Piranesi, Giovanni Battista (1720–1778)

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PIRANESI, GIOVANNI BATTISTA (17201778), Venetian architect, engraver, and archaeologist. By means of over a thousand etched plates and his theoretical defense of creative fantasy, Piranesi revolutionized the European perception of Roman antiquity and exerted a major influence on many of the leading architects and designers of European neoclassicism. The son of a stonemason and master builder, he spent his first twenty years in Venice training in architecture and stage design, and was strongly influenced by the local tradition of topographical art represented by Canaletto and the etched fantasies of Marco Ricci (16761729) and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (16961770).

Moving in 1740 to Rome, where he spent the larger part of his life, a lack of practical commissions led him to develop skills in etching souvenir views, or vedute, for the grand tour market. As a graphic artist of genius he was to transform the mundane topographical view into a highly sophisticated means of architectural communicationbased on a strongly practical understanding of ancient technologyas well as a vehicle of powerful emotional expression. Around 1748 he began to issue his magisterial views of Rome, Vedute di Roma (135 plates), which he published individually, or in groups, throughout the rest of his career. These theatrical images were to generate a highly charged emotional perception of the Eternal City and its environs that has lasted to the present day.

Piranesi's main creative energies were concentrated on developing the architectural fantasy, or capriccio, as a device for formal experiment, creative release, and a stimulus for contemporary architects, whose designs he thought had failed to measure up to the ruined grandeur around them. Such was the intention behind his first publication, Prima parte di architetture e prospettive (1743; Part one of architecture and perspectives) as well as a group of arcane prison compositions, Carceri d'invenzione (c. 1745; Prisons of the imagination). By these means Piranesi was to exercise a seminal influence on visiting artists, architects, and patrons in Rome over the course of nearly four decades. His personal contact with visiting designers such as William Chambers, Robert Mylne, George Dance, John Soane, and, above all, Robert and James Adam, enabled him to exert a critical influence on the development of avant-garde British architecture.

During the 1750s archaeology became increasingly important to Piranesi. His four-volume treatise, Le antichità romane (1756; The antiquities of Rome), pioneered new archaeological methods and techniques of illustration, and its publication quickly won him international recognition; he became a leading protagonist for Rome in the furious controversy provoked by the excessive claims of Hellenic originality by promoters of the Greek revival. With the election of the Venetian Pope Clement XIII (reigned 17581769), the 1760s became a golden age of patronage for Piranesi, who won financial support for a series of impressive polemical folios: Della magnificenza ed architettura de' Romani (1761; Concerning the magnificence and architecture of the Romans); Il Campo Marzio dell'antica Roma ( 1762; The Campus Martius of ancient Rome), and others. In response to criticism by the French critic Pierre-Jean Mariette, in 1765 Piranesi issued the manifesto Parere su l'architettura (Opinions on architecture), which advocated a highly eclectic system of design inspired by ancient Rome in contrast to the radically astringent taste supported by Greek revivalists such as Marc-Antoine Laugier, Julien-David Le Roy, and Johann Winckelmann. Through the pope and members of the Rezzonico family Piranesi received commissions to carry out these ideas in reconstructing the Order of Malta's church in Rome, Santa Maria del Priorato (17641765), together with designs for an unexecuted tribune for S. Giovanni in Laterano. He also produced various furnished interiors from which only two tables survive (Minneapolis, Institute of Fine Arts; Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), complex marble chimneypieces (such as the one at Burghley House, Lincolnshire), and a pioneering painted Egyptian interior for the English Coffee House in Rome (destroyed in the nineteenth century). Many of these works were to be illustrated in his internationally influential folio, Diverse maniere d'adornare i cammini . . . (1769; Various ways of ornamenting chimneypieces . . . ), which illustrated a range of his own designs for interior fittings, furniture, and decorative objects.

His closing years were involved in producing a quantity of imaginatively restored antiquities from excavated fragments, notably represented by large vases and ornamental candelabra primarily for the British market. Ironically, Piranesi's final work, completed and published posthumously by his son Francesco, was a potent contribution to the Greek revival in the form of etchings of the Doric temples at Paestum, south of Naples (1778). Perhaps the ultimate legacy of Piranesi's unique vision of antiquity, however, is represented by the dramatically refashioned plates of the Carceri (2nd state, 1761)a series of visual metaphors for the endless creative inspiration of the past, which had a profound impact on such leading figures of Romanticism as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Victor Hugo, and which continue to inspire writers and poets as much as artists, architects, and film directors.

See also Art: Art Theory, Criticism, and Historiography ; Rome, Architecture in ; Tiepolo, Giovanni Battista .


Primary Source

Piranesi, Giovanni Battista. Observations on the Letter of Monsieur Mariette: With Opinions on Architecture, and a Preface to a New Treatise on the Introduction and Progress of the Fine Arts in Europe in Ancient Times. Introduction by John Wilton-Ely. Translated by Caroline Beamish and David Britt. Los Angeles, 2002.

Secondary Sources

Robison, Andrew. Piranesi: Early Architectural Fantasies: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Etchings. Chicago, 1986.

