Piranesi, Giovanni Battista

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Piranesi, Giovanni Battista (1720-1778): Italian Architect and Engraver.

As a printmaker, architect, archaelologist, designer, theorist, and antiquities dealer, Giovanni Battista Piranesi influenced the development of architecture and Enlightenment conceptions of Roman antiquity primarily through his famous etchings of Roman ruins. Born in Venice, Piranesi was the son of a stonemason. He was trained as an architect, but early on, he showed considerable skill in drawing. On account of this ability, the Venetian Ambassador to Rome brought Piranesi to Rome with him in 1740.

In 1745, Piranesi began producing the etchings for which he became famous. First, he published the Vedute di Roma, a series of 135 depictions of ruins, and later his Carceri d’ Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), a collection of dark, ominous, and fantastic portrayals of prison interiors. Finally, in 1756, he published his Antichitá romane (Roman Antiquities). Piranesi’s etchings of Roman ruins are imaginative representations of the greatness of Rome. Drawn from a variety of angles, the ruins are marked by decay and overgrown by a profusion of plant life. Evocative of mood, they are notable for their striking contrasts of light and dark and the heavy solidity of the physical structures. All told, Piranesi produced more than 1000 different prints, many of which provided more extensive views than previously available and were invaluable to archaeologists and architects.

Piranesi also initiated a great debate over the relative aesthetic merits of Greek versus Roman art. In his Roman Magnificence and Architecture (1761), he criticized Johann Winckelmann’s privileging of Greek over Roman art. In opposition to Winckelmann’s position that Roman art was derived from and inferior to that of the Greeks, Piranesi argued that the Romans were the inheritors of the Etruscan tradition and had produced the finest works of classical antiquity. In his Divers Manners of Ornamenting Chimneys, took another swipe at Winckelmann when he rejected what he characterized as the excessive devotion to Greek forms of ornamentation in favor of the creative expression of individual artists who refuse to be confined within a set of uniform rules and standards.

As a dealer of antiquities, Piranesi often took considerable liberties in his reconstruction of artifacts, taking the available parts of an object and then completing the whole with his own additions. In architecture, Piranesi only actual work came in 1764-65 with the reconstruction of the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato, the priory church of the Knights of Malta in Rome.

Further Reading:

John Wilton Ely, The Mind and Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1978.

Kevin E. Dodson

Lamar University