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Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778)

The last of the Ancients and the first of the moderns, Piranesi’s legacy can be felt from the work of Lebbeus Woods and Alexander Brodsky to PoMo and Brutalism


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Illustration by Jonathan Farr

In 1748, Giovanni Battista Piranesi depicted the Temple of Janus overgrown and in a state of disrepair. Its colossal arches hinted at the nature of the Roman god to whom it was dedicated – Janus, the god of gateways, journeys and change. Often depicted with two faces gazing in opposite directions, this was a god who reflected Piranesi’s nature. The latter was an artist and an architect; a Venetian and a Roman; the last of the Ancients and the first of the moderns; a visionary who studiously documented imperial ruins while predicting the ‘dark Satanic mills’, in Blake’s words, of the coming Industrial Revolution; a prophet who spent his days recreating the past; a designer of heaven and hell.

While proudly declaring himself an architect, Piranesi built very little. He didn’t need to. While he is buried at the Church of St Mary on the Aventine, a minor treasure he worked to restore between 1764 and 1766, his genius lay in print, specifically in the exploration of the realms outside extant architecture; the unbuilt, the demolished and the derelict.

A Venetian by birth and outlook, he belonged to the capriccio tradition of imaginary, or composite, cityscapes. Enthralled by antiquity, he chose the medium of etching and printmaking, which seemed to embody within it the passage of time, giving even his invented works the sense of having a past.  


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Sketch of an altar for the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato on Rome’s Aventine Hill. Image courtesy of Dietmar Katz / Kunstbibliothek der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin

Before creating his fictions, Piranesi had first mastered the study of surviving architecture. Travelling as part of a Venetian papal delegation, he became fascinated with the remains of Ancient Rome, and argued for its importance against an intellectual consensus that had deemed it inferior to Ancient Greece. Beginning initially as a documentation of funereal architecture, the central project of his entire career, the Antichità Romane, became an immense recording of Roman antiquity, numbering 250 plates and four volumes in total. In an age when archaeology was still in relative infancy, the study was invaluable and remains so, given how many of the monuments have been physically lost to us in the intervening years. Indeed, it was recognised as such immediately, with the Society of Antiquaries in London electing Piranesi an Honorary Fellow in 1757. In an age of digital reconstructions of long-lost environments, set to deepen with advances in AR and VR technology, our debt to Piranesi will only increase.

‘Piranesi’s genius lay in print, specifically in the exploration of the realms outside extant architecture; the unbuilt, the demolished and the derelict’

This was a beginning rather than an end for Piranesi. Establishing a firm historical foundation, he embarked on more inventive exercises. His studies were instrumental in this transition. ‘These speaking ruins have filled my spirit with images that accurate drawings, even such as those of the immortal Palladio, could never have succeeded in conveying, though I always kept them before my eyes’, he wrote.While grounded in tradition, his work took a much more subjective turn. His depiction of the Field of Mars in his Ichnographia Campo Marzio (1762) is a staggering near-utopian work of reinvention, immense in size and themes. One notable detail is his architecture parlante set of buildings shaped like male genitalia, symbolising reproduction, which would inspire Ledoux’s phallic Oikema in his Ideal City of Chaux (1780). This tendency to simultaneously collect and adapt, using the classical world as a repository or even a scrapyard (it should be remembered Ancient Roman buildings were used as literal stone quarries), would influence the likes of John Soane and Joseph Gandy, the former having met Piranesi in 1778 and been gifted prints by him. 


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The fantastical urban assemblage of the Field of Mars is a utopian work of reinvention. Image courtesy of The John Jay Ide Collection, Smithsonian Design Museum

Another method Piranesi employed creatively was synthesis. ‘An artist who wants to acquire respect and a name must not be content to be merely a faithful copier of the Ancients’, he claimed. ‘But, studying their works, he must show that he as well is an inventive spirit (I almost said creator); and, combining the Greek, the Etruscan, and the Egyptian with skill, this man of courage must open himself up to the discovery of new ornaments and new ways.’ These new ways are evident in Piranesi’s series of fireplaces (circa 1769), which are feverishly ornate with myths, religious figures and folkloric symbols. He would continue this maximalist approach in his designs of candelabra, furniture, altars and baldacchini, festooned with cherubs and harpies, lightning bolts and garlands. 

