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From the archive: Piranesi and the French

From AR July 1977: The exhibition ‘Piranèse et les Francais’, recently on view at the Académie de France à Rome, showed Piranesi’s influence upon a number of French artists and architects

Piranesi dirimpetto l’Accademia di Francia in Roma — Piranesi opposite the French Academy in Rome, the address that appeared on one of the first of Piranesi’s capricci, would also have been a good alternative title for the exhibition ‘Piranèse et les Francais’, recently on view at the Académie de France à Rome and to be shown in Dijon and Paris. As André Chastel points out in his preface to the excellent catalogue, Piranesi’s influence upon a number of French artists and architects probably originated in the fact that his bottega was just across the Corso from the Académie de France, which was then housed in the Palazzo Mazzarino. Nevertheless, although J.-G. Legrand, who knew Piranesi’s family and married Clérisseau’s daughter, wrote a biography of Piranese, the manuscript lay unpublished in the Bibliothèque Nationale until a few years ago. In fact, prior to this exhibition, no attention had been paid in France to Legrand’s assertion that Piranesi and his works had early aroused the interest of the pensionnaires of the Académie de France à Rome, or indeed of Piranesi’s influence upon the French at all.

The exhibition was, therefore, particularly interesting, also because its preparation involved the first research ever undertaken in this field in France. No light task in any circumstances, for an exhibition chiefly composed of architectural drawings, which — in his introduction to the catalogue — Georges Brunel sadly describes as ‘one of the most neglected forms of art… often lost among a mass of anonymous or ornamental drawings’. Thus this assembly of close on 200 drawings in the exhibition, the work of 50 French artists and architects, many of which have not been exhibited before, does indeed reveal some unexpected aspects of Piranesian influence — and not only in France.

A number of the French artists and architects concerned also worked in other countries — chiefly in Germany, Russia and Scandinavia. Indeed the work of those expatriates constitutes one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition; particularly because their drawings are scattered in so many different places and among some little-seen collections.


Piranesiandthefrench arjuly1977 legeay

Jean-Laurent Legeay: ‘An architectural fantasy’. Fitzwilliam Museum

The reason for these French artists’ and architects’ travels — and also, no doubt, for the fact that Piranesi’s influence upon the French has been so little studied — is explained by the fact that when the first pensionnaires of the Académie de France à Rome, who had known Piranesi, returned to France early in the second haIf of the eighteenth century, for financial reasons state patronage had been greatly curtailed. This situation, which affected the architects in particular, resulted in a number of them going abroad; including some of the most brilliant — and, it must be admitted, the most eccentric. Even after his successful tour in England, Clérisseau, for instance, was reduced to selling his drawings, and he set off to seek his fortune in Russia. He was up pointed architect to Catherine the Great, but unfortunately none of his architecturaI projects seems to have appealed to the empress — even that for an antique Roman house. However, she greatly admired Clérisseau’s drawings, of, which she bought an enormous number. Some of these were later used by Cameron for the decorations of Catherine’s private apartment at Tsarskoe Selo; thus this aspect of Clerisseau’s work had a considerable influence in Russia.

‘This assembly of close on 200 drawings in the exhibition, the work of 50 French artists and architects, many of which have not been exhibited before, does indeed reveal some unexpected aspects of Piranesian influence — and not only in France’

Jean-Laurent Legeay, another brilliant — but even more eccentric — expatriate, is well represented in the exhibition, and in the catalogue, by an extensive biographical note, which reverses the supposition that he influenced Piranesi and adds considerably to the knowledge of Legeay’s life. Unlike other ex-pensionnaires of the Académie de France à Rome, Legeay had plenty of opportunities to exercise his talent as an architect, but he lost most of them owing to his temperament. He worked for Duke Christian II of Mecklenburg Schwerin and for Frederick the Great of Prussia, for whom he designed the Cathedral of St Hedwige in Berlin and drew up plans for Potsdam and Sanssouci. But, after a violent quarrel with the king in 1763, Legeay’s career suffered an eclipse. Probably he spent the next five years in England (where he knew Sir William Chambers) working on the Suites — those extraordinary mélanges of fantasy, fine draughtsmanship and sly humour, upon which his fame is chiefly based. These were published after his return to Paris in 1770, and more, perhaps, than any other work of the Académie’s pensionnaires, Legeay’s Suites reflect the romantic trends in some of Piranesi’s work. Indeed, Legeay’s Inventione di Paese, Boschi et Cascate in some cases even resemble Gilpin’s landscapes and those of Chinese artists. After the publication of the Suites, however, fortune seems to have deserted Legeay. He taught for a while in the provinces, but the last that is known of him is a pathetic letter, written to the son of his old patron, the Duke of Mecklenburg, asking him for a pension that would enable Legeay to end his days in Rome.


Piranesiandthefrench arjuly1977 challe

Charles Michel-Ange Challe:  ‘Place publique’. Musée du Louvre

The career of Charles Michel-Ange Challe, who arrived in Rome in 1742, the year that Legeay left, was on the other hand immensely suceessful; and probably he did more than anyone else to make Piranesi’s work known in France. Challe was one of the privileged few who worked in Piranesi’s studio; they became friends and Challe later translated Piranesi’s works. An inscription on the back of one of Challe’s early architectural fantasies records that it was one of a set, executed in Rome in 1746, ‘as a kind of competition with those of the celebrated Piranèse vénitien’. After his return to Paris, where his drawings were admired — but his paintings sharply criticised — by Diderot, Challe was appointed Dessinateur du Cabinet du Roi. As a designer of settings for fêtes and other royal occasions he had a great success; Challe’s decorative work also brought him a European clientele — including the courts of Germany and Russia. Already, 12 years before Hubert Robert returned to Paris, Challe had pioneered the fashion for landscapes of the Roman ruins. His debt to Piranesi’s engravings is underlined by the fact that Challe was the first to employ only black and white in these compositions, dispensing with the coloured accents previously always used to heighten the effect of such drawings. With Hubert Robert — who had worked and travelled with Piranesi in Italy — this genre, of course, reached its apogee; and in his use of light Robert also owed a debt to Piranesi. Thirty-three years after he had left Rome, in one of Robert’s last and best works, Ruins of a Palace, dated 1798, the vast and shadowy building recalls not only the ‘grandeur that was Rome’, but also the haunting atmosphere of the Carceri.

The influence of the Carceri had by then already travelled even further — to Sweden with Jean-Louis Desprez, who in 1788 was appointed chief architect to King Gustave III. Although Desprez designed buildings — and even a park — for the king, his chief work was stage design. Three of Desprez’s most effective works are evidently derived from stage sets. The Composition after a scene from Semiramis, and Underground scene and tombs — after a setting for Electra, show a strong Piranesian influence — Piranesi and Desprez worked together drawing grottoes and tombs at Naples and Pompeii. Desprez’s Interior of a Prison with a scene of torture inevitably evokes the Carceri, but here the gloom is Cothic. Desprez died in 1804; a number of his drawings are predominantly Gothic, and some of his work anticipates that of John Martin. In fact, Piranesi’s influence on the French as seen in the exhibition covers a much wider and more varied field that might have been imagined. If the Romans spread their Magnificenza ed Architettura from the Tiber to the Tyne and the Tigris, Piranesi’s didn’t do badly either, and French-men like Boulée and Ledoux in a certain sense also foresaw the future.