Choose a language
Use Arthive in the language you prefer
Sign up
Create an account
Register to use Arthive functionality to the maximum

Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

  9 
Why did Piranesi become not an ordinary architect, but a ‘paper' one, and why it turned out not to be a defeat, but a victory for him? How did Piranesi create his own myth about Rome and why do we still look at the Eternal City through his eyes? Why did Piranesi wander at night among the Roman ruins, and did he use opium, inventing his Imaginary Prisons? Why would Escher, Eisenstein and the architecture of Russian capitals be different without Piranesi? Arthive has collected interesting facts about the greatest artist of architectural etching
The first known etched boards date from the early 16th century. Etching (fr. eau-forte — strong water, aquafortis, nitric acid) is the main technique of gravure printing easel graphics, which suggests the image to be etched with acid on the surface of a metal plate. From a technological aspect, etching is the opposite of a carving. Read more
.
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Piranesianism and Piranesimania

In 2020, almost the main literary sensation was the parable novel by the English writer Suzanne Clar

In 2020, almost the main literary sensation was the parable novel by the English writer Suzanne Clarke, Piranesi. The protagonist who explored the endless Halls decorated with Statues in anticipation of the Tides is named Piranesi, just like the Italian engraver of the 18th century. The novel is full of implicit, but clearly distinguishable references to his work.

Surely, Clarke is not the first to fall under the spell of the greatest "architectural science fiction writer" Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720−1778). Both his work and his very personality have a powerful charisma that few can resist. Goethe was rather sceptical about Piranesi’s activity (we'll tell you why later). In general, the "paper architect" managed to catch the beginning of piranesimania during his lifetime — not so much imitation as passionate and delighted succession.

They created engravings and theatrical scenery à la Piranesi, built palaces and bridges, wrote essays and novels. Whole generations of architects grew up on Piranesi’s etchings albums, his works were enthusiastically collected and passed on by inheritance. Those who did not see Rome live successfully imagined it after Piranesi.

Russian tsarina Catherine II admitted that she was crazy about Piranesi’s "architectural treatises". The architects who worked at her court — Giacomo Quarenghi, Charles Cameron, Vasily Bazhenov — were either friends with Piranesi, or under his strong influence, and this affected the appearance of many buildings in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Tsarskoye Selo. Architects who worked in Russia later, from Auguste Montferrand in the 19th century to Boris Iofan in the 20th century, also could not escape the influence of Piranesi’s Views of Rome when they designed iconic buildings in Russian capitals, both St. Isaac’s Cathedral and Stalinist buildings. Yes, almost everything specifically imperial in Russian architecture grew out of the spiritualized and grandiose Rome, recreated in Piranesi’s engravings!

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View of Piazza Navona and the Church of St. Agnes
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View of Piazza Navona and the Church of St. Agnes
View of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore
View of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore
View of Colosseum
View of Colosseum
Basilica of St. Peter
Basilica of St. Peter
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Fountain with an obelisk in front of the Roman Pantheon in Piazza della Rotonda
Fountain with an obelisk in front of the Roman Pantheon in Piazza della Rotonda
Piranesi became the hero of literary opuses long before Clarke’s novel.

In the 1840s, the romantic

Piranesi became the hero of literary opuses long before Clarke’s novel.

In the 1840s, the romantic writer and amateur occultist Vladimir Odoevsky composed Opere del Cavaliere Giambattista Piranesi, a work in which the fiction architect Piranesi dreamt of connecting the volcanoes Etna and Vesuvius with a vault, and place a park of his designed castle behind these triumphal gates.

A little earlier, the British romantic Thomas de Quincey, in his sensational Confessions of an Englishman, an Opium Lover, the hero follows Piranesi in his opium vision, who was balancing over the abyss and climbing the endless stairs and sheer walls of grandiose imaginary prisons (this is the name the mysterious cycle of Piranesian engravings). De Quincey hints: the "paper architect" could have come up with the Prisons in an altered state of consciousness. This opens the way for future surrealists — they will interpret Piranesi as a subject of an eternal "trip", a journey into the dark and unknown depths of their own selves. Impossible Architecture by Maurits Cornelis Escher completes the line started in the Prisons by Piranesi.

