Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Portrait of Piranesi

1. Pietro Labruzzi portrait of Giovanni Battista Piranesi 1779 Museo di Roma (Palazzo Braschi) oil on canvas

Piranesi remains one of the more seminal figures in architectural history, exemplifying in his work architectural fantasia and an ability to invoke peculiar atmospheres. His capriccio (architectural fantasies) were spaces of imaginations and drama, reminding one of ruins and anachronistically the industrial age of dark mechanically embellished buildings. These etchings included prisons (carceri), tombstones, monuments of the ancient world and city scale plans of ancient Rome (campo marzio). 

The carceri series of prisons that he made in the mid eighteenth century looked upwards to a deep, dark space which excluded the delineations of the shell. The space is rendered vast with various elements and objects often crowding the drawing.. The drawings are in fact a wonderful example of the viewer engaging with the capriccio art instead of being the voyeuristic onlooker who is indifferent to the events in the picture. The structures evoke the roman ruins and take a sizable chunk of references from it. The details in the paintings like lamps, pulleys , ropes, sculptures etc. serve not only to advance the illusion of the ruins but also the space itself.


These spaces, very evocative of French enlightenment architecture in their scale represent the free thought that was fostered in those architectures.His contemporaries (canaletto and bellotto) had a respectable contribution to the style but Piranesi achieved a higher plateau and was much more influential because of his remarkable ability to create drawings which questioned the conventional foundation of the architectural discourse (be it the Campo Marzio plan of Rome or the prisons).

The Man on the Rack
Capriccio with Palladian buildings

3. 'Capriccio with Palladian buildings' c. 1756 - 1759  oil painting 52 cm × 82 cm by Canaletto

2. 'The Man on the Rack', from Carceri d'Invenzioni Etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

printed 1800–1809. Plate 2 56.2 × 41.7 cm (plate

2. 'The Man on the Rack', from Carceri d'Invenzioni Etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

printed 1800–1809. Plate 2 56.2 × 41.7 cm (plate

The kind of space that is developed by Piranesi is peculiar and illusory. For example, in some of these etchings he shows at a far off distance (usually on the sides of the etchings) the city outside that of the prisons in a very contrasting and distancing manner (Fig. 4). He carefully makes this part of the image small, to create a state of repose at a distance. This contrast is a very powerful agent. The subject/viewer is always inside the prison, part of its architectural chaos and usually cordoned off by huge pillars of stone on either side (Fig 5). Edmund Burke, an Irish philosopher of the 18th century, in his treatise "A Philosophical Inquiry Into The Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime And Beautiful" wrote about the vastness of space, infinity, 'greatness of dimension' etc.:

"Greatness of dimension is a powerful cause of the sublime...Extension is either in length, height, or depth. Of these the length strikes least; an hundred yards of even ground will never work such an effect as a tower an hundred yards high, or a rock or mountain of that altitude. I am apt to imagine likewise, that height is less grand than depth; and that we are more struck at looking down from a precipice, than looking up at an object of equal height; but of that I am not very positive. A perpendicular has more force in forming the sublime, than an inclined plane; and the effects of a rugged and broken surface seem stronger than where it is smooth and polished."

Burke had influenced much of the 18th century scholars with this treatise. These lines sync with the image that the Carceri is manifesting in itself and shows us how Piranesi has used 'height'. However these are tools; tools to a more sublime and conceptual process. Piranesi does weave an experiential space but the evocation is done through the discourse of sophisticated architectural medium. The experience is jarring rather then the conventional aim towards collective utopia of the other capriccio images. John Wilton-Ely writes "The potent appeal of the early Carceri comes from the manner in which the eyes of the spectator is forced on a restless journey through the plate" He goes on to explain this effect with interweaving lines and contradictory hatching. He also writes- "..each plate represents a powerful architectural experience in itself, whereby the entire Renaissance system of of pictorial space is questioned.." This questioning of the perspectival space of the Renaissance and the constant disruption of the laws of perspective and the manner of shade and light is a fascinating conceptual leap ahead. Wilton-Ely also points out that this daring attempt at the questioning of the former pictorial space is "unparalleled before Cubism".

Lion Bas-Relief

4. The Lion Bas-Reliefs, 1761 Etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

56.5 × 41.3 cm (plate)

In one of the famous drawings "The Gothic Arch" a particular type of manoeuvre is hidden. The wooden structure above the stone piers and the the jutting out logs in the left side of the image are impossibly large. But that is not self-evident in the first look. The human figures on the grand palatial staircase are absurdly small. This revelation leads further down to a rabbit hole of illusions. The light coming from the deep right of the painting does not caste proper shadows on all the elements. In his first version of the "The Gothic Arch" the contrast is much lower and faded, but the second version is more dark making the plate more articulated. The bridges and the staircases don't line up and the perspective is slightly bent at the places he desires. In the first plate the complexity is lesser and the shadows are less pronounced. For example, he increases the amount of wooden logs jutting out of the left most pier and also increases the obscurity in the right side of the plate with more wooden members and makes the right most framing stone pier darker and less defined. Two bridges added to the central opening and the right most opening increase the shadowed area in those parts of the plate.

The Gothic Arch Plate 1
The Gothic Arch Plate 2

5. 'The Gothic Arch', from Carceri d'invenzione Etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi  ca. 1749–50 41.2 x 54.4 cm (plate) Plate 1 and plate 2

Marguerite Yourcenar, a Belgian novelist wrote in "The Dark Brain Of Piranesi“- "one of the most secret works bequeathed us by a man of the eighteenth century”. Yourcenar wrote of the Carceri as a representation of the “negation of time, incoherence of space, suggested levitation, intoxication of the impossible reconciled or transcended”. It was Piranesi who mastered the equivocation of infinite tumultuous space and the viewer's finitude of gaze. He bent history to reinvigorate it. Fantasy was a tool rather than a desire or nostalgia.