Melburnin’ April 2014
The satellite exhibition The Piranesi Effect at the Ian Potter Museum of Art (until 24 May, 2014), curated by Jenny Long, looks at the influence and intersection of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s work in the practice of seven contemporary artists. A further twenty-eight framed Piranesi works and four bound volumes drawn from the University of Melbourne’s Art Collection, the Baillieu Library Print Collection and Rare Book Collection, the State Library of Victoria, Hamilton Art Gallery, and private lenders are arranged along one wall.
Piranesi’s Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), sixteen prints published between 1750 and 1761, has long been the subject of fascination and debate. Produced as capricci, architectural fantasies using various elements in fictional combinations, they depict enormous subterranean caverns with no discernible entrance, exit, or light source. Winding staircases climb out of the frame. Galleries, towers and vaulting roof structures loom over ropes, pulleys, wheels, steam vents, furnaces and great machines. The purpose of this fierce industry, the (largely indistinct) overseers, and the fate of the captive workforce remains ambiguous, but the sinister and claustrophobic undercurrent is palpable. The Carceri are Piranesi’s most psychologically complex works; expressive perhaps of a deep inner turmoil, the feeling of being oppressed by the patronage system within which he was obliged to work, or used as a metaphor for his views about contemporary political structures and exploitative socio-economic conditions.
Harkening back to ancient Rome, the Carceri could conceivably be a representation of Tartarus, the deep abyss within Hades where the souls of the sinful and impious are condemned to torture and suffering. Of this influential suite, Prisoners on a Platform (Plate X) (c.1750) can be seen at the Keith Murdoch Gallery in folio form, while four prints are included at the Potter.
The Well (Plate XIII) and Pier With Chains (Plate XVI) (both 1761) are echoed in the polystyrene sculptures of Maori artist Peter Robinson, whose work explores the interplay of seemingly discordant elements. Dominating the central floor-space, Bound (2007-08) is a series of interlocking links draped with chains of differing sizes. Nearby, Minimal Baroque (2007-08) resembles a white boulder hung with a curtain of discarded chains, as though some sort of mass break-out of inmates has occurred.
Ten works on paper (1994-2011) by Rick Amor add to this sense of unease and isolation, with stark environments populated by a few random figures, if at all. The Ship (2003) and Desolate Place (2004) both show a single darkened vessel standing idle, perched like a sentry looking down over unpopulated docks with crumbling structures devoid of any signs of industry. Amor was introduced to Piranesi’s work via reproductions in art books brought home by his sister, and first saw original impressions when he was a student at the National Gallery of Victoria’s art school, where he enrolled in 1966. He was principally interested in the prints from the Vedute di Roma, and the way in which Piranesi uses lighting effects, scale and spatial ambiguity to disconcert the viewer.
This can be seen in Amor’s atmospheric Ithaca (2010-11), home of the mythological hero Odysseus in the Ionian Sea, which has a brooding, ominous quality. What appears to be a temple complex stands sombre and abandoned, great slabs of stone toppled over amidst an already rock strewn outcrop. Though Amor does not share Piranesi’s delight in luxuriant undergrowth, the work bears some resemblance to Frontispiece with statue of Minerva (1748-78) hanging opposite, and Vue des restes de la Celle du Temple de Neptune (View of the remains of the cella of the temple of Neptune) (1778).
A range of small figurative works, vases, and miscellaneous objects from the University’s Classics and Archaeology Collection, comprising Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities, serve to represent the kind of objects that travellers on the Grand Tour would have purchased to display in their libraries alongside the volumes of Piranesi. From 1761 until his death, Piranesi occupied the former palazzo of Count Tomati on the Strada Felice (now Via Sistina), which also housed his printing workshop and a museo (a showroom of antiquities). This was extensively patronised by Grand Tourists in search of prints, interior design pieces and statuary, some of which Piranesi had restored, others were classically-inspired hybrid pieces. To assist their deliberations, Piranesi issued new publications that complemented the merchandise available from his museo such as Diverse Maniered’ adornare i cammini (Various Ways of Decorating Apartments) (1769) and Vasi, Candelabri, Cippi (Urns, Candelabras, Pillars) (1778).
Multidisciplinary artist Andrew Hazewinkel’s recent body of work questions how objects of antiquity might be re-imagined and used towards a discourse about contemporary society. “Both [my] works present twists and turns in how history might be constructed, read and re-read. The same can be said of much of Piranesi’s œuvre when we consider both the formal aspects and economic implications of his practice. In many ways, Piranesi is the first ‘mash-up’ artist”, he quips. “I have always found a profound sense of dread in the work Piranesi and identified with his interest in cycles of burial and exhumation; which to me reveal a circling sense of monumental melancholy. Piranesi always presents this to us with a simultaneous air of appreciative and detailed wonder”.
