October 04: Ugh, Piranesi

2016/10/04 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1720 Giovanni Battista Piranesi was born.

Piranesi (d. 1778) trained as a draughtsman and architect around Venice and practiced as both in Rome.  It was in the latter place that he discovered the stunning crumbling ruins of antiquity that inspired the several publications on which his fame principally rests.  The Vedute di Roma comprises 135 grand engravings of–you guessed it–views of Rome: crumbling ancient aqueducts, Early Christian basilicas sprouting grass from their rooftops, Renaissance churches lurking in deep shadow.  In the Vedute Piranesi interpreted things he could actually see; in the more impressive Carceri d’invenzione (“invented prisons”) he drew from the same source material and the spooky cobwebby confines of his own mind to create a make-believe environment that was well-nigh unprecedented in its scope and approach.

Piranesi made his mark among engravers; some architects could pull a bit of sublime inspiration from him.  But as a proponent of the alleged primacy of Roman architecture, Piranesi was swimming against the stream–nay, the flood–of enthusiasm for Grecian antiquities that were popularized through such publications as the Antiquities of Athens, published within decades as Piranesi’s works.  Besides betting on the wrong horse, he was also kind of a weirdo (who includes a bare-chested self-portrait in their book?), and also a draftsman whose skills in articulating imaginary things was wholly superior to his skills as an actual architect, as seen in that nightmare above (and which has no business being included on a Ph.D. exam, IMHO, but that’s another story).  In the final analysis, Piranesi is important for stunning drawings of an ultimately unsuccessful architecture, still much better in two than three dimensions–sort of his century’s version of Zaha Hadid.

Image: Santa Maria del Priorato Roma 1764-67 (from this source)

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