‘His great ability, honed from the stage design tradition of the Galli-Bibiena clan, is to show us glimpses and allow our minds to imagine the fathomless depths’

It is in his ornament that we find signs not just of ingenuity but a decadence or even neurosis. While there is no doubting Piranesi’s ambition and output, producing almost a thousand copper engravings alone, there is a notable obsessiveness to his work and a darkness to his character. His polemics are passionate but changeable. His impulsiveness was demonstrated dramatically when, as a young apprentice, he stabbed his mentor, the engraver Giuseppe Vasi, when the older man would not reveal certain etching techniques. Such was his violent reputation that when Piranesi was knighted by the Pope, he was instructed only to use his sword in the defence of God and the Church. These characteristics would merely remain intriguingly salacious conjecture if they did not echo in the work upon which his fame now rests. 


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A quasi-Egyptian fireplace, one of a series of feverishly ornamented hearths. Image courtesy of DEA Picture Library / Getty Images


Key works: 

Prima Parte di Architettura, e Prospettive Inventate, 1743
Le Carceri d’Invenzione (The Imaginary Prisons), from 1745
Antichità Romane, 1748
Varie Vedute di Roma Antica, e Moderna, c1750
Il Campo Marzio dell’Antica Roma, 1762
Restoration of the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato, Rome, 1764


‘They despise my modernity, I condemn their modesty’

Compared with his other projects, Piranesi’s Carceri prison series seems slight, consisting of only 16 plates. Their power, however, rests in the fact that they appear to be portals into entire netherworlds. Full of strange angles and subterranean shadows, they create an atmosphere that seems simultaneously claustrophobic and infinite. Piranesi’s Janus-like duality never allows the viewer to settle. The bewildering maze of bridges, chains and stairs seem to go nowhere and everywhere. The disorientating perspectives are such that the boundaries can never quite be reconciled. The spaces appear endless but they are also labyrinthine and reflexive, closing in on the observer. While it’s tempting to see the series as a condemnation of Ancient tortures, created at the dawn of the Enlightenment, Piranesi adopts a dispassionate tone that is unsettling. The conditions of torment are delivered in a matter of fact way in their titles: ‘An architectural medley with a man on the rack in the foreground’, for example. When human beings appear, they do so less as anguished figures to arouse sympathy and more as devices of scale. At times, they are indecipherable from the statues that also populate the engravings. They too are reduced to mere ornament. 

‘It is not just that he is an ancestor of archaeologists, archivists or even architects; it is that he is an ancestor of those who create dream and nightmare worlds’

At the same time, Piranesi denies us the comfort that comes from considering barbarism to be the preserve of only the Ancient world. Indeed, his Carceri seem futuristic or at least extremely prescient. In engravings like The Smoking Fire, he appears to be predicting the coming age of the machine. Though Piranesi had a continual interest in Roman engineering, our interpretations of pistons emitting steam, gears and pulleys whirling, and cascades of oil and smoke in the Carceri are a testament to Piranesi’s illusory powers. They resemble a series of subjective Rorschach tests, from which we extract and project that which we are already inclined to see. This is the main reason for Piranesi’s continued popularity, outside academic circles. It is not just that he is an ancestor of archaeologists, archivists or even architects; it is that he is an ancestor of those who create dream and nightmare worlds. 