  • G .B. Piranesi. Drawbridge. From the Imaginary Prisons series
  • M. C. Escher Relativity
Hugo did both literary and graphic adaptations of Piranesi’s Prisons. Gaultier and Baudelaire believed that Piranesi was one of the first to penetrate the secrets of the human subconscious. Aldous Huxley has an essay on Piranesi. Umberto Eco "kept Piranesi in mind", describing the labyrinth library in The Name of the Rose

Two original Piranesi prints from the Prisons suite adorned Sergei Eisenstein's study
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
. "I am a longtime fan of the architectural frenzy of Piranesi’s Prisons," said the director who wrote the essay Piranesi or Fluidity of Form.
  • G .B. Piranesi. Inside the Pantheon
  • A still from S. Eisenstein’s October film (1927)
Constructing a frame, Eisenstein often focused on the Pyranesian "expanding spaces". The director was also interested in Piranesi’s parallax phenomenon (Greek παράλλαξις, from παραλλαγή, "change, alternation"), when the angle of view of an object within the framework of one engraving
Along with monotypy, lithography belongs to the group of flat printing techniques, but this is where their similarities seem to end. Lithography appeared in 1796 or 1798, thanks to Johann Alois Senefelder, a typographer from Munich. Initially, they took an imprint from a drawing on a stone slab, usually limestone, which gave the name for the method (ancient Greek λίθος “stone” + γράφω “I write, draw”). Nowadays, instead of lithographic stone, zinc or aluminum plates are used, which are easier to process. Read more
changes depending on the position of the viewer. Eisenstein achieved a similar effect during editing.

What do we know about Piranesi?

From the very childhood of Giovanni Battista, everything went to the fact that he would become an ar

From the very childhood of Giovanni Battista, everything went to the fact that he would become an architect and nothing else. At the age of 7—8, his favourite pastime was measuring the width of the walls, the height of the cornices, the distance between the window and door openings. At the age of 10, Piranesi drew a project that seemed to have even been used in the construction of a real, non-toy building. His father was a renowned stonecutter, and his maternal uncle was an architect at the Venice water magistrate.

Piranesi read a lot in his youth. Under the influence of his elder relative Angelo, a Cartesian monk, he learned Latin and grew to like ancient authors. Among the artists he was most interested in the Vedutists, such as Visentini, Canaletto, Guardi, Luca Carlevaris; Venetian theatrical performances amazed his imagination with the scale of the scenery (their influence would later be found in Piranesian engravings). And then Piranesi fell in love for the first time. The girl who caused him a surge of feelings had just recently returned from Rome (Piranesi's old dream) and described where she had been and what she had seen in the Eternal City with delight.

And then, according to a legend, young Piranesi promised himself to conquer — no, not the girl’s heart, but Rome.
It must be said that at the beginning of the 18th century Italy continued to be a conglomerate of separate states with their own rulers, borders and differing structures. It was not so easy for a Venetian to find a job in Rome as he was considered a foreigner there. But Piranesi’s father figured out a way for him to settle in the Eternal City, obtaining the position of a full-time draftsman for his son in the retinue of the Venetian ambassador.

So Piranesi, at the age of about 20 years, first came to Rome. A city to which he will vow to return to its former greatness. No more and no less.

Roman holiday

But at first, Rome disappointed Piranesi.

Back in the 15th century, the humanist Giovanni-Francesco Poggio-Bracciolini lamented: "The forum, where the Roman people proclaimed their laws and appointed their rulers, is now occupied by vegetable gardens and meadows where buffaloes and pigs roam. How many public and private buildings, built so solidly that seemed to survive the centuries, now lie destroyed, plundered, crumbled in the dust, like parts of a mighty giant."

Rome did not have its best times then: the city was dilapidated and fell into decay. Piranesi found modern architecture uninteresting and sluggish. He complained in letters to friends about "the lack of patrons of this noble art, which is confirmed by the absence of buildings like the Forum of Nerva, the Colosseum or the palace of Nero". The absence of those who would like to invest in large-scale architectural projects put an end to the dreams of the novice architect.

