The vision of Giovan Battista Piranesi

Piranesi greatly contributed to the revival of interest in the ancient world



The eighteenth century was crossed by an interminable artistic controversy between supporters of Greek vs Roman architecture:

  • the former, although few of them had seen a Greek building only on paper and not live, believed that Greek art was the summit and absolute dogma of Beauty and Reason, the origin of a pure and simple style. The Roman civilization was only an imitation of the Greek one.
  • The latter, on the other hand, argued that it was the Romans who brought architecture to the pinnacle of perfection.

Piranesi is part of this controversy.

Giovan Battista Piranesi (Mogliano Veneto, 4 October 1720 - Rome, 9 November 1778), after completing his studies in Venice, settled in Rome in 1744. At this time the Roman ruins are mostly considered as a useful source of reasons decorative or as interesting and suggestive curiosities. Piranesi's engravings dedicated to Roman Antiquities, collected in four volumes published in 1756, spread his vision of Roman greatness throughout Europe: it is not inspired by regret for the fall of a powerful empire, but is supported by a moving admiration for the still sublime magnificence of ancient architecture.

Read less Read more
Giovanni Battista Piranesi-Pietro Labruzzi, 1779

Pietro Labruzzi – “Giovan Battista Piranesi” , 1779

“Various ways of decorating chimneypieces and other parts of the house”

Piranesi's vision

Let’s compare two different approaches to depicting ancient ruins:

J.H. Fussli – “The artist’s despair before the grandeur of ancient ruins”

J.H. Fussli in the watercolor “The desperation of the artist in the face of the grandeur of ancient fragments” (1778-1780) makes man’s frustration in the face of an unsurpassed and unattainable past. The disconsolate artist is seated, inside a scenography projected against a background of stones, next to what remains of the colossal statue of Constantine, in an isolation that makes the ideal reconstruction of the statue itself and its placement in an environment impossible. real, concrete and measurable.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi – “The Pyramid of Gaius Cestius”

Thanks to a careful choice of points of view and a dramatic use of light and shadow, Piranesi manages to add new dimensions to the ruins of Rome: the Foundations of Hadrian's mausoleum are transformed into a gigantic mountain of which it is impossible to glimpse the top; the clear "Pyramid of Caio Cestio" assumes with him the sovereign greatness of the pharaohs; the columns of the Tempio di Giove Statore are surrounded by a heroic and solemn isolation.

In this way Piranesi replaces the Rococo image of antiquity with another more resolute and vehement image, suggests new concepts of volumes, convinced that "Roman dignity and magnificence" must be expressed through the mass, the mighty compactness of the ramparts, the gigantic scale of the walls. His interior views, in fact, presuppose a limitless space contained under vaults and domes that seem oppressed by the masonry that dominates them.

Fùssli's feeling of "sublime" helplessness thus becomes in Piranesi a feeling of "sublime" greatness of the past and also of the man who is linked to that past.

Read less Read more

La fama e la fortuna di Piranesi sono affidate alla sua infatica attività di incisore, ma la sua figura acquista un grande rilievo anche per la vivacità architettonica e per la limitata, ma singolarissima produzione. In questo campo la sua unica opera realizzata è la ristrutturazione della chiesa di Santa Maria del Priorato dell’Ordine di Malta, commissionata nel 1764 dal cardinale Rezzonico, nipote di Clemente XIII e gran priore dell’Ordine.

The taste for dialectics and contradiction, pushed to the point of paradox, characterizes Piranesi’s activity as a scholar of antiquity and as a polemicist. His positions are manifested in the writings On the magnificence and architecture of the Romans (1761) and Opinion on architecture (1765), in which he tries to demonstrate the superiority of the Romans based on direct experience and on concrete verification of ancient monuments. through professional measurement and detection tools. This criticism attracts a violent attack on the part of Winckelmann and a solemn dismissal by the French theorist Pierre-Jean Manette, who disputes point by point Piranesian claims by forcefully re-proposing the rigorist theses in favor of Greek art. Faced with the monotony and repetitiveness of Greek models that leave nothing to the imagination and variety, Piranesi, in a proud challenge, replies:

“Novitatem meam contemnunt ego illorum ignaviam”

(They despise my novelty, I their cowardice)

Piranesi and world architecture

Piranesi's influence spreads mainly through his engravings of Roman ruins: the oppressive and cavernous effects he achieves in his interior views are echoed by John Soane in his drawings for the domed salon of the Bank of England (1762), in which Roman architecture appears stripped of all superfluous details and reduced to geometric purity. Through Soane, Piranesi's own spatial sense finds expression in Benjamin Henry Latrobe's Baltimore Cathedral (1805-1818), with its smooth surfaces and low domes that seem to oppress the lowered arches that support them. Virtually every country, from Russia to America, is spreading this cyclopean and dramatic vision of architecture, as well as its profound aspiration to originality, by architects who work in both Greek and Roman styles.

Read less Read more

Soane – Bank of England

The fashion of "Piranesian" decoration is born

But Piranesi’s influence was also vast in the interior decoration sector. His work of 1769 “Different ways of adorning the paths and every other part of the buildings” had a great influence on all the architects and “designers” of the time. The work included drawings for tables, chairs, vases and fireplaces. The designs were clearly neoclassical in style, and overloaded with “ancient” motifs.

Console – 1768, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Don`t copy text!