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Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Italian, 1720 - 1778

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Giovanni Battista Piranesi was born near Mestre on the Venetian mainland. An uncle of his, Matteo Lucchesi, who was an engineer in the Venetian water department and an architect with a strong interest in the work of Palladio, provided Piranesi's initial training in architecture. Through his uncle he would have been in contact with leading Venetian neo-Palladian architects and with the most influential Venetian architectural theoretician, Carlo Lodoli, proponent of vigorously rational, functional, architectural design. Venice also provided resources for Piranesi's future work as a printmaker. These included a training period with Carlo Zuechi, etcher and author of a treatise on perspective, and--if his early biographers are correct--contact with the leading scenographic designers of northern Italy, the Bibiena family and the Valeriani brothers. When the etchings of an extraordinary group of older Venetian painter-printmakers, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Giovanni Antonio Canal, called Canaletto, and Francesco Guardi, are added to this rich artistic matrix, it is clear that Piranesi's formative years in Venice had a profound impact on the young artist, who--although his primary profession was printmaking--was to refer to himself as "architetto veneziano" throughout his life.

Piranesi first visited Rome in 1740, when he traveled there as a draftsman in the entourage of Marco Foscarini, the Venetian ambassador to Pope Benedict XIV; this association suggests, at the very least, that his exceptional talents had not gone unnoticed. Through Foscarini the young Piranesi was introduced to some of Rome's leading antiquarians who were to spearhead the initiation of Neoclassicism as a countervailent to late Baroque and Rococo stylistic values. In this early period he worked, albeit briefly, for the printmaker Giuseppe Vasi, who in the 1740s was the foremost producer of vedute in Rome. Their relationship was brief and stormy. Within a year's time Piranesi was working freelance as a printmaker with a group of young artists from the French Academy at Rome, making small etched views of the city first published in 1741 as the Varie Vedute di Roma. Two years later the Prima parte di architetture e prospettive, Piranesi's first independent work, appeared.

Apparently, financial duress precipitated a return to Venice in 1744. The timing was propitious; in Venice, Canaletto's spectacular vedute, etched by Visentini, had just been reissued. Tiepolo's Scherzi di fantasia was available, and shortly thereafter, his Capricci. When Giuseppe Wagner, a Venetian print dealer, offered to set him up as his agent in Rome, Piranesi returned to that city and to a shop on via del Corso, across from the Palazzo Mancini, residence of the French Academy.

Once again in Rome, Piranesi commenced in rapid succession a series of important projects, issuing his Grotteschi (1747-49), which reflected his immediate response to Tiepolo's macabre Scherzi and Capricci, followed by the first edition of his prison series, the Carceri, in 1749-50. Around 1746-48 he started work on his monumental Vedute di Roma, the 135 plates of which he would be producing for the rest of his life. With these new publications, and especially the Vedute di Roma, Piranesi moved emphatically to plates of a larger scale; typically the Varie Vedute plates had measured 4 3/8" by 7 1/4" (112 x 184 mm), whereas the Vedute di Roma were generally 17 5/8" by 27 1/2" (450 X 700 mm). The sheer scale of his new prints overwhelmed the modest efforts of his competitors. Concomitant with the vast Vedute di Roma project Piranesi issued numerous publications addressing aspects of the art and architecture of ancient Rome, intending to respond to the growing conviction among antiquarians, historians, and archaeologists that Greek art and architecture enjoyed historic precedent and superior aesthetic value to that of Rome as the origin of classical art.

In 1756 Piranesi issued his monumental Le antichità romane, a four-volume work of 250 plates, with which the artist intended to overwhelm the grecophiles. This publication had started as a modest single-volume work for which Piranesi had--or thought he had--the financial support of an Irish dilettante, James Caufield, Earl of Charlemont. When Charlemont reneged on his promised support after the first few copies had been printed, Piranesi turned on his erstwhile benefactor and in an act of execration published the defaced dedication plates in subsequent volumes, declaring on the reinscribed, mutilated plates that the volumes were issued "for his own age, posterity and the public good."

In 1761 Piranesi issued a revised and amplified Carceri series with an intensified emphasis on incarceration and torture. In these a profoundly darker chiaroscuro system obtains. Form and content thus combine to urge a far more pessimistic interpretation than the earlier edition. The mood of this edition of the Carceri would seem to echo the emotions of its embattled author. With Della magnificenza ed architettura de' romani (1761) and a number of subsequent publications, Piranesi continued his ardent defense of Roman precedence and originality in the formation of classical art. Although Piranesi's publications continued to promote the chronological and aesthetic preeminence of the art of Rome, his approach now became more celebrational, and, ultimately, increasingly conciliatory. And when, in 1765, he responded to P. J. Mariette's criticism of his Rome-biased theories as expressed in Della magnificenza, he included a section entitled Parere su l'architettura, in which he advocated creative license over what he perceived to be the narrowly circumscribed functionalism of idealized Greek austerity slavishly endorsed by Laugier and Winckelmann. For his part, Piranesi had moved to a more creative and artistically aggressive position, one in which he declared contemporary artists free to borrow from all past styles, albeit favoring the Egyptian and Tuscan.