A gifted architect who had neither funds nor reason to construct… If Piranesi were weaker in spirit, he would have fallen into despair and lost faith in his vocation. But he was a man of outstanding temperament and extraordinary enthusiasm. He began to create grandiose architecture not in real space, but on paper.
"Neither the princes nor the rich have any inclination to large expenditures — I, like any modern architect, have no choice but to express my architectural ideas with just drawings" (Giovanni Battista Piranesi)

Rembrandt of ruins

Piranesi, naively dreaming of grandiose buildings that would be built in Rome after his drawings, had to return to Venice. There he still had time to learn from the famous Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, clearly realizing that Venice is still "not his" city. And in a few years he would still return to Rome, which he would never leave. He would rent a studio on Via del Corso and begin to produce small engravings with city views, which would very soon become very popular with the Romans, and even more with numerous tourists who flocked to the Eternal City and used them as guidebooks and commemorative postcards.

Piranesi’s sociability and giftedness would very soon make him a name among the Roman aristocracy. He would be invited to decorate city carnivals — he had a field day there by creating temporary intricate wooden structures. He would also take part in the creation of a complete topographic map of Rome.

Both the Roman nobility and fellow artists agreed: he was a charismatic personality, but too strange. Hot-tempered, ardent, born adventurer. According to rumours, Piranesi almost killed his teacher, the engraver Giuseppe Vasi, when he decided that he was hiding professional secrets from him. "Talented man, but the uttermost madman," said the imposing Luigi Vanvitelli, the court architect of the Neapolitan Bourbons, about Piranesi.

Piranesi also developed this image because of his lifestyle. He spent most of his time not in his studio, but among the Roman ruins, which he loved fanatically. What ordinary Romans saw as only dilapidated ruins, Piranesi perceived as material evidence of the grandeur of Roman civilization; the idea of the greatness of Rome would become paramount for him. Contemporaries took away the remains of marble blocks for their economic needs — Piranesi, on the contrary, craved to preserve them, sketching what was left of the architecture of the Empire
Empire (fr. empire – imperial) is the style of the late classicism in architecture, applied art and painting. It was popular during the first three decades of the 19th century.
It is characterized by the craving for monumentality and greatness: so that it immediately becomes clear to everyone that the emperor’s power is almost limitless! The Empire style arose in France during the reign of Napoleon, later it was replaced by the eclectic art movements currents and then itfound its revival in ... the Soviet Union. Read more
in detail and thoroughly.
Of course, many people thought he was obsessed. He spent days at the excavations. All the time he me

Of course, many people thought he was obsessed. He spent days at the excavations. All the time he measured, sketched, wrote down something. He fed on empty rice all week, and if the night caught him at the time of an urgent matter, such as transferring a well-found angle to paper as soon as possible, he did not hesitate to sleep in an antique tomb.

Piranesi was seriously attached to the "paternal coffins", and he truly loved the strict logic of Roman architecture. He literally knew every stone in his favourite places. He was furious when someone moved these stones.

Having dreamed of becoming an architect since childhood, Piranesi willy-nilly turned into a serious archaeologist. Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome) engravings made a kind of archaeological revolution: no one before him recorded Roman antiquities with such scrupulous meticulousness, with such anatomical detail. No one cared so much about them as Piranesi, who was convinced that Rome is the best city on earth!

Now he was called not only "the paper architect", but "The Rembrandt of ancient ruins".

Views of Rome

Piranesi worked on series of engravings with views of Rome, as well as images of antique art objects (vases, tripods, candelabra, obelisks, etc.) throughout his creative life. When he was about 25 years old, they brought him the first serious success with his contemporaries, and Piranesi died at 58, working on the image of Hadrian’s villa. Without exaggeration, he considered it his mission to preserve the endangered species of Rome for posterity.

Actually, the name of the novice engraver was made by the series, which is briefly called Prima parte. The full title is "The first piece of architectural sketches and perspectives invented and engraved by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, a Venetian architect". These are the meticulously executed, spectacular prints that made Piranesi his first success.
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Piranesi’s legacy is made up of two main genres: firstly, the depiction of Roman antiquities, and secondly, fantastic architectural landscapes.

