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Giovanni Battista Piranesi

9 November 1778 saw the death of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the Italian artist and architect regarded as the greatest graphic artist of his time. His fame was primarily due to his Vedute di Roma, a series of etchings with impressive views of the ruins and monuments of Rome. But above all it is Piranesi’s famous fantasy prints about prisons, the Carceri d’Invenzione, that continue to appeal to the imagination so much to this day. Escher was a great admirer. When he moved to the Swiss town of Château-d’Oex in 1935, he hung a number of prints by Piranesi in his studio*. As if he wanted to keep the memory of his old home town alive. The main thing these two artists have in common is their staggering imagination.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) was born in Mogliano Veneto, near Treviso, then part of the Republic of Venice. This is where the seeds were sown for his creativity and versatility. His father was a stonemason, his brother Andrea taught him Latin and all about classical history. Later he was apprenticed to his uncle, Matteo Lucchesi, a prominent architect who worked mainly on the restoration of historic buildings. It was the visible remnants of the culture of ancient Rome that drove him to the capital in 1740. Piranesi trained as an architect, but with only one building under his belt, he was primarily a theorist and a man of ideas. He recognised that he would not make it as a building architect and he reinvented himself as an artist and designer. Someone who was not hindered by the straitjacket of reality, but could give voice to his imagination and personal opinions.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Carceri d'invenzione (plate 14, The Gothic Arch), second version, etching, 1761
M.C. Escher, Relativity, woodcut, July 1953

Once in Rome, Piranesi immediately put his imagination to work and created visions of the monuments and ruins of Rome that are detached from reality. From 1748 onwards he made a long series of cityscapes that established his fame. In these ‘vedute’ he experimented with different styles and combined Venetian, Egyptian, Etruscan and Roman elements to form a new visual language. Piranesi idealises the eternal city by emphasising the beauty of its historic architecture, inventing buildings, monuments, towers and other architectural elements to his heart’s content, and mixing it all with the hustle and bustle of his own time. He also creates his Grotteschi, fantasy landscapes in which he shows Rome as a ruin overgrown by nature.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Veduta del Tempio di giove Tonante (Veduta with the Temple of Jove), ca. 1756, via Wikimedia Commons
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View of the Piazza del Quirinale (Piazza di Monte Cavallo), Rome, with the Quirinal Palace to the right, the statues of the Horse Tamers (Castor and Pollux) in the centre, and elaborate carriages, etching, ca. 1760-1778, via Wikimedia Commons

His work appeals to a wide audience and has played a significant role in setting the image foreigners have of the city of Rome. In the 17th and 18th centuries, many wealthy young men visited France and Italy in search of art, culture and the origins of Western civilisation. Whilst on such a Grand Tour, many of them came into contact with Piranesi and also bought his prints. The idealised image of Rome that these contained meant that an actual visit could prove disappointing.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Veduta della Piazza del Popolo (The Piazza del Popolo), etching, ca. 1750-1758, via Wikimedia Commons
Nocturnal Rome: Santa Maria del Popolo (Piazza del Popolo), woodcut, April 1934

So although Piranesi was a ‘failure’ as an architect, the prints he made would exert considerable influence on neoclassicism. This art movement was extremely popular in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Architects building in that style reinterpreted the classical Greek and Roman architecture of two millennia before. Piranesi’s prints formed the blueprint for the Roman style. The irony is that although Piranesi himself only produced one building in Rome (the Santa Maria del Priorato, a church in which he was also buried), his influence is ubiquitous.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View of the Mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian (now called Castel S. Angelo) from the rear, etching, ca. 1756
M.C. Escher, Nocturnal Rome: Castel Sant' Angelo, woodcut, April 1934

Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons) constitute his magnum opus. He started them in 1745 and published a first series of 14 etchings in 1750. That edition was not particularly successful, but things were very different when he reissued them in 1761. For the new edition, supplemented by two new engravings, he reworked each etching plate. He had added extra details and heightened the light/dark contrast, thereby considerably enhancing the dramatic effect. This second series became extremely popular and went on to enjoy iconic status in printmaking.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Carceri d'invenzione (title plate), second version, etching, 1761
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Carceri d'invenzione (plate 7, The Drawbridge), second version, etching, 1761

The Carceri is a series of etchings with colossal, vertiginous spaces that seem to never end. Labyrinths filled with an infinite number of stairs, ladders, bridges, gates and galleries, none of which seem to lead anywhere. Here he creates a threatening, hidden world full of ominous caverns and hanging pulleys and cables, in which man is occasionally present yet markedly insignificant and vulnerable. Piranesi exaggerates the perspective and renders his spaces hugely impressive with dramatic lighting and a beautiful light/dark contrast. But in terms of abandoning gravity and creating truly impossible buildings and spaces, he never goes to the extreme to which Escher would eventually go. Conversely, Escher’s prints lack the dark, menacing element that characterises Piranesi’s series.

Piranesi’s inheritance

Piranesi’s oeuvre not only influenced M.C. Escher. For many artists it is an abiding source of inspiration, particularly in terms of its utopian and dystopian character. Like Escher, Piranesi was an artist who infuses his prints with both order and chaos, thus garnering mass appeal. That started early on with writers and poets such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey, Lord Byron, John Keats, Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo and Edgar Allan Poe. Aldous Huxley wrote an essay accompanying an edition of Piranesi’s prints in 1949. He compares Piranesi’s prisons to the panopticism that was so popular in architecture at the time. A tyranny of order and efficiency that reduces humanity to a predictable cog in a process. Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1948) are dystopian novels in which the menacing world of Piranesi is recognisable. Harry Mulisch (one of the great Dutch novelists) was also a fan. An etching from the Carceri series hung in his office and the scenes in heaven in The Discovery of Heaven (and in its film adaptation) are clearly inspired by it. The influence is also discernible in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and the Harry Potter books. It becomes even more explicit in the film adaptations. Eco’s fabulous medieval library maze and Hogwarts’ stairwell are vintage Piranesi.

His influence can also be found in many other films. Consider in this regard the futuristic city in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and the labyrinth of corridors in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). Among architects, the influence of Piranesi is discernible in (for example) Aldo Rossi, Daniel Libeskind and Constant (especially his New Babylon project). The graphic novel series De Duistere Steden (The Dark Cities) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters is one last example of the great influence of Piranesi.

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, De Duistere Steden - De poorten naar het mogelijke (The Dark Cities - The gates to the impossible), Casterman, 2005

A virtual animation of the 16 etchings from the Carceri d’Invenzione, produced and created by artist Grégoire Dupond

The Imaginary and Eternal Prisons of Piranesi, a lecture by Dr. John Marciari from the The San Diego Museum of Art

The library scene from The Name of The Rose

[*] Wim Hazeu, M.C. Escher, Een biografie, Meulenhoff, 1998, page 175