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Drawing, building; purity and corruption. Piranesi's Différentes vues de Pesto

Piranesi’s seventeen remaining drawings of Paestum were brought together for the first time in a Berlin exhibition

The inaugural exhibition at Berlin’s new Museum for Architectural Drawing is devoted to Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Trained in architecture but frustrated by a lack of commissions, Piranesi devoted his energies instead to etching and so boasts an influence on Western architecture surpassed only by Vitruvius.

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An architect’s 18th-century Grand Tour would have been incomplete without a visit to Piranesi’s showroom near the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome and − through his etchings of antiquities such as the sumptuous Vedute di Roma from 1748 on, and Le Antichità Romane published in 1756 − he contributed to the emergence of neoclassicism in British architecture via architects such as the Adam brothers and George Dance the Younger.

These detailed etchings were the postcards of the day for the Grand Tourists, providing both architectural authenticity and ‘a highly charged emotional perception of the past which […] left an indelible perception of Roman antiquity on the European imagination’, as John Wilton-Ely describes it in the exhibition catalogue.

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John Soane met Piranesi in 1778, just a few months before the latter’s death, when he was completing his final work Différentes vues de Pesto. This posthumously published work comprises 21 etchings of the remains of three temples at the abandoned Greek city of Paestum. These exemplary early Greek Doric temples were rediscovered in the Greek Revival and fought over by French and Roman scholars.

The French position, epitomised by Marc-Antoine Laugier’s - of 1753, argued that Greek architecture, as an imitation of nature, was the purest, and that Rome had subsequently corrupted it. Piranesi was eager to reclaim the Paestum temples for Rome, arguing that they were more akin to a Tuscan order. This is perhaps why he visited the malarial site with his son Francesco while gravely ill, just a year before his death, to record the temples with a view to publication.

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Unusually for Piranesi, who composed his etchings while creating them, the drawings closely resemble the final published etchings completed by Francesco. Knowing he was approaching his final years, it is possible that the drawings were not only a record of the site, but instructions for his son to complete the project.

The drawings are a more artistic interpretation of the ruins than a precise documentation. Containing occasional multiple vanishing points and a stock of weary figures and cattle populating the drawings like 18th-century clip-art, it is easier to get a sense of the weight of stones, the searing heat of the place, the light, shade, and the construction of the buildings than it is the layout of the original site.

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Piranesi influenced the young Soane not only in terms of style, but also spatially and through his presentation techniques. The product of their meeting and Soane’s subsequent collection of Piranesi’s etchings, including the Carceri of 1761, can be seen in his proto-modern conception of space as manifest in his museum designs. The influence of etchings such as The Tomb of Cecilia Metella that Piranesi presented to the English architect, can be seen in drawings executed by Joseph Gandy, the most famous being the complex aerial cutaway of the Bank of England, 1830.

This exhibition collected together for the first time all remaining 17 drawings done for Différentes vues de Pesto, 15 of which come from Soane’s collection. The new museum provided a sympathetic setting for the drawings, using wine red on one floor and light grey on another, borrowing the colours from the Soane museum.

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However, visitors would have enjoyed the drawings more if there had been more context for their comprehension, such as the final etchings alongside the drawings, or a plan and photos of Paestum. Nevertheless, the drawings ultimately spoke for themselves and provided the museum with an assured debut.

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Piranesi’s Paestum: Master Drawings Uncovered

Venue: Tchoban Foundation Museum for Architectural Drawing
City: Berlin
When: ended 31 August

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