Architectural views of Piranesi are often called powerful, grandiose, colossal. Piranesi was anatomically accurate in depicting the details of Roman architecture, and no one would call his images purely realistic. There is a paradox here: on the one hand, his buildings look like their real models (it was not for nothing that Piranesi learned spatial measurement from childhood and had an extraordinary eye), and on the other hand, they are much more spectacular, higher, more perfect. "Neither the Roman emperors, nor the Egyptian pharaohs would have enough power to build these buildings," Pavel Muratov noted in Images of Italy. "He understood triumphal arches, temples and Roman bridges not as the creation of people, but as the deeds of heroes." Ill-wishers said: Piranesi suffers from gigantism.
But Piranesi knew what he did. He created "his" Rome, an ideal imperial city (which is why all the architects of any empire
Empire (fr. empire – imperial) is the style of the late classicism in architecture, applied art and painting. It was popular during the first three decades of the 19th century.
It is characterized by the craving for monumentality and greatness: so that it immediately becomes clear to everyone that the emperor’s power is almost limitless! The Empire style arose in France during the reign of Napoleon, later it was replaced by the eclectic art movements currents and then itfound its revival in ... the Soviet Union. Read more
would eventually not be able to do without Piranesi). Not everyone accepted this kind of Rome. Goethe, for example, dismissively remarked: "Piranesi made up much!" He, the classic, disliked this baroque
The baroque style replaced the Renaissance, and it sought to shock the soul, in contrast to the Renaissance art, which kept the distance between an artwork and the audience. It surely succeeded: the pictorial pearls of those times are the true treasures. Read more
redundancy. But what the Venetian engraver "made up", the new myth about Rome, turned out to be extremely demanded by the viewer.

Piranesi’s Roman engravings, which spread across Europe in thousands of prints, attracted a huge number of tourists to Rome. Piranesi, whose studio produced the etchings of Rome en masse, was the catalyst for a new wave of tourism boom.
The Piranesi style is characterized by spectacular foreshortenings of architectural forms, a clear parallel stroke and perfectly even straight lines, deep contrasting chiaroscuro, a wide range of grey tones. "Piranesi's black-and-white magic is multi-tonal," explains the Italian art critic Federica Rossi. "They said he worked in the moonlight. Moonlight gives these shades of gray."

Imaginary Prisons

At the age of 25, Piranesi released a strange cycle of 14 engravings, Fantastic Compositions of Prisons. Audience didn’t appreciate it, as it was better to hang a Roman view on the wall than some incomprehensible prisons. Fifteen years later, Piranesi would republish this cycle; he added two more engravings and titled them "Prisons Composed by Cavallero G.-Batt. Piranesi, Venetian Architect". Contemporaries did not understand Piranesi again, the prints sold out poorly. But for the descendants, the "Prisons", gloomy, nervous, provocative ones, became a sensation and an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

…Under the powerful overhanging vaults there are strange labyrinthine spaces. Their purpose is not so easy to understand: either fragments of Cyclopean palaces, or exotic torture rooms from the most unpleasant dreams. Bridges break in the middle or lead into darkness, stairs lead nowhere. Heavy blocks and logs, chains and ropes enhance the feeling of the enormity of the space. Someone is tortured on a rack, somewhere lions come to life and descend from the bas-reliefs, but the space, completely devoid of figures, turns out to be almost more terrible. As if something weary and mysterious hangs invisibly under these gigantic arches.
The man on the rack. Engraving II from the Imaginary Prisons series
The man on the rack. Engraving
Along with monotypy, lithography belongs to the group of flat printing techniques, but this is where their similarities seem to end. Lithography appeared in 1796 or 1798, thanks to Johann Alois Senefelder, a typographer from Munich. Initially, they took an imprint from a drawing on a stone slab, usually limestone, which gave the name for the method (ancient Greek λίθος “stone” + γράφω “I write, draw”). Nowadays, instead of lithographic stone, zinc or aluminum plates are used, which are easier to process. Read more
II from the Imaginary Prisons series
Round tower
Round tower
Large arcade
Large arcade
Huge wheel
Huge wheel
Bas-relief with a lion
Bas-relief with a lion
Smoke and fire
Smoke and fire
Drawbridge
Drawbridge
Porch decorated with trophies
Porch decorated with trophies
Prisoners on the platform
Prisoners on the platform
Arch with ornament
Arch with ornament
Wood sawing trestles
Wood sawing trestles
Draw-well
Draw-well
Gothic arcade
Gothic arcade
Column with a lantern
Column with a lantern
Column with chains
Column with chains
Frontispiece
Frontispiece
In the title, Piranesi emphasized that his prisons are imaginary, invented. But the audience always has a need to explain the fantastic to the real. Many tried to find actual prototypes of the Prisons. Perhaps this is the famous and ancient Mamertine Prison, located at the northern end of the Capitol? Captive kings and even, according to legend, the apostles Peter and Paul were imprisoned there. No, it doesn’t look very much like it… Or maybe Piranesi portrayed Murazzi, 400-meter underground fortifications with grandiose dams in Venice? He certainly could have been there, because the Murazzi were run by his uncle Matteo Lucchesi, the architect of the Venice Water Magistrate! However, people of the post-romantic era understood the pathos of Piranesi: they began to interpret the Prisons as an "inner journey" of the hero’s soul, as a kind of autobiography or confession. "The fact is obvious that the stairs captured the inner run of the author himself," said Sergei Eisenstein.

