Piranesi’s drawings of the Temples of Paestum, rendered late in his career, are a revelation of draftsmanship, detail, and archeological discovery.
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Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s imagination was captivated by fantastic spaces. Born in 1720, the son of a stonemason and master builder, he spent 20 years training in architecture and stage design. After he moved to Rome in 1740, the dearth of practical architecture jobs led him to the tourism market, selling high-end souvenir etchings to the Grand Tour set. He would become an important figure to the Neoclassicists, known for his topographical engravings, of which he completed over 1,000 unique examples in his lifetime. The creation of “unreal cities” moved him, and as he studied ancient structures, he drew buildings and architectural features purely out of his own mind. The plates of his first publication, Prima Parte di Architettura e Prospettive, printed in 1743, were occupied with capricci, works of architectural fantasy and efforts to solve architectural problems. Complete with loggias and arches, the Ponte Magnifico, a plate in the volume, held the story that it was erected by some imagined Roman emperor of unknown lineage, bearing his equestrian statue. The vantage point from which Piranesi renders the bridge is complicated, with the viewer forced to look through an anchoring arch on the side of the bridge in order to see the main path of the structure. The design proves to be both highly technical and fanciful at the same time.
Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione, or prison fantasies, were first published as a series of 14 etchings in 1750. The labyrinthine settings, replete with winding stairways and cruel contraptions, were reprinted in 1761 and numbered I–XVI, with an addition of two more. In Thomas De Quincey’s 1820 autobiographical work Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, the writer, who certainly had consciousness-altering experiences on the brain, describes the works as a record of Piranesi’s visions while hallucinating during a fever. De Quincey insists on the intensely personal nature of the plates, so much so that he writes, “Creeping along the side of the walls, you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards was Piranesi himself.”
Piranesi’s oeuvre also had a heavy dose of reality. Vedute di Roma, a series of 135 plates depicting notable Roman architectural sites such as the Arch of Constantine, the Arch of Septimius Severus, and the Pantheon, was an ongoing project Piranesi began in 1748. Le Antichità Romane, a four-volume, 250-plate series produced in 1756 highlighted the decorative and technical elements of ancient Roman architecture. Piranesi’s treatise, a veritable Vitruvian-level architectural manual, helped shed light on the era of Greek Revival among architects and designers. The 1760s saw folios commissioned by the Venetian pope, Clement XIII Rezzonico, as well the design for an unrealized tribune for San Giovanni in Laterano and the reconstruction of the Santa Maria del Priorato Church in Rome between 1764 and 1766. His designs for the latter, which are still viewable today, combined Roman and Etruscan influences, an example of Piranesi’s grab-bag style, which drew from the constructions of the ancient Romans, their Umbrian ancestors, the Greeks, and even the Egyptians. Towards the end of his career, he turned his focus toward restoring antiquities.
The exhibition “Piranesi’s Paestum: Master Drawings Uncovered” is currently at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University (through January 4), showcasing a set of 15 drawings completed by Piranesi in 1777, the year before his death. The drawings are in the collection of British Neoclassical architect and major Piranesi fan Sir John Soane, who acquired much of the Italian artist’s work during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The suite, which were purchased at auction in 1817, has never been seen outside of Soane’s museum in London until this exhibition, which will be making its sole stop on the West Coast at the Cantor.
Typically, after a basic sketch, Piranesi would draw the lion’s share of his compositions directly on the copper plates for engraving. These drawings, however, composed of rich layers of pencil, brown and gray washes, pen and ink, and occasional flourishes of white or red chalk, are highly detailed. It is thought that, perhaps knowing he did not have much longer to live, Piranesi flooded the sketches with every pertinent detail so that his son Francesco could finish and print them. Piranesi, using his stage design background, employed scena per angolo, a perspective technique of high baroque scenography. Coined by Ferdinando Galli Bibiena in L’Architettura Civile (1711), the drafting method furnished views through interiors and courtyards—and in Piranesi’s case colonnades—by the application of multiple vanishing points and complicated diagonals. Tricking the eye into thinking the space expands into infinity, Piranesi’s use of the technique makes the Paestum drawings seem boundless.
The set is Piranesi’s largest body of work devoted to one topographical site. During the artist’s lifetime, Paestum was an archeological revelation. The site of three abandoned Doric temples, it was rediscovered in 1746, during the building of a new road. According to Strabo it had been Poseidonia, a Greek colony of Magna Graecia founded by Achaeans from Sybaris around 600 B.C. When the Romans conquered it, they gave it the name Paestum. The temples there were originally thought to be a Roman Basilica, or civic building, a Temple of Poseidon and a Temple of Juno or Ceres. Inscriptions determined that two of the temples are dedicated to Hera—one circa 550 B.C. and the other 460–450 B.C.—and the third, dating to around 500 B.C., to Athena.
Piranesi, suffering from poor health, made the journey to Paestum, on the Bay of Salerno in Campania, in 1777 with his son, his assistant Benedetto Mori, and the architect Augusto Rosa (who took measurements for cork souvenir models). Back in Rome, Piranesi used extensive surveys and studies to create the Paestum drawings. He began—with difficulty—making a series of 20 vedute and frontispieces for what was designed to be his final publication. Less than two months after he received a papal imprimatur for the publication, he died. His son finished and issued the plates later that year.
While Piranesi lived his life around the vestiges of ancient Rome, surrounded by the buildings he was rendering, Paestum was far away and newly found. It was not unlike Piranesi’s capricci—structures only recently discovered and completely by chance, as if they had been dreamt into existence. And as the Greek Revival was gaining steam, the temples were schooling designers and architects in the minimal lines of Doric construction, helping to solve architectural problems as the capricci had attempted to. It’s as if the ruins of Paestum were rediscovered in the Italy of Piranesi’s imagination.
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