“I need to produce great ideas, and I believe that if I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would be mad enough to undertake it.”
This statement by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, reported by one of his early biographers, in many ways sums up the man whose dreams of antiquity so often surpassed reality, from his earliest etchings of architectural fantasies to the fanciful restorations of ancient remains that he produced at the end of his career.
One of the greatest printmakers of the eighteenth century, Piranesi always considered himself an architect. The son of a stonemason and master builder, he received practical training in structural and hydraulic engineering from a maternal uncle who was employed by the Venetian waterworks, while his brother, a Carthusian monk, fired the aspiring architect with enthusiasm for the history and achievements of the ancient Romans. Piranesi also received a thorough background in perspective construction and stage design. Although he had limited success in attracting architectural commissions, this diverse training served him well in the profession that would establish his fame.
Whether or not Piranesi studied printmaking in Venice, it is certain that soon after his arrival in Rome in 1740, he apprenticed himself briefly to Giuseppe Vasi, the foremost producer of the etched views of Rome that supplied pilgrims, scholars, artists, and tourists with a lasting souvenir of their visit. Quickly mastering the medium of etching, Piranesi found in it an outlet for all his interests, from designing fantastic complexes of buildings that could exist only in dreams (37.45.3), to reconstructing in painstaking detail the aqueduct system of the ancient Romans. The knowledge of ancient building methods demonstrated by Piranesi’s archaeological prints allowed him to make a name for himself as an antiquarian—his Antichità Romane of 1756 (22.214.171.124; 126.96.36.199) won him election to the Society of Antiquarians of London. Etching also provided Piranesi with a livelihood, allowing him to turn one of his favorite activities, drawing the ancient and modern buildings of Rome, into a lucrative source of income. By 1747, Piranesi had begun the work for which he is best known, the Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome), and he continued to produce plates for the series until the year of his death in 1778. Piranesi’s popular Vedute (37.45.3; 188.8.131.52; 64.521.2; 55.567.6; 59.570.426), which eclipsed earlier views of Roman landmarks through their dynamic compositions, bold lighting effects, and dramatic presentation, shaped European conceptions to such an extent that Goethe, who had come to know Rome through Piranesi’s prints, was somewhat disappointed on his first encounter with the real thing. Piranesi’s willingness to embrace the profession of printmaking was conditioned by his ties to Venice, the only city in eighteenth-century Italy where the greatest artists turned their hands to etching. Piranesi returned to his native city twice in the mid-1740s, the very years in which Canaletto was producing his luminous etched views of Venice (1973.634) and Tiepolo was at work on his novel series of etchings, the Scherzi and the Capricci—long recognized as an inspiration for the sketchy improvisation of Piranesi’s Grotteschi (37.45.3). The series of labyrinthine prison interiors, the Carceri, was also created soon after Piranesi’s encounter with the lively printmaking scene in Venice. In these prints, Piranesi explored the possibilities of perspective and spatial illusion while pushing the medium of etching to its limits.
Given his admiration for Rome and his contentious nature, Piranesi could hardly refrain from entering into the debate at mid-century over the relative merits of Greek and Roman art. Here, too, etching served him well as a means of supporting his arguments. His Delle magnificenza ed architettura de’ Romani of 1761 advanced the view, shared by other scholars, that the Romans had learned not from the Greeks—as British and French scholars had begun to argue—but from the earlier inhabitants of Italy, the Etruscans. Piranesi used his knowledge of ancient engineering accomplishments to defend the creative genius of the Romans, but devoted even more space to a celebration of the richness and variety of Roman ornament (184.108.40.206).
While Piranesi championed the art of Rome, he was not indifferent to the charms of Greek art, nor to that of the Egyptians, as is evident from his fanciful design for an Egyptian fireplace (1973.509.8) or his decorative scheme for the walls of the Caffè degli Inglesi (220.127.116.11), the British cafe located in the Piazza di Spagna. In his preface to the Diverse maniere d’adornare i cammini of 1769, which includes both of these etched plates along with designs in the Etruscan, Greek, Roman, and even Rococo styles, Piranesi argued for the complete freedom of the architect or designer to draw on models from every time and place as an inspiration for his own inventions. Piranesi’s etchings of his eclectic mantelpiece and furniture designs circulated throughout Europe, influencing decorative trends, and even functioned as a sales catalogue to advertise the objects he fashioned from ancient remains. Some of the fireplace designs included in the Diverse maniere were actually executed under Piranesi’s direction, utilizing antique fragments discovered in recent excavations. The restoration of such fragmentary remains, a process that ranged from simply providing an ancient Roman vase with a suitable antique base to such elaborate assemblages as the Newdigate candelabrum (18.104.22.168), became a new business for Piranesi.
Piranesi’s unique opportunity to exercise his creative genius on a monumental scale occurred during the reign of the Venetian pope Clement XIII (1758–69), when the papal nephew, Cardinal Rezzonico, assigned him two major architectural projects. Although Piranesi’s elaborate designs for the apse of the Lateran Basilica were never realized, he was able to apply his original conception of ornament to the renovation of the church of the Knights of Malta on the Aventine, Santa Maria del Priorato, which included an impressive ceremonial piazza enclosed by obelisks and trophies.
It seems that the artist’s tireless devotion to his work and his identification with the grandeur of Rome never flagged, for on the day of his death, Piranesi reportedly refused to rest: saying that repose was unworthy of a citizen of Rome, he spent his last hours busy among his drawings and copperplates.