Wilton-Ely, John. Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Complete Etchings. San Francisco, 1994.

. The Mind and Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. London and New York, 1978.

. Piranesi as Architect and Designer. New Haven, 1993.

John Wilton-Ely

Piranesi, Giovanni Battista

views updated May 14 2018

Piranesi, Giovanni Battista (1720–78). Venetian engineer, architect, and engraver of genius, he had a profound effect on Neo-Classicism with his Sublime images of Rome. He produced a series of Invenzioni (Inventions or Imaginary Views) featuring Carceri (Prisons) in 1749–50 that were powerful images of vast spaces and huge structures, the whole drawn to a terrifyingly megalomaniac scale. Then came the first of the Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome—1745) that revealed a Rome so overpoweringly Sublime that the plates became influential throughout Europe, but especially among the young architects of the French Academy in Rome. His speculative archaeology led him to design fantasies of considerable originality. Appearing in the Opere Varie (Various Works—1750), they had a great influence on architects like de Wailly and the Peyres. His antiquarian studies led to the Antichità Romane (collected in four volumes in 1756), which made his reputation: it was designed to illustrate constructional techniques and the Roman ornamental vocabulary. He took sides in the Graeco-Roman controversy, assuming leadership of the pro-Roman cause against the pro-Greek camp of Winckelmann. In 1761 he published Della Magnificenza ed Architettura de' Romani (On the Magnificence and Architecture of the Romans) designed to show the supremacy of Roman architecture, followed by Il Campo Marzio dell' Antica Roma (The Campus Martius of Ancient Rome—1762), dedicated to Robert Adam, containing a complex fantasy of urban buildings purporting to show Rome under Constantine, but far grander than anything created by Ancient Romans.

In c.1760 he reissued the Carceri plates, reworked, and with some new images, that struck chords among advanced Neo-Classicists, notably George Dance the Younger, Desprez, and others. The Parere su l'Architettura (Thoughts on Architecture—1765) argued for a free use of Roman exemplars for the creation of a new style. In 1763, Pope Clement XIII (1758–69) commissioned him to design a new Papal high-altar for the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome. Piranesi developed his scheme to include the replacement of the whole structure to the liturgical east of the transept by a gigantic top-lit apsidal sanctuary, but it was never implemented. Around this time he remodelled the Church and Headquarters of the Knights of Malta, redesigning the façade of Santa Maria Aventina (1764–6—for which detailed account-books have survived), Rome, and creating a formal piazza one wall of which was embellished with a series of decorative stelai. The altar and lighting inside the church were elaborately contrived. This Aventine commission was Piranesi's only building, but it is one of the most powerful and original of C18.

His Diverse Maniere d'adornare i cammini (Different Ways of Decorating Chimney-Pieces—1769) was his most important publication for interior design and the applied arts. It was to be significant in the development of Adam's chim-ney-pieces and Etruscan style, and also provided Bélanger and other French architects with motifs. The book contained a series of chimney-pieces in the ‘Egyptian’ style that provided many ideas for the Egyptian Revival and indeed influenced aspects of the Art Deco style of the 1920s and 1930s. The book also illustrated Piranesi's Egyptianizing painted interiors of the Caffè degl'Inglesi (English Café), Rome (c.1768). Vasi, Candelabri, Cippi, Sarcophagi (Vases, Candelabras, Markers, and Sarcophagi) was brought out between 1778 and 1791 and had an enormous following among designers of the Empire and Regency periods. It publicized many of the artefacts he had been designing and making since at least the 1760s, as well as Piranesi's activities as a restorer of Antiquities. In spite of his antipathy towards all things Greek, he made superb drawings of the Greek Doric temple at Paestum, which were acquired by Soane. The engravings made from these, published in 1778 as Différentes Vuesde Pesto, had a tremendous impact on the Doric and Greek Revivals, and were brought out partly under the aegis of Piranesi's son, Francesco (1758–1810), who played an important part in completing his father's later works, notably the Vasi…Francesco Piranesi published a map of the Villa Adriana, Tivoli (1781), and added new plates to further editions of the Vedute, Antichità, and other works. Most importantly, he issued a massive collection of graphic works in 27 volumes (1800–7) as well as a three-volume set of Antiquités de la Grande Grèce (1804–7) based on his father's work at Pompeii.


J. Bloomer (1993);
Calvesi (ed.) (1967);
J. Curl (2005);
Focillon (1967);
FHL (1967);
Lütgens (1994);
Nyberg & Mitchell (eds.) (1975);
Placzek (ed.) (1982);
Reudenbach (1979);
Rykwert (1980);
I. Scott (1975);
Jane Turner (1996);
Wilton-Ely (ed.) (1972, 1978, 1978a, 1993, 1994);
Wilton-Ely or Wilton-Ely (ed.) & Connors (eds.) (1992);
Wittkower (1975)

Giovanni Battista Piranesi

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Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), Italian engraver and architect, is best known for his etchings of ancient and baroque Rome and grandiose architectural constructions of his own imagination.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi was born on Oct. 4, 1720, at Mojano di Mestre near Venice, the son of a stonemason. His early training in Venice under his uncle, Matteo Lucchesi, an architectural engineer, gave Piranesi a grasp of the means of masonry construction—scaffolding, winches, hawsers, pulleys, and chains—that stayed with him the rest of his life. His understanding of the vocabulary of classicism came largely from Andrea Palladio's book on architecture; his knowledge of architectural renderings he drew in part from Ferdinando Bibiena's book on civil architecture (1711); and his manner of placing buildings on a diagonal, sharply foreshortened, probably came from contemporary Venetian stage design.

