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Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 - 1778)

Lifespan: 1720s - 1770s

Related: fantastic art - prison - visionary architecture

The late Baroque works of Claude Lorrain, Salvatore Rosa, and Piranesi had featured romantic and fantastic depictions of ruins; in part as a memento mori or as a reminiscence of a golden age of construction. Piranesi's reproductions of real and recreated Roman ruins were a strong influence on Neoclassicism. [Oct 2006]

Pyramid of Cestius, engraving by Piranesi for Vedute di Roma

plate from Carceri


Giovanni Battista (also Giambattista) Piranesi (4th October 1720 in Mogliano Veneto (near Treviso) - 9th November 1778 in Rome) was an Italian artist famous for his etchings of Rome and of fictitious "prisons".

Piranesi studied his art at Rome, where the remains of that city kindled his enthusiasm and demanded portrayal. His hand faithfully imitated the actual remains of a fabric; his invention, catching the design of the original architect, supplied the missing parts; his skill introduced groups of vases, altars, tombs; and his broad and scientific distribution of light and shade completed the picture, and threw a striking effect over the whole. He executed one engraving after another with much brilliancy; and, as the work went on, the zeal of the artist only waxed stronger. In course of time he found it necessary to call in the aid of all his children, and of several pupils. He did not, in fact, slacken in his exertions till his death in 1778.

Piranesi's son and coadjutor, Francesco, collected and preserved his plates, in which the freer lines of the etching-needle largely supplemented the severity of burin work. Twenty nine folio volumes containing about 2000 prints appeared in Paris (1835 - 1837).

Influence of Piranesi

His reproductions of real and recreated Roman ruins were a strong influence in Neoclassicism.

The "prisons" (Carceri di invenzione) show enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and mighty machines. These in turn influenced Romanticism and Surrealism.

The style of Piranesi was imitated by 20th-century forger Eric Hebborn.

Opinions on Piranesi

Thomas De Quincey in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1820) wrote the following:

Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi's Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist ... which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever: some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr. Coleridge's account) representing vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, etc., etc., expressive of enormous power put forth, and resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls, you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further, and you perceive it come to a sudden abrupt termination, without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who had reached the extremity, except into the depths below. ... But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher: on which again Piranesi is perceived, but this time standing on the very brink of the abyss. Again elevate your eye, and a still more aerial flight of stairs is beheld: and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labors: and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall. ...
--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giovanni_Battista_Piranesi [Jul 2005]

Negative visionary: Piranesi

Piranesi's Carceri series was, in Huxley's phrase, the creation of a 'negative visionary'. He explained this concept in one of his appendices to Heaven and Hell, 1956, a section concerning Romantic painter Théodore Géricault.

Appendix VII -- http://www.cyberzone.it/cyberzone%20n16/prisons.html

see also: Aldous Huxley - Giovanni Piranesi - visionary

The Prisons (Le Carceri) () - Giovanni Battista

The Prisons (Le Carceri) () - Giovanni Battista Piranesi [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Product Description:
Full reproduction of Carceri: 30 etchings depict rickety catwalks, iron rings, faceless humans, innumerable staircases, immense vaults, projecting beams, pulleys, wooden ladders, hanging ropes and chains, iron rings imbedded in walls, faceless humans and more. All create a system of visual frustration beyond ordinary perception and understanding.

Ever since they were published - the first edition in the late 1740s, the second, even darker one in 1761 - Piranesi's monstrous images of prisons as cruelly proliferating mega-cities have inspired designers, writers and architects. As early as 1760 a spectacular set for Rameau's opera Dardanus copied one of Piranesi's boundless prison spaces. It was the beginning of a blackly glittering stage and film career for Piranesi's images, from Metropolis and Blade Runner to the moving staircases at Hogwarts. In today's architecture, you see Piranesi's imagination in Tate Modern, and London Underground's Jubilee line. --Jonathan Jones, http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/critic/feature/0,1169,931809,00.html [Nov 2002]

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