These glorious drawings open a window onto Piranesi’s soul. Like him, they are endlessly inventive, astonishingly original and ferocious. Flying across the page, Piranesi’s quill pen violently scratches out one fantastical design after another. There are riots of imaginary architecture of almost impossible grandeur, as in An ornate triumphal arch with a grand staircase (c 1747–50), and intense jumbles of motifs, as in The meeting of the Via Appia and the Via Ardentina (c 1750–56). Both these designs, characteristically, are filled with invented trophies and monuments and contain dramatic contrasts of light and shade. There was great method in Piranesi’s madness, and beneath every apparently hectic drawing can be detected the solid underlying structure of a guiding grid. He never put a perspectival foot wrong.
Most of his drawings in the British Museum were bought at the sale of the collection of John Gott, bishop of Truro, in 1908. The bishop’s grandfather was the great Leeds industrialist Benjamin Gott, whose sons used their money wisely, travelling to Italy and accumulating libraries and works of art. The drawings that the Gotts acquired had often served as first ideas for Piranesi’s incomparably rich etchings, An ornate triumphal arch, for example, morphing into the dramatic Parte di ampio magnifico porto, printed in the series Opere varie of about 1750. Some are not connected to any prints, such as the relatively calm upright view, drawn in red chalk, of the interior of the Pantheon from around 1760–61.
Piranesi was one of the most combative individuals in an age of controversy, and it sometimes seems that his career was one long argument. His drawings were at the heart of it, part of the fruitful battle he fought in favour of extravagant decoration and against the austerity of incipient neoclassicism. The controversy revolved around the question of whether the Greeks were superior to the Romans in matters of art and taste. Piranesi was born in the Veneto but spent almost all his long working life in Rome, at the heart of a city that, for a few decades from about 1750, shaped European art and architecture. In his defence of all things Roman, Piranesi was more Roman than the Romans.
No one knew more about ancient or modern Rome, its buildings, monuments, history and archaeology, than Piranesi did, and in this he had a huge advantage over his aesthetic adversaries, who had taken to arguing that the civilisation of Rome was but a pale reflection of the glory that was Greece. The most famous proponent of this argument was Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who never set foot in Greece. When he wrote his Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke (‘Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works’) in 1755, Winckelmann had not even been to Rome. It must be admitted that this sort of thing seems not to have been a drawback in the 18th century: in 1722 Jonathan Richardson produced a guidebook to the arts in Italy without ever leaving London.
When Winckelmann did arrive in Rome at the end of 1755, his knowledge of what was or was not authentically Greek art was still shaky. He was not alone in this. Personal knowledge of Greece was in limited supply at this time. It was the idea of Greek art that appealed to Winckelmann and those of a like mind. Its principal attraction was what he perceived as its edle Einfalt (‘noble simplicity’). And of course simplicity is what you seldom get in Rome, and never in Piranesi’s work.
Piranesi became aware of the first stirrings of arguments in favour of Greece around 1750 through a couple of French publications. One of the drawings here dating from that time celebrates how Romans delighted in such un-Greek forms as arches, curves and coffering. Piranesi sarcastically inscribed it ‘Example of the abuse the Romans have made of the Greek manner’. He was then provoked into further action by a young French architect, Julien-David Le Roy, of the Académie de France in Rome, whose Les ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grèce of 1758 argued for the primacy of Greek over Roman architecture.
In Le Roy, Piranesi knew he was taking on someone with a reputation for being as difficult as himself. The amiable director of the Académie de France in Rome, Charles-Joseph Natoire, noted Le Roy’s ‘haughty temperament and his less than docile character’. He might just as well have been describing Piranesi, and Le Roy possessed a similar amount of energy, recording the Athenian ruins at breakneck speed. In July 1755, a little more than a year after sailing for Athens, Le Roy was back in Rome and, as Natoire observed, ‘full of conceit’.
Le Roy’s publication hit a particular nerve, because it came just two years after Piranesi completed a series of majestic prints celebrating Roman antiquities, the Antichità Romane. Piranesi’s response to Le Roy’s Les ruines was another luxurious set of prints of the kind that he alone could produce, accompanied by a dense polemical text, Della magnificenza ed architettura de’ Romani. These works appeared in 1761. Piranesi even deployed Le Roy’s illustrations alongside his own as a way of demonstrating the richness of Roman design compared with Greek examples.
Piranesi’s inventiveness and energy never flagged. As time passed he became much less interested in the Rome versus Greece controversy and more confident in his own luxuriant eclecticism, which happily incorporated Roman, Greek, Etruscan and Egyptian forms. Piranesi published in the last year of his life what is, even by his own standards, a supremely original array of designs intended to demonstrate his credo, the Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcofaghi of 1778. At the same time, together with his son, Francesco, he brought out his hauntingly romantic prints of the Greek ruins at Paestum, Différentes vues de … l’ancienne Ville de Pesto. It was a paradoxical way to have ended his career, as it did more than any other publication to persuade the world of the beauty of Greek architecture. But then, as Piranesi pointed out, Paestum was in Italy.
By this time, Piranesi had already had a decisive impact on British architecture and design. His influence is most evident in the decidedly eclectic work of Robert Adam, who had learned so much from Piranesi during his time in Rome from 1755 to 1757, and with whom he appears to have remained in touch. But what of Piranesi’s own architecture? After all, he referred to himself all his life as ‘Giambattista Piranesi Architetto’. Well, there is only one built example of a Piranesi design, and it will be familiar to almost every traveller to Rome without knowing it. Visitors to the church of Santa Maria del Priorato on the Aventine Hill are usually far too distracted by the sight of the dome of St Peter’s perfectly framed through the keyhole of Piranesi’s monumental gate (a trick that Piranesi planned) to look at the square in which they are crouching, let alone the adjoining church. All of it, piazza, gate, walls, garden and church, was designed by Piranesi in 1764–5 for his fellow Venetian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Rezzonico.
Getting into the church can be a pain, but the facade is a masterpiece on its own, a brilliant vindication of everything that Piranesi argued for with such passion. The decorations, when you look at them carefully, reveal themselves to be unlike those on any church you have ever seen. It is as though one of Piranesi’s wonderful drawings has suddenly turned into stone. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.