In 1740 Piranesi went to Rome as a draftsman on the staff of the Venetian ambassador, Marco Foscarini. In Rome he learned to etch from Giuseppe Vasi. Trained as an architect but unable to find commissions, Piranesi published in 1743 a book of prints of imaginary buildings of enormous scale, inspired by the architecture of imperial Rome. The project was a financial failure.

By 1744 Piranesi was back in Venice, probably working in the studio of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. From this period date Piranesi's etchings called grotesques: rococo shapes interlaced with fragments of ancient ruins. He returned to Rome in 1745, this time to stay. He took a consignment of prints (not his own) with him to sell as a publisher's agent and thus was able to get a financial foothold.

In 1745 Piranesi's first real success came with his Carceri d'invenzione, or Imaginary Prisons, 16 large plates that are often considered his masterpieces. "Only a stage-struck engineer, " wrote Hyatt Mayor (1952), "could have conjured up these endless aisles, these beams draped with tons of chain, these gangplanks teetering from arch to arch, these piers that stand like beacons for exploring loftiness and light. … Piranesi rendered such more-than-Roman immensities like a true Venetian by letting his etching needle scribble and zigzag until it sketched areas of shade as translucent as a Guardi wash." Later, when he reworked the copperplates, he made the shapes sharper and darker, creating new drama but destroying the translucency of the light.

Piranesi's next enterprise was to record the ruins of ancient Rome. It was to be the biggest project of his life. In 1756, after more intensive archeological studies than any known previously, studies that were much implemented by his knowledge of civil engineering, Piranesi published his Roman Antiquities, four huge volumes containing over 200 folio plates. It won him immediate and widespread fame. He was made an honorary member of the Society of Antiquaries in London in 1757. In Rome the painters welcomed him into the Academy of St. Luke in 1761.

The only architectural work Piranesi executed was for Cardinal Giovanni Battista Rezzonico, Grand Prior of the Knights of Malta. He completely remodeled the church that belongs to that order, St. Maria del Priorato (1764-1766). The decorative program he devised for the church is outstanding in its originality. Classical motifs, combined in un-classical ways, are commingled with banners, shields, warship prows, arrows, and musical instruments in such a way as to produce an extraordinarily rich mélange of crisp, angular, two-dimensional patterns carried out in stucco reliefs.

The system of ornamentation that Piranesi invented for the church he elaborated and disseminated through a new set of engravings that he published under the title Diverse Manners of Ornamenting … Houses (1769). It became, a generation later, the basis for the style known today as Empire. At a much earlier date it was introduced into England by Piranesi's friend Robert Adam.

Throughout most of his adult life Piranesi made etchings of views of the city; not only its antiquities, such as the Pantheon, but also its contemporary masterpieces such as the Capitoline and Piazza Navona. The scenes are animated with tiny, frail, fluttering figures.

On Nov. 9, 1778, while making drawings of the newly discovered temples at Paestum, Piranesi died. Long before then his prints of his adopted city had caught the imagination of much of Europe. In 1771 Horace Walpole urged his fellow Englishmen to "study the sublime dreams of Piranesi, who seems to have conceived visions of Rome beyond what it boasted even in the meridian of its splendour. Savage as Salvator Rosa, fierce as Michelangelo, and exuberant as Rubens, he has imagined scenes that would startle geometry, and exhaust the Indies to realize."

Further Reading

The standard work in English on Piranesi is still Arthur M. Hind, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1922). The best modern study in English is A. Hyatt Mayor, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1952). Also useful is Hylton Thomas, The Drawings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1954). □

Giovanni Battista Piranesi

views updated May 14 2018

Giovanni Battista Piranesi


Italian draftsman, printmaker, architect, and art theorist also called Giambattista Piranesi, who was best known for his highly influential etchings of architectural views and his extraordinary imagination demonstrated in two series of engravings of imaginary prison scenes (the Carceri d'Invenzione, c. 1745). A prolific graphic artist, Piranesi produced more than 2,000 plates of intricate, textured, and highly contrasting imagery, which depicted a variety of subjects from ancient Roman monuments and ruins to imaginary reconstructions of ancient structures.

Piranesi, Giovanni Battista

views updated May 18 2018

Piranesi, Giovanni Battista (1720–78) Italian engraver and architect. He lived in Rome where he became famous for his Vedute, 137 etchings of the ancient and modern city (1745). The one existing building that he designed is the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato, Rome (1764–65).

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