Two Figures (after Caillois) (2013) derives from recastings Hazewinkel made from an 1885 plaster cast, created for use in the drawing exercises integral to a nineteenth century art school education, that he sourced from a Sydney opportunity shop in 2013. The 1885 ‘original’ that Hazewinkel has worked with is a detail of the polychrome terracotta bust of the Gonfaloniere Niccolò da Uzzano (1359-1431) in the collection of the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. This famous bust bears a clear relationship to the formal and civic portraiture of imperial Rome. The title refers to the French intellectual and philosopher Roger Caillois (1913-78), a founding member of the College of Sociology (Collège de Sociologie) during the interwar period, whose work covered subjects as diverse as animal behaviour, Game studies, and the sacred.
Caillois developed a theory about the hidden language of stones, specifically ‘image bearing stones’, which combined geology with mysticism. His collection of geological samples was recently exhibited in the Encyclopaedic Palace (Il Palazzo Enciclopedico) at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013). Hazewinkel has been using polished agate as a material for some time, and is quite aware of its popularity during the Roman Empire, both for decorative purposes, and as a more personal adornment in jewellery and hard-stone signet rings. He uses slices of it here for the faces of these figures, literally image bearing, “… affixed to the recast reinterpretations of an ancient past, they address each other across the space occupied by the contemporary viewer, absurd, mute in conversation and melancholy”.
These companion busts are reminiscent of Piranesi’s Antiquus Bivii Viarium Appiae et Ardeatinae prospectus (View of the Junction of the Appian and Ardeatine Ways) (1756), from the Baillieu Library’s Special Collections, but displayed as part of Rome: Piranesi’s Vision at the State Library of Victoria. In this plate, numerous examples of statuary and monumental stonework, some of it broken and in a state of disrepair, form part of the Catacombs of Rome on the Via Appia Antica (Old Appian Way), the main highway leading south from Rome. Various tombs, churches, the decaying ‘Crypt of the Popes’ and the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella, the subject of another Piranesi etching (1756), are reconstructed as a fantastical cityscape.
Perhaps with this work in mind, Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford (1717-97) wrote in his Some Anecdotes of Painting in England (1762) that Piranesi, “has imagined scenes that would startle geometry, and exhaust the Indies to realise. He piles palaces on bridges, and temples on palaces, and scales Heaven with mountains of edifices”. Hazewinkel concurs, “In this particular work of Piranesi’s, I find a sense of someone wildly drunk on history, pouring together pasts, inventing new forms of intoxication. This is interesting to consider both philosophically and in the commercial context of the Grand Tour, which provided much of Piranesi’s clientele. Visually this work presents a junction of two roads, yet the imagery makes me think of the exquisite turbulence often found at the confluence of two rivers; the site where forces do not so much collide, [as] rather mingle, creating a new force”.
Untitled (Julia Acquilia Severa) (2013) is a close-up of the full-length bronze figure (c.221-222, AD) found in Sparta, Lakonia, and housed in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Iulia Aquilia Severa, daughter of the consul Quintus Aquilius, was the second (and fourth) wife of the short-lived Roman Emperor Elagabalus (Heliogabalus) (c. 203-222) whose controversial reign ended in his assassination. Severa was also a Vestal Virgin, so her marriage to the Emperor (after which the praenomen of Iulia/Julia was conferred) was considered to be a great affront to Roman law on the grounds that Vestals took a vow of chastity. The punishment for breaking this vow was immurement, as a Vestal could not be executed, but the brief marriage was annulled by the Emperor. Elagabalus then married the noblewoman and heiress Annia Aurelia Faustina, whom he divorced in under a year, only to re-marry Severa.
Owing to the controversial nature of her marriage, and Elagabalus’ disregard for Roman religious traditions and sexual taboos, Hazewinkel wondered if the brutally damaged statue of Severa had fallen victim to the practice of damnatio memoriae (‘damnation of memory’). This posthumous condemnation of public figures – the elite, emperors, and their close family – involved the defacement of images and sculptural representations of these individuals. In this instance, the poor condition of the statue is stated to be as the result of a fire in the building in which it was erected, which then collapsed. Hazewinkel is not particularly convinced, “I cannot however get away from a sense of intent in the damage wrought upon this figure … for me this image talks about violence in its many forms; visible subjective violence, and invisible symbolic and systemic violence … the personal violence we see in our daily news feeds, and the kind that Walter Benjamin called ‘Mythic Violence’. In some ways this image speaks less about Julia’s time and more about ours”.
