The absurd world of the beloved artist Catherine II: Views of Rome and the imaginary prisons of Piranesi
The absurd world of the beloved artist Catherine II: Views of Rome and the imaginary prisons of Piranesi

Giovanni Battista Piranesi is a key figure in 18th century European art. He raised the skill of architectural graphics to a previously unattainable height, became the ancestor of several new genres in art, his engravings inspired architects around the world, his name thundered everywhere during his lifetime, and the chambers of Catherine II were littered with his prints from floor to ceiling. And he himself devoted a decade to depicting … prisons.

Temple of Saturn

Piranesi was born in 1720. The place of his birth is a matter of controversy. Until recently, it was believed that this was the town of Mogliano Veneto, but modern researchers are inclined to believe that the future creator of "paper architecture" from the first seconds of his life until the age of twenty lived in Venice. Piranesi never planned to become an engraver. And even more so, I did not think that this craft would glorify him. And he certainly could not even foresee that he would turn out to be a real revolutionary of etching, that prints from his copper boards would fly from sunny Spain to snow-covered Russia …

View of the Blackfriars Bridge under construction over the Thames

His father was an architect, Giovanni himself from a young age dreamed of continuing the family business, while his brother chose the path of a Dominican monk. He was Piranesi's first teacher, teaching him Latin and history. And their uncle worked in the "Magistrate of Waters" in Venice - despite the romantic name, the organization was engaged in the restoration of historic buildings and the restoration of bridges. It was his beloved uncle who contributed to the beginning of his nephew's architectural career. At the age of twenty, Piranesi, already under the influence of the gloomy charm of the Venetian landscape painters, ended up in Rome, where he worked as a draftsman. He studied a lot and willingly, comprehended the secrets of engraving, perspectives, construction … And already three years later he presented his first album of architectural etchings to the public.

Engravings dedicated to Rome

In his works, the quirkiness of the baroque was combined with the rationality of classicism. The hand of the draftsman and the artist's imagination, combined, gave rise to both fantastic and extremely realistic architectural images. None of these engravings told about a real-life place, they were all dizzyingly impossible and at the same time detailed, accurate, incredibly technical. Already in this album, the first signs of "imaginary prisons" appear. And a couple of years later, his works dedicated to Ancient Rome saw the light …

Antique Capitol

Between the creation of large series of prints, Piranesi tried to find work as an architect, but in those years there were no large-scale projects for him either in Rome or in Venice.

Ponte Magnifico

But Piranesi was quite successfully engaged in archeology, visited Pompeii, investigated the temples in Paestum. He enthusiastically collected antiquities, archaeological finds, especially ancient Roman ones. Visiting the excavations, Piranesi strove to recreate in detail the images of ancient architecture (even if he often followed his imagination). Columns and capitals, flowerpots and archi, tombstones and sarcophagi, majestic temples and abandoned ruins … And new life among the fragments of an ancient civilization. The series of etchings "Views of Rome" has one hundred thirty-seven sheets. Rome was his first and true love, Rome, to him modern, ancient and … perhaps the future.Let Piranesi as an architect left surprisingly few real buildings - but some of the surviving projects, apparently, simply did not wait for their implementation. One of his most significant architectural works is the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato, which belongs to the Order of Malta.

Etchings dedicated to imaginary prisons

On the threshold of his thirtieth birthday, and then his fortieth birthday, Piranesi created a dramatic series of etchings called "Dungeons". Today it is the most famous part of his work. Eerie, gloomy, oppressive interiors of torture cells, dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, heaps of stairs leading to the unknown … Recycling etchings ten years after the first publication, Piranesi populated them with tiny figures of jailers and prisoners. There is a version that in this way he reacted to the cruel executions and tortures that paradoxically existed in the age of the European Enlightenment. It is also believed that the unreality of Piranesi's dungeons is a reflection of claustrophobic nightmares. Subsequently, they will be compared to Kafka's novels.

From the Dungeon cycle

In total, about eight hundred engravings of his authorship have been attributed. In addition, Piranesi became the founder of the "engraving" dynasty - his son and daughter, Francesco and Laura, also became famous in this field of art.

Types of Rome

Piranesi is considered one of the pioneers of the genre of architectural graphics and graphic architectural fantasy. Piranesi's “paper” heritage is unusually great, and his influence on the development of European architecture is undeniable. The Russian Empress Catherine II was a big fan of the engraver's work. Her chambers were literally littered with albums, books and individual engravings dedicated to architecture. Piranesi's works (not those devoted to prisons - by the way, who knows?) She showed the masters who erected buildings in Tsarskoe Selo - as a standard.

Pyramid of Cestius

The formation of Russian classicism as an original style is associated with the influence of Piranesi. And his work, apparently, became the figurative basis of the most controversial of the historical architectural trends - eclecticism. Roman, Etruscan and Egyptian temples, masterfully reconstructed in his etchings, have excited the imagination of many artists up to the present day, and sophisticated images of ruins have been recreated in romantic "ruin parks" around the world. However, he himself undertook quite eclectic experiments - it is known that in 1760 he developed a project in the neo-Egyptian style, but the building has not survived.

Frontispiece with a statue of Minerva

However, the fantastic spaces created by Piranesi have inspired not only architects but also writers. In 1884 V.F. Odoevsky made the architect the hero of one of his stories, and in 2020 the writer Suzanne Clarke settled the character of the phantasmagoric novel Piranesi into the absurd world of imaginary prisons.

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