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troublemag | July 7, 2022

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When in Rome: Piranesi Captivates Melbourne

When in Rome: Piranesi Captivates Melbourne


“An artist who would do himself honour, and acquire a name, must not content himself with copying faithfully the ancients, but studying their work he ought to show himself of an inventive, and I had almost said, of a Creating Genius.”

– Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1769).


The largest exhibition of works from Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78) to be staged in Australia opened to the public during White Night Melbourne at the State Library of Victoria’s Keith Murdoch Gallery. Dr. Colin Holden, Fellow of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, has curated Rome: Piranesi’s Vision (until 22 June, 2014). It brings together nearly sixty works and seven bound volumes from the engraver and printmaker widely regarded as the most important of the eighteenth century, and indeed the greatest architectural artist in history.


Holden’s research as the 2010 Redmond Barry Fellow, a joint program of the State Library of Victoria and the University of Melbourne, led to the creation of this exhibition. “The location of the largest holdings of his works in Australia may also come as a surprise – not our art galleries, but our libraries. Piranesi would probably have taken this for granted. Many of his prints appeared as illustrations in books, while collectors often had his other prints bound into folios at their own expense”, he remarks. “At this point I hope that [audiences] will grow in their awareness of, and pride in, the holdings of our public collections, particularly in Melbourne. This treasure is their inheritance, as the long record of free access to libraries, galleries and museums demonstrates”.


Indeed, it was Holden’s advice to the Library conservation team regarding one of the volumes of Piranesi’s renowned Vedute di Roma that led to such an abundant display. “You can see almost fifty of his most commercially successful works in his lifetime … as a result of a question I raised about the future health and welfare of a beautiful group of these big format etchings (133 of 135). They were in a terrible binding … it wasn’t a case of taking them out of a beautiful eighteenth century binding, [but] a very badly preserved nineteenth century binding, and if you picked it up the wrong way and dropped it on the floor you might have done some damage, serious damage”, he relates. In a move that distinguishes this particular exhibition from any other of Piranesi’s works thus far in Australia, the decision was taken to dismantle the binding and remove the prints. “Well immediately you had the biggest collection of that whole series (loose) in the country, and that’s the core that you’re seeing when you see largely landscape-format prints of Rome, whether it’s ancient buildings or the Baroque Rome … the modern Rome of [Piranesi’s] day because you also see that. He understands the buildings of his own time as well as having great passion for the ‘classical’ city”.


Piranesi was born at Molino in the Veneto region. His father Angelo was a master stonemason, and his maternal uncle, Mateo Lucchesi (1705-76), was an architect and hydraulics engineer, involved in the ongoing construction of the sea walls then being built to protect the Venetian islands. Lucchesi’s role as an early mentor seems clear, with the young Piranesi regarding architecture as his real calling when, as a twenty year-old draughtsman, he joined the train of the future Doge, Marco Foscarini (1696-1763), who served as Venice’s ambassador to Pope Benedict XIV (1675-1758) in 1740. Piranesi had evidently hoped to gain employment on the numerous building projects underway in Rome between the 1730s and 1750s, but this did not eventuate. He studied printmaking under the Sicilian Giuseppe Vasi (1710-82) whose works, included in the exhibition, provide some insight into Piranesi’s earlier influences and direction. A handful of architectural prints by Piranesi appeared in the small volume, Roma moderna distinta per Rioni (Contemporary Rome arranged by its suburbs), published in 1741, and he created more vedute (‘views’) in small formats thereafter.


By 1743, Piranesi had published his first independent work, the Prima Parte di Architettura e Prospettive (First Part of Architecture and Perspective). He then contributed forty-eight etchings to a volume published as Varie Vedute di Roma Antica e Moderna (Various Views of Classical and Contemporary Rome) in 1745, which would be reprinted in 1748, the first of a sometimes confusing series of subsequent editions. The success of Antichità Romane de’tempi della Repubblica, e de’primi imperatori (Roman Antiquities from the Time of the Republic and the First Emperors) in 1748, allowed Piranesi to focus solely on his art, which came to encompass not only works on paper but interior design, decorative arts, archaeology, and the restoration of classical antiquities. Dr. Andrew Robison, senior curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and author of several books on the artist, asserts that, “Piranesi’s works are extraordinary in composition, expression, draughtsmanship, tonality, texture and technique – not only in the history of graphic art, but in the history of all the arts. He is surely the most important artist to make his reputation almost entirely on the basis of his prints”.


