The Piranesi Principle

Commemorating the 300th Birthday of the Great Italian Master

By Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Portrait of. G.B. Piranesi as an antique bust (1750) by Francesco PolanzaniKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) was a universal talent who lived during the 18th century. He pursued an international career as an archaeologist, artist, architect, art dealer, author, and temperamental polemicist. Virtually anything could serve him as a source of inspiration: the art of remote epochs and regions, images from the realms of science and technology, opera and theater, even waste paper from his own workshop.

View into the exhibition “The Piranesi Principle” in the Kunstbibliothek (January 2020)Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Preserved by the Kunstbibliothek and the Kupferstichkabinett of the Berlin State Museums (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) is a Piranesi collection that is unique worldwide. Organized in collaboration with students from the Humboldt University is an exhibition commemorating his 300th birthday and featuring the entire medial spectrum of his production – from the master etchings and hand drawings all the way to his polemical writings and monumental books.

View of the Campo Vaccino (today: Forum Romanum), from: “Vedute di Roma” (c. 1776) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Piranesi was a native Venetian, but beginning in 1747, he lived and worked permanently in Rome, still an impoverished city plagued by hunger in the 18th century. Even the Forum Romanum had degenerated into a cow pasture (the “Campo Vaccino”). Nonetheless, Rome was sexy: artists, archaeologists, and art dealers arrived there from around the world to try their luck. In particular for English aristocrats on their “Grand Tours,” Rome was a dream destination.

Inscribed plinth from the Capitoline Museum (1756/1756) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

During the 18th century, tourists in Rome experienced the city amidst a landscape of ruins. Overgrown with vegetation, monuments protruded from the soil; artifacts and human remains were found concealed in crevices and cavities. For Piranesi, the morbid atmosphere was a source of fascination. At times, the sculptural fragments are choreographed so effectively in his images are reminiscent of the amputated limbs of human bodies.

View of the ruins of the Diocletian thermal bath (1550/1550) by Hieronymus CockKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Piranesi’s Roman vedute made him famous throughout Europe. The history of the “veduta” (meaning: view of a place) begins already in the Renaissance, when artists such as the Dutchman Hieronymus Cock (1520 – 1607) presented Rome’s ancient monuments to a local public through engravings. Incidentally, his drawing suggests how dangerous Rome was at the time: it contains a tourist being overcome by robbers.

View of the defensive wall of the Forum of Augustus in Rome (1757) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiOriginal Source: Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Piranesi’s success as a vedutista was based on the mammoth work Vedute di Roma, comprising 135 sheets, on which he worked for more than 30 years. He devised unusual perspectives, dramatizing light and shadow and manipulating relations of scale by depicting figures smaller than they would appear in reality. At times, the public found it difficult to recognize the depicted buildings when actually on location.

Colosseum in Rome in bird's eye view from the west (1760/1770) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Piranesi searched tirelessly for motifs for his vedute, so beloved by travelers to Rome. Produced among other things during his motif safaris were two drawings of the Colosseum…

Colosseum in Rome in bird's eye view from the north (1760/1770) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

...which are now owned by the Kunstbibliothek. Unsurprisingly for a time before the invention of aircraft, the perspective is utterly unrealistic. Like an anatomist, Piranesi lays out the Colosseum on the dissecting table, studying it from diverse points of view.

Side view of the Temple of Isis in Pompeii (c. 1778) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In the early 1770s, when Piranesi traveled to Pompeii for the first time in the company of his son Francesco, international tourism had long since discovered the town near Mount Vesuvius. Excavated there just a few years earlier had been a Temple of Isis constructed during the 2nd century BCE for an Egyptian mystery cult. This discovery only intensified the stampede of visitors. Taking hold now was a genuine “Egyptomania.”

Stage set design: Cave mouth with barred grotto and chained monsters (c. 1780) by Bartolomeo VeronaKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The theater had an enormous influence on Piranesi. In the 18th century, the stage resembled a kind of ‘grand cinema.’ Employing innovative special effects, scenographers revolutionized the visual habits of the public. Piranesi was alert to developments in this field, and exploited the latest achievements in his architectural visions.

Illustration from the architecture treatice „L'architettura civile preparata su la geometria..“ (1711/1711) by Ferdinando Galli da BibienaKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

One of the most innovative special effects was the “scena per angolo,” invented by the Bolognese architect Ferdinando Galli da Bibiena (1656–1743). Its decisive feature is the oblique depiction of the stage architecture….

View into a large hall architecture with stairs (1760/1760) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

…The gaze is not directed not toward a central vanishing point, but is instead guided simultaneously toward the left and right: the spectator has the sensation of the architecture actually approaching him.

View of the gallery of statues of the villa of Hadrian in Tivoli (1769/1771) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiOriginal Source: Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

By employing the most diverse artistic resources, Piranesi endowed these ancient buildings with maximal stage presence. Many of his ‘tricks’ were derived from 18th-century theater: for his view into Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, for example, the theatrical effect is achieved by dramatic lighting and the positioning of the figure (far right) of a man who raises his arms in gesture of rapture.

Dungeon (man on a rack) (c. 1761) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiOriginal Source: Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In his celebrated Carceri (Imaginary Prisons), Piranesi employs the “scena per angolo” and theatrical illumination in order to heighten the impact of the image. His themes too are borrowed from 18th-century theater. Nor is it accidental that the names of prominent victims of the Emperor Nero are engraved into the masonry in the second plate of the Carceri. At the time, Nero was among the most popular stage villains.