Other artists included are Michael Graf, Simon Terrill, Mira Gojak and Jan Senbergs. Grimwade & Annex Galleries, The Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne, Swanston Street, Parkville (VIC) – art-museum.unimelb.edu.au
At the ninth annual FotoLeggendo exposition in October last year, Italian photographer Graziano Panfili was the recipient of the Giovanni Tabò Award (2013) for the portfolio They are among us (Sono tra noi), which explored both the fascination and foreboding generated by the prospect of extraterrestrial visitation. For his first exhibition in Australia, A Traveller’s Dream: Piranesi and Rome (until 30 April, 2014), Panfili takes viewers on a somewhat different narrative journey.
Commissioned by the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, the forty photographs are intended to provide a contemporary counterpoint to Piranesi’s views of Rome and its environs. Dispersed around the Institute, based at historic Elm Tree House (built in 1853), the majority of the works deftly echo the locations and monuments depicted in the earlier prints. “I already knew Piranesi’s work fairly well thanks to my artistic studies. I also used to draw a lot, I collaborated with architecture studios, and I worked with hand-drawn perspectives a lot too. I know a lot of drawing techniques and this allowed me to better get into the Vedute di Roma”, says Panfili. The topography and character of the ‘Eternal City’ has altered radically over the centuries, and particularly from the Late Baroque-to-Rococo period of Piranesi. The challenge for Panfili was to recapture that indeterminate and ‘timeless’ quality that makes the Vedute so compelling, “Piranesi’s etchings were a starting point – the framings he used, his compositions – but many of the perspectives he etched can no longer be represented today because everything has changed …”
Panfili’s gauzy images are suffused with a golden warmth, like the blush of the late afternoon sun; achieved not by digital trickery, but by employing a customised filter in front of the camera lens. This distinctive effect creates harmony within a series of views encompassing both the grandiose ancient structures and picturesque ruins, and their often unsympathetic, hard-edged modern counterparts. It also helped alleviate a major challenge any photographer in Rome inevitably faces: crowds, traffic, signage, and other visual distractions. “I wanted the scenes to be as free from these elements as possible, and for them to take me back to a time closer to the views of Piranesi. As I was composing the image, I kept the elements that created too much disturbance out of the frame”, Panfili comments. “I tried to shoot on days and at times of the day when very few people were around, but even so, in some places, like the Roman Forum, there were always tourists. To solve this problem, I positioned a kind of coloured transparency in front of the lens, which created a ‘vignetting’ and out-of-focus effect, and made everything at the edges of the photo more dream-like and less defined”.
Panfili includes a number of images of Hadrian’s Villa (Villa Adriana) at Tivoli, which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999. Constructed for the Emperor Hadrian (76-138, AD) it was a complex of over thirty buildings covering an area of at least one square kilometre, most of it still awaiting excavation. Piranesi made expeditions to Tivoli and surrounding sites many times in the 1760s, to sketch, and also to search for decorative antique fragments either to sell in his museo, or incorporate into designs. He was often accompanied on these visits by his friend, the architectural draughtsman and artist Charles-Louis Clérisseau (1721-1820). Such was his fondness for the Villa, Piranesi twice left his name and a date on surfaces, areas now out of bounds to the ordinary tourist. Panfili first shot a portfolio of images there in 2012, “[It] was an assignment for an Italian weekly magazine, where a specific vision was required. In my project, however, I turned everything on its head, interpreting the Villa through my own artistic vision … [it] is a magical place and lends itself to a thousand different visions. It is like a temporal jump in history”.
A striking side view of the Colosseum with its armour of scaffolding represents a kind of mergence of the ancient and the modern aspects of Rome’s architectural landscape. Panfili takes up this theme in thirteen images of the more recent additions to Rome’s visual character such as the ‘Settimia Spizzichino’ Ostiense Bridge, the Torre Europarco skyscraper, the National Museum of XXI Century Arts (known as MAXXI) designed by Zaha Hadid and, strikingly, Rome’s mosque. The Parco della Musica Auditorium is a particularly appropriate subject, as its construction was delayed by a year when excavations uncovered the foundations of a villa and oil press dating from the sixth century BC. Architect Renzo Piano redesigned the facility to accommodate the archaeological remains and house the recovered artifacts.
“After about three months of work around Rome, I asked myself what Piranesi might have etched if he had been in Rome today and from then on, I looked at everything with a different eye”, Panfili reveals. “I used the ‘Stanislavski system’ as it is known in theatre, trying to really put myself in Piranesi’s shoes and see through his eyes the places that he would have considered interesting to etch today … You have to be ‘curious’. In every city I go to, I try as much as possible to breathe in its sounds, colours, faces, traffic … then I get lost photographically inside the places, and shoot”.
(Graziano Panfili’s responses translated by Lisa Golden from OnOff Picture).
Inga Walton is a writer and arts consultant based in Melbourne who contributes to numerous Australian and international publications. She has submitted copy, of an increasingly verbose nature, to Trouble since 2008. She is under the impression that readers are not morons with a short attention span, and would like to know lots of things.