Alasdair Palmer visits an exhibition at the Fondazione Marco Besso, Rome
This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
The Italian engraver Giambattista Piranesi (1720 — 1778) is most famous for Imaginary Prisons, a series of dark, nightmarish images of the insides of colossal buildings  . They contain stairways that lead nowhere, perspectives that contradict each other, vast pulleys and other machines that appear to have no function, as well as instruments of torture. The human figures are spindly and insignificant. Some of them are being pulled apart on the rack. Others appear to be about to fall off the edges of impossibly high walls.
There is a great deal that is strange about these Imaginary Prisons, not least the title — for they do not depict prisons in the usual sense of that word: a place for keeping criminals under lock and key so that they cannot escape into the outside world.
There are no locked doors in Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons. There are no doors at all. Other than the poor unfortunates actually being tortured, any of the “prisoners” depicted would be free to walk out into the world beyond the walls whenever they chose. There is a strong sense that what holds anyone captive in these engravings is their own frazzled brains, their own conception of where and what they are, rather than the locked doors and high walls of a dungeon of someone else’s making.
It is not surprising that these etchings caught the imagination of romantic writers such as Coleridge, Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire, nor that they have defined Piranesi’s reputation today. Many critics have seen them as pre-figuring the giant factories of the industrial revolution, and as describing the hell of living in a mechanical civilisation in which nature has been completely replaced by man-made constructions. These are images that inspired Max Escher and the filmmaker Fritz Lang.
Yet the Imaginary Prisons form a tiny portion of Piranesi’s output. More than 1,000 copper plate engravings by him have survived. There are just 16 in the set of Imaginary Prisons. In his lifetime, Piranesi was celebrated, not for Imaginary Prisons, which were a distinctly minority interest, but for his Views of Rome. He was the first artist to make an international reputation on the basis of engravings alone. Engraving was thought to be the province of the humble artisan rather than the creative artist. Piranesi showed that it could be as expressive a medium as paint or stone.
The many hundreds of engravings he produced of antique monuments and ruins in various states of decay in and around Rome have a totally different atmosphere to the Imaginary Prisons: they emphasise the magnificence of Roman architecture, are bathed in light, and often have bright skies. They prompt thoughts about the persistence of nature and the transience of human civilisation, as they were intended to — they do not have the depressing, oppressive effect of Imaginary Prisons.
At a time when we are being constantly told that humanity is destroying the planet, it is somehow comforting to see nature not merely outlasting, but triumphing over humanity’s constructions — as nature does in many of Piranesi’s Views of Rome . There, the vast edifices of Roman civilisation — aqueducts, temples, law-courts, baths — are frequently in the process of being displaced by the plants and trees which grow over them in exuberant profusion.
It may be partly to correct the domination of the Imaginary Prisons over today’s conception of Piranesi’s art that the exhibition at the Fondazione Marco Besso in Rome does not include any of the prints from that set. It is, instead, a glorious tribute to Piranesi’s ability to reflect and to create beauty.
Many of the images have an unexpected effect on the viewer. There is, for instance, an aerial view of the Colosseum  which makes the mixture of ruined and intact arches into an almost abstract pattern of geometrical purity. There is another of the island in the Tiber  which has a delightful delicacy.
There are several engravings of the Pantheon. That building, which appears to have survived without later interpolations from when it was built by the emperor Hadrian between 115 and 125 AD, is not as untouched as it seems. Piranesi shows it with the addition of the two towers Bernini added to its front in the seventeenth century. Universally derided as “donkey’s ears”, they weren’t removed until the nineteenth century.
There was a major restoration of the inside of the Pantheon in 1747. Piranesi must have witnessed it. It was thought in the eighteenth-century that the original decoration of the area between the supporting columns and the start of the curvature of the dome was a mistaken addition in the third century AD, and that the inside of the Pantheon would be “improved” by replacing it with more austerely classical work designed and built by eighteenth-century scholars and craftsmen. The “improvements” were duly made. What Piranesi thought of them is not recorded. But given his deep conviction that almost everything done by his contemporaries was inferior to anything built by the ancient Romans, he can’t have liked them.
The extraordinarily clear and well-defined engravings on show at the Fondazione Marco Besso illustrate Piranesi’s phenomenal technical skill as an engraver. He said he could get 3,000 prints from one of his copper plate engravings: for most engravers, the number was typically just 100. He worked continuously and relentlessly, and it may be that inhaling the nitric acid whose use is an essential part of the engraver’s art eventually killed him.
He died at the age of 58, leaving behind a wife and five children, along with piles of unfinished copper plates, some of which his son, Francesco, completed. Giambattista himself was by all accounts extremely prickly, with a foul temper; a man who easily took offence and was keen to avenge himself when he thought he had been slighted.
He was also one of the first Italian artists to make a living, not by having the Catholic Church or an aristocrat as a patron, but wholly by selling his work on the open market. He initially hoped the Church would employ him as an architect, but his only architectural work was a relatively modest restoration of the church of Santa Maria del Priorato on the Aventine Hill.
Piranesi’s primary customers weren’t churchmen or rich Italian aristocrats, but tourists. Many of them were Englishmen taking the Grand Tour. In an age before the camera, if you wanted something that would remind you of the ancient monuments you had seen in Rome, Piranesi’s engravings were by far the best thing available.
They still have a freshness and a capacity to evoke the glories emanating from Rome’s ruins that even the best photographs do not have. They may not be as “modern” as his dystopian Imaginary Prisons. But I would much rather spend time in their company.
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