms the dream of the city into a dream of Edifice [for Edifice, Gothic Fantasy and a differently couched entry on Giovanni Piranesi see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below].

The Vedute as a whole – the designation may be variously applied – are divided between fantastic reconstructions of ancient buildings and monuments, rendered as though by an artist from the same period, and representations of such structures in a state of ruin, rendered from the perspective of the eighteenth century. Both categories almost always include human figures – sometimes alone, sometimes grouped, sometimes scattered – whose functions are various: passers-by, builders, users and, in the retrospective views, contemplators of ruins. From the context of this encyclopedia, it should be noted that Piranesi admits no element of futurity into the temporal dynamics implied by the contemplation of ruins: no eighteenth-century edifice is imagined by him in a state of ruin as viewed by some future contemplator, though he was manifestly central to the work of his acolyte Hubert Robert (1733-1808); and Sir John Soane (1753-1837), deeply influenced by Piranesi since acquiring four Vedute in 1778 from the artist, instructed his in-house painter Joseph Michael Gandy (1771-1843) to use Piranesian perspectives to create visions of the not-yet-built Bank of England in ruins (see Ruins and Futurity).

Piranesi may for this reason seem to hover at the prior edge of Fantastika without in any real sense inhabiting a world of the imagination whose fourth wall is the future or, more precisely, the world. No element of the Ruins and Futurity dynamic is to be found in Piranesi's second great series, the Carceri presented in Invenzioni Capric di Carceri ["Fanciful Images of Prisons"] (graph 1745; rev vt Carceri d'Invenzione ["Imaginary Prisons"] 1761), a sequence of sixteen images of vast, imaginary Prisons (see also Crime and Punishment). He may not have been the first artist to create oneiric edifices whose passages and chambers seem to extend unendingly from distant heaven to the deep abyssal Underground world that is their natural home – the close resemblance of the Carceri to the structures imagined in Architectura (graph 1593-1594; rev 1598) of Wendel Dietterlin (1550-1599) may be coincidental, though the affinity between the two artists is unmistakable – but by the middle of the eighteenth century the time was ripe for representative icons of the sublime. Some of the Carceri seem to be visions of worlds deep inside the mountains which were soon to become a central focus of perspectives that terrorize the viewer into a state of bliss. With their stone-layered visions of infinity glimpsable at some huge perspectival cost beyond the labyrinthine architectonic chiaroscuros within, the sense they convey of a constant metamorphic play between the animate and the inanimate, allied as it is with a dynamic interplay between construction and ruination, they make it clear – certainly in retrospect – that Romanticism was just around the corner.

Piranesi's influence upon the art and letters contemporaries like Horace Walpole (1717-1797) is to be expected, but his impact on subsequent eras has been surprisingly pervasive, and can arguably be detected in the fiction and poetry of authors from E T A Hoffmann to Edgar Allan Poe and upon the feverish urban environments of late nineteenth-century Decadence. Surrealism – words and images both – is indebted to him. The work of a twentieth-century artist like M C Escher can be seen as an attempt to discipline Piranesi. Recent artists and illustrators seem to treat his influence as unproblematically intrinsicate to their visionings of urban worlds: examples include the city depicted by Mike Wilks in Pile: Petals from St Klaed's Computer (graph 1979), set to a poem by Brian W Aldiss; and the animate cityscape (clearly New York at first) to which the unnamed emigrant comes in Shaun Tan's The Arrival (graph 2006). It is hard to imagine any Steampunk inscape without a sense that its author is channelling Piranesi. He is built into the architecture of our dreams. [JC]

Giovanni Battista Piranesi

born Mogliano Veneto, Treviso, Republic of Venice [now Italy]: 4 October 1720

died Rome: 9 November 1778

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