In 1751, an enlarged Prima Parte, the fantasy etchings Grotteschi (‘Grotesques’) of 1747, and the first thirty-four of the series that would continue to be Piranesi’s most successful, the Vedute di Roma, were combined in the publication Le Magnificenze di Roma (Remarkable Sights of Rome). There was no precedent among the existing series of architectural prints published in Rome for works of this size: almost half a metre by two-thirds of a metre, printed on sheets that were larger again. His international reputation was secured by the lavish and comprehensive four-volume series comprising more than 200 plates, Le Antichità Romane (1756). The following year, the Society of Antiquaries in London made Piranesi a member. This work quickly became an essential item for any collector interested in Roman civilisation, history, and the sites associated with major events and individuals. As art historian Michel Makarius has observed, the point of Piranesi’s work, “which goes far beyond descriptive art, is to place the Roman heritage within a historical perspective that reaches back to its beginnings and projects forward into the future … each plate implicitly testifies to the fact that Roman antiquities are more than vestiges of the past. For those with eyes to see, they bear witness to a magnificenza that can be reinvigorated”.


Piranesi’s principal clientele, and who made up a great proportion of his contemporary audience, were those undertaking the ‘Grand Tour’. Although this group is usually associated with royalty, aristocrats, and the affluent leisured class, it also included gentry, artists, scholars, clergy, pilgrims, architects, and other professionals. They travelled, sometimes for years at a time, in what amounted to an educational and cultural rite of passage; visiting ancient sites and monuments, consulting local experts and private museums, commissioning and buying artworks, collecting artefacts, maps, books, and souvenirs. The fashionable ‘tourist’ would acquire Piranesi’s large format volumes or single-sheet prints directly from his atelier in Rome, from print sellers or book dealers, but also via printed catalogo, such as the one from the publishers Bouchard and Gravier (c.1788) on display. In a handful of the Vedute, Grand Tourists themselves are included in perhaps less-than-flattering poses while inspecting the ruins, such as Veduta di altra parte della Camera Sepolcrale di L. Arrunzio (c. 1750). In other works, rustic figures (ciociari) gesture at the expanse of crumbling buildings as if questioning the display of hubris, or disregard their significance entirely by pillaging or defacing them. In making the human subjects undignified, diminutive, or insignificant, Piranesi points to the triviality of the present age in order to heighten the dignity of the past.


Many of Piranesi’s architectural studies use a dramatically foreshortened view, a technique regularly employed by Baroque stage and set designers in order to create the illusion of large structures in inverse proportion to the physical format. The objects depicted are ostensibly far away, and yet the perspective suggests they are closer to the viewer than is optically possible. The prints themselves often contain a certain level of exaggeration, pictorial overstatement, and imaginative speculation born from Piranesi’s concern to realise the dramatic potential and convey the magnitude of certain buildings. However, this was usually tempered by his careful research and documentation, familiarity with classical texts, and the practical knowledge of design principals that was so much a part of his œuvre.


As his recognition and opportunities expanded, so did Piranesi’s ambition as a printmaker to work on the grandest scale possible. Commanding the main room is the stunning 285 cm fold-out, Veduta del prospetto principale della Colonna Trajana (View of Trajan’s Column) (1774-79), printed from six separate plates, and laid out in a glass cabinet. This predilection for scale could, however, lead to a feeling of anticlimax for some admirers of Piranesi’s works when confronted with the actual sites. Most famously, the German poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) had his ideas of Rome formed from childhood by the set of Piranesi’s Le Antichità Romane in the family home. When he visited Italy between 1786 and 1788, Goethe was somewhat underwhelmed by the reality of the baths of Antoninus and Caracalla and the pyramid of Caius Cestius, which did not live up to Piranesi’s heroic proportions.


In an extended obituary/biography of the artist (1779), the Italian doctor, antiquarian and scholar Giovanni Ludovico Bianconi (1717-81) poetically referred to Piranesi as, “the Rembrandt of the ancient ruins (Rembrandt delle antiche rovine)”. “In writing thus, Bianconi implied that eighteenth century viewers did not see his works just as brilliant etched renderings of buildings. As much as Rembrandt’s portraits, Piranesi’s etchings offered a commentary on the human condition in the face of seemingly impersonal natural forces, and ultimately, death”, Holden believes. “You will not see the ruins treated with the architectural equivalent of Botox and silicone, all ‘tidied up’ and to some extent artificial”. If anything, Piranesi’s works serve as a reminder about the impermanence of so many human endeavours, however vainglorious and overreaching. “His etchings turned architecture into studies of psychological intensity in which buildings became passionate dramatic actors … Piranesi was not a figure artist or portraitist, but I think that there is an extent to which these wonderful ruins, and the modern buildings of his day to some extent as well … stand in place of us. They are great portraits, each building ends up with a personality. I think that there is also something else that is being said at a human level about the passing of time, about mortality, about decay, and about folie de grandeur”.


