Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Visionary Memory, at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, provides an introduction to one of the all-time great personalities of the art of the engraving. The latest example of the Museum’s interest in showing major collections of artworks on paper, Piranesi follows closely on the heels of a highly successful exhibition of Francisco de Goya’s prints. Like Piranesi, Goya was a master of the engraving.
The origins of the exhibition are bound up with the presentation of the 1st International Festival of Contemporary Engraving, to be held in Bilbao from November 29 to December 2. Designed to promote the contemporary engraving, the Festival will be hosting workshops, round tables and lectures, although the star attractions are undoubtedly the international engraving competition and this exhibition, which greatly enhances the Festival with a generous selection of prints by Piranesi.
This highly prolific artist produced works on paper combining a high degree of technical perfection with extraordinary visionary power, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Mogliano Veneto, Italy, 1720–Rome, 1778) is one of the leading architectural draughtsmen in the history of art and the most famous and influential engraver of the 18th century. Indeed, his influence is discernible in, among other things, literature, Goya’s prints and the films of Fritz Lang. Piranesi’s engravings are on a par with the best work produced by Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya and Picasso.
In all, the exhibition includes more than 200 engravings, most of them from the series Carceri d’invenzione, Le antichità romane and Vedute di Roma, from the School of architecture at the University of Cagliari (Sardinia, Itay), which has a collection of 1,100 prints by Piranesi, to all intents and purposes the complete catalogue of his engravings.
Acquired in 1916, the collection was printed in Paris in 1839 at the Atelier Firmin Didot. Accompanying these beautifully conserved prints, on show to the public for the first time, is an original copper plate actually engraved by Piranesi, loaned by the National Institute for Graphic Arts in Rome, together with plentiful audiovisual information.
Piranesi’s influence today derives above all from the series of etchings of labyrinthine prisons known as the Carceri d’invenzione, created in Rome in 1745 after a sojourn in Venice, although the actual idea for the series had come to him a few decades before.
Despite Piranesi’s insistence on calling himself a “Venetian architect”, only one of the buildings he designed was actually built and he only spent the first twenty years of his life in Venice. He regularly accompanied his uncle on his mother’s side, Matteo Lucchesi, architect and magistrato delle acque, in supervising the state of the city’s hydraulic systems. The experience may well be have provided the inspiration for the gloomy visions found in this series. It also gave Piranesi an introduction to the best architects and antiquarians in Venice in the first half of the 18th century, from whom he gleaned the broad visual repertoire he deployed in his views (vedute) and architectural fantasies (capricci).
Paradoxically, the Carceri had a relatively poor reception when they were originally published. This was definitely not true, however, of the Vedute di Roma, a highly praised series of etchings portraying views of ancient Rome that played a leading role in establishing what has proved to be an enduring image of Rome. Piranesi arrived there in 1740 as part of the entourage of the Venetian ambassador to the court of Pope Benedict XIV. Rome was then a major capital of the arts and an essential stop on what used to be known as the grand tour, a Europe-wide journey undertaken by artists, writers and dilettantes. Local engravers produced the first ‘postcards’ for these cultural tourists, capturing the passion for archaeological ruins and the city’s monumental past.
In Guiseppe Vasi’s Roman studio, Piraneis received his earliest training as an engraver, producing his Prima parte di architetture e prospettive in 1743. He also established what was to be his life-long artistic mission: from that time on, he devoted himself to exalting the splendour and magnificence of Rome in dozens of prints that would later be distributed throughout Europe and particularly in England. A year later he returned to Venice to see the work of Tiepolo and Canaletto, but he soon settled in Rome. From the mid-1740s until his death in 1778 Piranesi produced 135 vedute, which enable us to follow his technical and stylistic development, from the progressive dramatization of his prints, achieved by the intense play of light and shade, to the deliberate distortion of scale in figures and buildings. He gradually forged a personal style featuring a long, clean line that describes each feature in painstaking detail, the grandiose vision of monuments, the careful perspective and a sort of pre-Romantic aura suggesting the inexorable passing of time. Temples, amphitheatres, arches, basilicas, fountains, roadways, aqueducts, squares, palaces, bridges: nothing escapes Piranesi’s descriptive precision or his antiquarian obsession, which also found expression in a catalogue of varied decorative objects, including clocks, furniture, chimneys, vases, and lamps, which reinterpret the classical idiom.
Shortly before his death, Piranesi accompanied his son Francesco to Pompeii and Herculaneum, anxious to see the new archaeological discoveries that would continue to feed his passion for the grandiose legacy of Roman civilization.
In the image:
Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Mogliano Veneto, Italy, 1720–Rome, 1778)
Several objects, including a marble sarcophagus, (c. 1778)
Etching on laid paper
Architecture Department at the University of Cagliari