A number of factors contributed to Piranesi's philosophical and aesthetic reassessments. Of central significance was the election in 1758 of a Venetian to the Holy See. Pope Clement XIII Rezzonico was to enjoy a lengthy reign of eleven years, and during those years Piranesi received the patronage of both the pope and his family. Papal patronage supported costly publications, including Della magnificenza ed architettura de' romani and a number of other publications: the Acqua Giulia, Lapides Capitolini, Emissario del Lago Albano, and the Antichità di Albano.

Also through Rezzonico patronage Piranesi became--for the first time in his career--a practicing architect with two significant commissions. One of these projects was the installation of a new high altar and the remodeling of the apse of St. John Lateran. This was never carried out; however, when a nephew of the pope was created grand prior of the Knights of Malta, Piranesi was invited to transform the modest church and priory into a remarkable monument. The same papal nephew sponsored the publication of Diverse maniere (1769), which extended Piranesi's interests to contemporary fireplaces, clocks, wall decorations, home furnishings, sedan chairs, and coaches, and offered decorative motifs "taken from Egyptian, Etruscan, and Greek architecture." Work as an architect tempered his vision, and although he still preferred the Egyptian and Etruscan styles, he now accepted the role of Greek elements and their application to contemporary architectural practice. A new unity of theory and practice are here articulated, one that prevailed in the publications of his closing years and in the posthumous publications issued by his son Francesco, including his great map of the Villa of Hadrian at Tivoli and, most notable for the old and contentious Rome versus Greece debate, the publication in 1804-7 of the Greek temples at Paestum in Les antiquities de la grande Grèce.

Malcolm Campbell, from Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century (2000), p. 568.

Focillon, Henri Giovanni-Battista Piranesi: Essai de catalogue raisonné de son oeuvre. Paris: Librairie Renouard,1918;
Hind, Arthur M. Giovanni Battista Piranesi: A Critical Study with a List of His Published Works and Detailed Catalogues of the Prisons and the Views of Rome. London: The Cotswold Gallery, 1922;
Petrucci, Carlo Alberto. Catalogo generale delle stampe: tratte dai rami incisi posseduti dalla Calcografia Nazionale. Rome: La Libreria dello Stato, 1953;
Parks, Robert O., ed. Piranesi. Northampton, Mass.: Smith College Museum of Art, 1961;
Calvesi, Maurizio, ed. Giovanni Battista e Francesco Piranesi. Rome: De Luca, 1968;
Bacou, Roseline. Piranesi: Etchings and Drawings. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975. Originally published as Piranèse: gravures et dessins (Paris: Société Nouvelle des Editions du Chêne, 1974;
Scott, Jonathan. Piranesi. London: Academy Editions; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975;
Bertelli, Carlo, et al. Grafica II. [special Piranesi edition] Rome: Calcografia Nazionale, 1976;
Brunel, Georges, ed. Piranèse et les francais: colloque tenu à la Villa Médicis 12-14, Mai 1976. Rome: Elefante, 1978;
Penny, Nicholas. Piranesi. London: Oresko Books, 1978;
Stampfle, Felice. Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Drawings in The Pierpont Morgan Library. New York: Dover Publications in association with The Pierpont Morgan Library, 1978;
Wilton-Ely, John. The Mind and Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. London: Thames & Hudson, 1978;
Wilton-Ely, John. Piranesi. London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1978;
Bettagno, Alessandro, ed. Piranesi: tra Venezia e l'Europa. Atti del Convegno internazaionale di studio promossso dall'Istituto di Storia dell'Arte della fondazione Giorgio Cini per il secondo centenario della morte di Gian Battista Piranesi, Venezia 13-15, ottobre, 1978. Florence: L. S. Olschki, 1983;
Istituto Storia dell'Arte, Università degli studi di Roma, Rome. Piranesi e la cultura antiquaria: gli antecedenti e il contesto: atti del Convegno 14-17, Novembre 1979. Rome: Multigrafica, 1983;
Robison, Andrew. Piranesi, Early Architectural Fantasies: a Catalogue Raisonné of the Etchings. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art; Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1986;
Campbell, Malcolm, ed. Piranesi: The Dark Prisons. New York: The Arthur Ross Foundation and The Italian Cultural Institute, 1988;
Palazzo Braschi, Rome; Villa la Marignana-Benetton, Mogliano Veneto, Italy. Piranesi e la veduta del Settecento a Roma. Rome: Artemide, 1989;
Wilton-Ely, John. Piranesi Architetto. Rome: Elefante, 1992;
Wilton-Ely, John. Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Complete Etchings. 2 vols. San Francisco: Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, 1994.

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