Studio, personal life and death of Piranesi

When Piranesi’s income grew, the "paper architect" changed his address — he moved with his family from Via del Corso to Palazzo Tomati on Strada Felice. The "lucky" name of the street (now Via Sistina, 48) did not disappoint: in his new house, Piranesi arranged everything the way he always wanted. First of all, he designed his studio as Roman ruins.

Piranesi covered the walls of his studio with paintings that created the illusion of picturesque ruins. The interior only consisted of fragments of antique altars and urns, which served as cupboards, chairs and curbstones for the artist. Antique candelabra served as lamps for the artist. The kennel for the watchdog of Piranesi was a fragment of a giant decorative marble vase.

Here you could ask the price of Piranesi’s works or discuss some extremely worried question with him — for example, where did the Roman civilization come from. Piranesi, according to biographers, could spend hours enthusiastically talking about the Egyptians or Etruscans, but he was rather cool about Greek antiquity.
In addition to engravings, Piranesi sold antiques in his studio. For example, this vase from the Her

In addition to engravings, Piranesi sold antiques in his studio. For example, this vase from the Hermitage, according to a legend, was found during the excavations of Hadrian’s villa. However, experts found that many of the fragments of the vase had been modified by Piranesi: "The bottom of the vase, the grapevine-shaped handles and the handle bases in the form of a protome of Silenus were skilfully selected by the master Piranesi, and did not belong to one monument, which is clearly seen from how the fragment with the protome of the Silena is cut into the bottom."

In the Images of Italy, Muratov tells the story of Piranesi’s marriage: "Once he was sitting and painting something on Campo Vaccino, at the then Forum. A girl passing by, accompanied by her little brother, attracted his attention with her black eyes and slender figure. He entered into a conversation with her and learned that she was the daughter of the gardener of the Villa Corsini. He suddenly put off his pencil, jumped on his feet and asked her bluntly if she wanted to get married. Her affirmative answer allowed him to conduct the case in such a way that the girl’s parents had neither time nor opportunity to refuse. Five days after this, he celebrated his wedding."

Piranesi’s sudden marriage to Angela Paschini, apparently, turned out to be successful. Two children were born in it, daughter Laura and son Francesco, who would also become a famous engraver — his works are in Russian collections as well.
A sculpture of Piranesi as an ancient Roman in the church of Santa Maria del Priorato. The Source.
A sculpture of Piranesi as an ancient Roman in the church of Santa Maria del Priorato. The Source.
Façade of the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato, designed by Piranesi
Façade of the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato, designed by Piranesi
Pediment of the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato
Pediment of the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato
Fragment of the façade
Fragment of the façade
Interior of the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato
Interior of the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato
Palaces, Prisons, Books: “Paper Architecture” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Source
Source
Source
Source
Piranesi died at 58 because of kidney disease. Giovanni Battista was buried in Rome, on the Aventine Hill, in the small church of Santa Maria del Priorato, notable for the fact that this is the only real building designed by the "paper architect".