Sunday, 6 August 2017


“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” - Gilbert K. Chesterton 

Giovanni Battista (also Giambattista) Piranesi (4 October 1720 – 9 November 1778) was an Italian artist famous for his etchings of Rome and of fictitious and atmospheric “prisons” (Le Carceri d’Invenzione). His large prints depicting the buildings of classical and postclassical Rome and its vicinity contributed considerably to Rome’s fame and to the growth of classical archaeology and to the Neoclassical movement in art.

Piranesi was born at Mojano di Mestre near Venice, the son of a stonemason. His early training in Venice under his uncle, Matteo Lucchesi, an architectural engineer, gave Piranesi a grasp of the means of masonry construction (scaffolding, winches, hawsers, pulleys, and chains) knowledge that stayed with him the rest of his life. His understanding of the vocabulary of classicism came largely from Andrea Palladio’s book on architecture; his knowledge of architectural renderings he drew in part from Ferdinando Bibiena’s book on civil architecture (1711); and his manner of placing buildings on a diagonal, sharply foreshortened, probably came from contemporary Venetian stage design.

At the age of 20 Piranesi went to Rome as a draughtsman for the Venetian ambassador. He studied with leading printmakers of the day and settled permanently in Rome in 1745. It was during this period that he developed his highly original etching technique, producing rich textures and bold contrasts of light and shadow by means of intricate, repeated bitings of the copperplate. He created about 2,000 plates in his lifetime. The “Prisons” (Carceri) of about 1745 are his finest early prints; they depict ancient Roman or Baroque ruins converted into fantastic, visionary dungeons filled with mysterious scaffolding and instruments of torture.

Among his best mature prints are the series Le antichità romane (1756; “Roman Antiquities”), the Vedute di Roma (“Views of Rome”; appearing as single prints between 1748 and 1778), and the views of the Greek temples at Paestum (1777–78). His unparalleled accuracy of depiction, his personal expression of the structures’ dramatic and romantic grandeur, and his technical mastery made these prints some of the most original and impressive representations of architecture to be found in Western art.

On Nov. 9, 1778, while making drawings of the newly discovered temples at Paestum, Piranesi died. Long before then his prints of Rome had caught the imagination of much of Europe. In 1771 Horace Walpole urged his fellow Englishmen to “study the sublime dreams of Piranesi, who seems to have conceived visions of Rome beyond what it boasted even in the meridian of its splendour. Savage as Salvator Rosa, fierce as Michelangelo, and exuberant as Rubens, he has imagined scenes that would startle geometry, and exhaust the Indies to realize.”

Above is his view of the interior of the Pantheon.

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