Construction instruction for the spiral “Figura a Lumaca” (c. 1757) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Piranesi was not just an artist, but a researcher scholar and archaeologist as well. In his workshop, he experimented with innovative imaging techniques, searching for ways to convey his research results to the public. His maps, charts, and reconstructions made him famous in the realm of science and scholarship far beyond Italy: in 1757, he became a member of the “Society of Antiquaries” in London, and in 1761, an honorary member of the “Academia San Luca” in Rome.

Large plan of the Roman Campo Marzio (Field of Mars) in Rome (1762/1762) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In 1762, Piranesi published a work on the ancient Campus Martius. With an enormous pictorial apparatus and a text section nearly 100 pages in length, it presented a compendium of all of the knowledge Piranesi had compiled from historical sources or acquired through his own investigations...

Detail from the large plan of the Field of Mars in Rome (1756/1756) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

...A highlight of the work is the large, foldout depiction of a marble panel into which a map of the Campus Martius has been chiseled. The metal clamps and fragments seem deceptively real.

Section through the Angel’s Bridge and the Angel’s Castle (Mausoleum of Hadrian) (1756/1756) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

During the century of the Enlightenment, the sciences confronted the challenge of making complex information and knowledge vividly present in images. Piranesi too experimented with diagrams and charts. In his large-format section through the Ponte Sant’Angelo, new windows seem to open up repeatedly, as in a Windows desktop.

Reconstruction of the Circus Maximus in Rome (1764/1769) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiOriginal Source: Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Piranesi’s four-volume opus Antichità Romane (Roman Antiquities), which appeared in 1756, is among his most important scholarly works. In this publication, reconstructions of ancient buildings play an important role. One example is his preliminary sketch for a reconstruction of the Circus Maximus, whose sheer immensity astonished the world during the Roman empire, but had vanished entirely by the 18th century.

The Palazzo Tomati (second house from left) located at 48 Via Sistina (2019/2019)Original Source: ©  Golo Maurer

Beginning in 1761, Piranesi lived and worked in the Palazzo Tomati, not far from the Spanish Steps. The quarter was quite popular, particularly among English tourists. Piranesi’s palazzo was not just a studio, workshop, and laboratory, but also served as a storeroom for archaeological objects all kinds of: with pride, Piranesi referred to his “museo.” Here, he found inspiration and elements for his own creations.

Recto: Design of a fireplace frame (1764/1769) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Piranesi’s workshop in the Palazzo Tomati produced immense quantities of wastepaper: test or defective prints, discarded sketches, disused notes. Piranesi found inspiration in these materials, just as he did in the debris of antiquity...

verso: fragment of the etched title page (1764/1769) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

...Recycling and reuse belonged to his workshop routine, particularly since paper was a precious resource. The fronts and reverses of prints and drawings were consulted when producing new etchings and designs.

Design of a fireplace frame (1764/1769) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The designs for chimneypieces found in the Kunstbibliothek too were sketched by Piranesi on the reverses of prints. A comparable collection is found in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. Astonishingly, many of the Berlin drawings fit together seamlessly – just like the pieces of the puzzle – with objects found in New York. Evidently, they have their origins in a large collection that was dismembered using scissors before 1925, and later ended up on the art market.

Dedication sheet of „Diverse Maniere” (1769/1769) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Piranesi’s chimneypiece drawings served as preliminary sketches for the 1769 publication Diverse maniere d’adornare i cammini (Different ways of decorating chimneypieces). It served as an order catalog for clientele: there was a pronounced demand for modern chimneypiece designs in Great Britain in particular. At the same time, it was an artistic manifesto in which he explained the principle of “eclecticism”: the free combination of Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek, and Roman design elements.

Monument with boar’s head from a grave on the Via Appia (1779/1779) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In the series Vasi, candelabri, cippi (Vases, candelabra, cippi), Piranesi published art objects from his own palazzo, and from the collections of befriended art dealers. Some (the so-called “pasticci”) were collaged together from fragments having the most disparate origins. One such instance is the Monument with a Boar’s Head, which Piranesi’s son Francesco sold to King Gustav III of Sweden (1746 – 1792), and is found today in the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm.

Portrait Pope Clement XIII Rezzonico (1769/1769) by after Domenico CunegoOriginal Source: Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Contemporary accounts allow us to generate a profile of Piranesi: large, plump, with brown eyes and a bald patch, always moving at full speed. Among his influential patrons and supporters were Pope Clement XIII (1693-1769), who commissioned Piranesi’s only realized architectural project: the redesign of S. Maria del Priorato, the Church of the Knights of Malta, which dates from the 16th century…

Satire against Bertrand Capmartin De Chaupy (1769/1769) by Giovanni Battista PiranesiKunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

… But Piranesi had his detractors as well, and their attacks could be vicious. Among them was the archaeologist Bertrand Capmartin de Chaupy (1720-1798), who authored a three volume study of the villa belonging to the Roman poet Horace (65 – 8 BCE). For Piranesi, this publication seems to have brought to mind a puny little man creating an enormous heap. The closing vignette to his publication on chimneypieces displays a turd set like a mountain in a landscape. Cited here are humorous locales, i.e. “The Academy of Fanatics” or “A Place Where the Author Is Not Understood.”

Credits: Story

Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Concept / Editorial / A-Z Texts: Eva Dalvai, Georg Schelbert, Moritz Wullen
Object texts: Eva Dalvai, Georg Schelbert, Moritz Wullen

Realisation: Katrin Käding/Justine Tutmann

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Photo: Dietmar Katz, Golo Mauerer

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