His great ability, honed from the stage design tradition of the Galli-Bibiena clan, is to show us glimpses and allow our minds to imagine the fathomless depths. In this sense, he is the father of swathes of culture that have followed: the optical illusions of Escher, the teeming opium-induced hallucinations of De Quincey, the loathsome non-Euclidean geometry of Lovecraft. His influence is apparent in the Haunted House trope from the secret staircases and chambers of literary Gothic horrors to the corridors and air vents of Alien and on to maze-like computer games where untold horrors lurk around corners. Piranesi’s lasting power is that of disconcerting insinuation through space. 


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Etching from the Carceri series, imaginary prisons depicted with a violent and darkly febrile intensity as if ‘struck by the rays of a black sun’. Image courtesy of Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images


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The power of these etchings lies in their ‘disconcerting insinuation through space’, the precursor to unseen and untold horror. Image courtesy of De Agostini / Getty Images

It would be wrong to mistake Piranesi’s detachment for an absence of meaning. Marguerite Yourcenar wrote memorably of his etchings, in the The Dark Brain of Piranesi, drawing attention to ‘their intensity, their strangeness, their violence – as if struck by the rays of a black sun’. One thing this ‘black sun’ might be is power, which we find all through his work. It is there most forcefully in his Carceri, which seem monstrous assertions of cruelty and authority (it is notable that he was etching while Marquis de Sade was writing, given those shared themes). The prisons may be Ancient or medieval but traces of them still survived the Enlightenment, from the French Terror to the deliberately oppressive panoptical aesthetics of Victorian prison design and the horrors of the 20th century under Fascism and Communism. While Piranesi’s studies of ruins and the loss of meaning that his arcane symbols had undergone might suggest to rulers that imperial hubris leads to nemesis, he was more than happy to flatter them with designs covered in heraldic familial symbols (the double-headed eagle of the Rezzonico family for instance); Modernist architects sought to abolish architectural ornament, incidentally, because they were operating in a radical newly democratised age against the engrained symbols of centuries-old power. Ornament was never just ornament. 

‘Given that all architecture is born in the imagination and the imagination is informed experience, Piranesi remains a valuable guide, forever etching the places that cannot be photographed’

For all his love of Rome, Piranesi ultimately remained a Venetian at heart, combining the then-republic’s far-reaching imagination with its gift for mercantilism. He was a consummate salesman and a master of the modern art of production, selling prints to wealthy travellers on the Grand Tour from his workshop. His longest series Vedute di Roma (135 views of the capital in total) were especially popular to gentlemen wishing to return home with mementoes or evidence of their own supposed cultural enlightenment. He offered them glimpses of places they had never really been to but could claim they had and, in return, they spread his work and his name all across Europe. 


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The remains of the dining room in Nero’s Golden House from Vedute di Roma, a 135-part print cycle for Grand Tourists. Image courtesy of Herbert Orth / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty Images


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The Colosseum, from Vedute di Roma

There’s little doubting the lasting impact Piranesi has had, conceptually and stylistically, on so-called ‘paper architects’ including Lebbeus Woods, Raimund Abraham, the later work of Yakov Chernikhov, the art of Brodsky and Utkin, even the hyper-tech labyrinths of Atelier Olschinsky. At a push, you could make the case for there being traces of Carceri in the more disruptive spaces of Brutalism and Expressionism, or capriccio in PoMo and countless neo-revivals. We may even see a revival of Piranesi’s manic dedication to ornament with 3D printing. Perhaps though, his primary influence lies in other fields, where architecture exists in an intrinsic but less acknowledged form, such as film and video games. 

‘Photography,’ the painter Edvard Munch wrote, ‘will never compete with painting so long as the camera cannot be used in heaven or in hell.’ Piranesi operated in similar dimensions - the lost, the unbuilt, the dreams and the nightmares. Given that all architecture is born in the imagination and the imagination is informed experience, Piranesi remains a valuable guide, forever etching the places that cannot be photographed.

This piece is featured in the AR’s June 2018 issue on Power and Justice – click here to purchase a copy.