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Sublime visions of terror by Piranesi

The Art of Piranesi at The Giorgio Cini Foundation, San Giorgio Maggione, Venice, Italy

One of the most powerful exhibitions at this year’s Venice Biennale is the Piranesi show at the Giorgio Cini Foundation on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) was distinguished among his contemporaries by his dramatic use of light and shade, his luscious brown-black, black-brown ink, the descriptive perspectives that bring 18th-century Rome to life and his intense imaginative projects. All are collaged to make a portrait of one of the most mysterious minds of the age.

The exhibition covers the whole spectrum of Piranesi’s enormous output. Though the young Venetian trained as an architect under his uncle Matteo Lucchesi, he produced very few buildings, yet throughout his life his imagination was undimmed. Fed by the classic ruins of Rome and its surroundings, it was enriched by sources as different as elaborate Egyptian decorations and the Doric Order of Magna Graecia (the awesomely austere temples at Paestum). In 1747, Piranesi moved to Rome permanently, but he retained the 18th-century Venetian love of topography - and its ability to raise money from Grand Tourists keen to buy souvenirs of their adventure.

At the same time, he started to produce the first of his fantasies: impossible conjunctions of architectural forms of staggering scale, which colossally loomed over a few lonely humans. His 135 plates of Vedute di Roma were issued gradually between 1748 and his death: it is these that form our image of the 18th-century city. Yet the vision is often subtly different from reality, as is shown by splendid new black-and-white photographs by Gabriele Basilico, on display at the Cini. Taken as far as possible from the same standpoints as Piranesi, the photographs demonstrate how the engraver often exaggerated scale.

More accurate were his analyses of ancient technology: for instance, in the drawing of the Cloaca Maxima, he dissected the great sewer to make a picturesque masterpiece. Towards the end of his life, he produced many interior and furniture designs. Some of these have been recreated by Adam Lowe and Factum Arte, and though horned rams’ masks and viciously beaked birds would have made the furniture difficult to use, Piranesi’s designs certainly had European-wide influence.

Far more influential on the European psyche were the Carceri d’Invenzione, 16 plates of imaginary underground prisons, which could be glimpses of the palace of Milton’s Satan. The super-Roman vaulted caverns are so vast and shadowy that their few inhabitants are dwarfed and blurred (perhaps just as well, since they are all apparently using enormous machines to inflict or suffer pain). Here, quintessentially, is what the 18th century meant by the sublime: aesthetic appreciation of terror and self-preservation. In this, the Carceri are the opposite of what was then called the beautiful: aesthetic appreciation of self procreation.

In some ways, Piranesi was the dark side of the Enlightenment, while his friend Robert Adam epitomised the light. To us, who know of real horrors as fearsome as Piranesi’s (but less dramatic), the Carceri are gruesome enough, but in the 18th century they must have been shocking to the people who could afford to buy the prints. They are at the Cini where, together, and full size (as opposed to small reproductions in books), they show why they have haunted our imagination for over two centuries.

+ True art of the sublime
- Beware sharp edges

The Art of Piranesi

Where: The Giorgio Cini Foundation, San Giorgio Maggione, Venice, Italy

When: Until 21 November


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