Published on October 7, 2023
Categories: Archipedia | Featured | Global | Scholars



“I need to produce great ideas, and I believe that if I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would be mad enough to undertake it.”

From the series "Views of Rome"

Appraised by the much-acclaimed engraver, printmaker, architect but decisively one of the most prominent visionary minds of time, Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Piranesi certainly did enjoy a considerable reputation in his lifetime, but somewhat surprisingly it was mainly outside of his native land, Italy. His thrilling personality and technical ability inspired a whole generation of artists and architects and yet continues to do so. Born in 1720 into one of those Venetian families in which the crafts, the professions, and the Papal influence tunefully cohabited. His stonemason father, his uncle Matteo Lucchesi, an engineer and architect from whom young Giovanni acquired the barebones of technical knowledge which continued in his future works; his brother Angelo, a Carthusian who taught him Roman history which all helped shape various aspects of his future as a visionary. Thus, to the end of his days, the great artist, who was the interpreter and virtually the inventor of Rome’s tragic beauty, proudly and perhaps somewhat arbitrarily assumed the title of Venetian architect “Architectus Venetianus” for his profound venetian roots. 

When it came to built projects, Piranesi had a very dainty experience to express himself in actual marble and stone. Due to his ample connections in papal domiciles, Pope Clement XIII commissioned him as a decorator and appointed him architect for certain projects at St. John Lateran, which, nevertheless, were never carried out or even begun. In 1764, one of the Pope’s nephews, Cardinal Rezzonico, assigned Piranesi with the task of partly rebuilding and entirely redecorating the Church of Santa Maria Aventina, the property of the Order of the Knights of Malta, of which he was the Grand Prior. This modest commission required less majesty than grace: Piranesi transformed the little facade of the church and the great walls of the “Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta” into a harmonious ensemble embellished with escutcheons and trophies in which, as in his Grotesques, certain ancient architectural elements combined with a Venetian fancifulness. This was the sole occasion this dedicated architect would have to express himself in actual marble and stone.

Views of Rome

Although being a “Architectus Venetianus” he had to live away from his native Venice, for his whole career because in his own words “However much Venice was filled with magnificent palaces and paintings it was not a not a theatre capable enough of giving pastures to the sublimity of his ideas.” Thus, from an early time, the artist has found his muse, which is Rome, and with which for nearly thirty-eight years he will fill the thousand or so plates of his narrative oeuvre. His earlier works consisted of different ranges and varieties, but predominantly focused on publishing the conventional views of Rome and all its grandeurs Most people associate Piranesi with the views of Rome, which defines the views of the Eternal city even till to these days. In the more limited group of early works, governed, on the contrary, by a free architectural fantasy, and in the inspired Imaginary Prisons, where he audaciously combines elements which are Roman, will transpose the substance of Rome into the realm of the irrational. 

Prisons with their dark images resulting, it is said, from a bout of fever, corresponded to an established genre and almost resulted in vogue. Piranesi’s drawings attested not only to the same disposition but to the same obsessions as his boldest or most powerful masterpieces, offering an alternative route to delve oneself into the absolute darkness of the abyss. The subjects of Piranesi’s descriptive engravings fall into two categories, which of course converge. On one hand, the Baroque: edifices, still new or virtually so: the rectilinear facade with its unbroken walls; the obelisk dividing perspectives, flat piazzas, the parallelepiped of the interior views of basilicas, the cylinder and the sliced-off sphere of cupola-churches interiors; the rotunda revolving open to the sky, the monumental fountain whose rounded basin imitates the curve of a wave; the smooth and polished facings of floors and walls and all the miracles of Rome. On the other hand, the ruins are already fifteen centuries old: broken stone and crumbling brick, the collapsing vault that welcomes light’s intrusion. These Prisons, which modern criticism hails as his crowning achievement, were in their own day, as we might expect, very insignificantly appreciated and not at all perceived the way they should have, and consequently seldom purchased. In 1761, i.e., seventeen years after the series’ publication in its first form Piranesi, then forty, offered the public a second greatly reworked edition one which contained sixteen plates.

Views of Rome: Colosseum

Piranesi’s brilliance always focused on prints, specifically in the explorations of reality and antiquity in a very surrealistic setting. His influences cruise through the later generation of architects and designers in a very elusive ways and there’s little doubting the lasting impact Piranesi has had, conceptually and stylistically, on so-called ‘paper architects’ including Lebbeus Woods, Raimund Abraham, the art of M. C. Escher, Brodsky and Utkin, even the hyper-tech labyrinths of Atelier Olschinsky. Even more so, anyone could make the case for there being robust traces of His imaginary prisons in the more disruptive spaces of Brutalism, Expressionism and the deconstructive movements in the contemporary architectural scene.

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