The election of the Venetian-born Clement XIII (1693-1769) as Pope in 1758 ushered in the high point in Piranesi’s connections with the Holy See. The papacy had ensured the presence of his works in the libraries of the Papal States, they were also acquired to distribute as official gifts, and single sheet prints of the papal portrait always sold well. With book publication in the Italian states throughout the eighteenth century still largely dependent on aristocratic and wealthy patrons, Clement ensured substantial concessions on Piranesi’s paper supplies. He also funded a number of the artist’s publications, including Descrizione e Disegno dell’Emissario del Lago Albano (Description and Drawing of the Outlet of Lake Albano) in 1762. In 1765, Clement created Piranesi a Papal Knight of the Order of the Golden Spur (Ordine dello Speron d’Oro), which entitled him to use the title Cavalier. Piranesi’s long-awaited opportunity to practise as an architect came via the Pope’s nephew, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Rezzonico (1729-83), who invited him to supervise the rebuilding and redecoration of the interior of the Church of St. Mary of the Priory, the monastery church of the Knights of Malta on the Aventine Hill, between 1764 and 1767. (His patron, Rezzonico, would have Piranesi’s remains re-interred there in recognition of his status and contribution).


Several well-chosen loans from the National Gallery of Victoria serve to enhance the printed works, including the marble sculpture Head of Kore (1st century, BC-1st century, AD). Like Piranesi, Bernardo Bellotto (c.1721-80) was born in Venice, the nephew and pupil of Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768). Occupying a central position in the exhibition space, Bellotto’s Ruins of the Forum, Rome (c.1743) depicts the three surviving pillars of the temple of Castor and Pollux (the Dioscuri) standing isolated on the city’s fringes amidst the more modern buildings of the town. Well-dressed Grand Tourists in frock-coats gesticulate with their walking canes as the common folk draw water from an adjacent pump on what was still grazing land. This complements Piranesi’s two reverse views of the same monument from Vedute di Roma, Veduta di Campo Vaccino (View of the ‘Cow Paddock’ [the Forum]) (1765-78). In the tighter rendition, with the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina (141, AD) and the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda visible on the left, herdsmen are watering their cattle before leading them to nearby carts.


Bernardo-BELLOTTO, ‘Ruins-of-the-Forum, Rome’, c.1743.


Piranesi assisted Giovanni Battista (Giambattista) Nolli (1701-56) in 1748 during his lengthy work towards an ichnographic plan of Rome (1736-48). Commissioned at the behest of Benedict XIV, the project resulted in the Pianta Grande di Roma (1748), now universally known as the ‘Nolli Map’. Another advisor to Nolli during this project was the painter Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765), which is probably when he and Piranesi first met. Panini, known as one of the vedutisti (‘view painters’), was popular with the Grand Tourists for his fanciful treatment of ruins. The Cumaean Sibyl Delivering the Oracles (c.1741) included here, refers to the prophetess of Cumae near Naples, familiar to the readers of Virgil as the advisor of the Trojan hero Aeneas. Piranesi’s less fanciful Altra Veduta del tempio della Sibilla in Tivoli (Another View of the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli) (1765-78) depicts the small temple associated with a sibyl who prophesied the coming of Christ to Augustus, a subject he’d tackled previously (c.1761). English artist and caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) provides a near-contemporary satirical view of a group of finely dressed Grand Tourists with High Life in Venice (c.1790). Conscious of their status and immersed in their privileged clique, they stand in conversation outside the Doge’s Palace with their dogs, seemingly oblivious to the sites and the local people who surround them.


Holden singles out the contribution of Megan Atkins, the Exhibition Designer and Producer from the State Library’s Collection Interpretation team, for the lively and evocative look of the exhibition space. The yellow walls, reproduction figurative panels, decorative borders and scrolling flourishes seek to recreate the atmosphere of an eighteenth century print room. “Well from the 1670s down to almost 100 years later, grand houses in Europe often had a room where prints were shown”, he explains. “Not behind glass like we have them now, but pasted directly onto walls and with cut-out frames, cartouches and swags pasted around them, and the walls would be a strong colour which would lift the prints, the black and white, into relief”. Only a handful of examples of this practice have survived the subsequent changes in fashion and interiors, such as those at Blickling Hall (the former estate of the Earls of Buckinghamshire in Norfolk), and at Tullgarn Palace in Sweden, the residence (from 1778 to 1793) of Piranesi collector Prince Frederick Adolf (1750-1803).


Aged only twenty-three, Piranesi described the effect that Rome’s ancient ruins had on him in Prima Parte, “I would only say that these speaking ruins (queste parlanti ruine) have filled my spirit with images of a kind which even the most accurate drawings, such as those by the immortal [Adriano] Palladino [c.1610-80], could never have succeeded in conveying, though I always kept them before my eyes”. Thus, Piranesi acknowledged that his output needed to communicate a certain historical depth, but also that he was sensitive to the ability of art to perpetuate memory. Piranesi is also talking as an artist, someone with the aesthetic vision and confidence to interpret what he sees; to convey the emotional charge of these bygone architectonic wonders, not merely reproduce them. It is for this reason that his sublime works continue to resonate. The ‘speaking ruins’ murmur to us from a realm somewhere between the eroding forms bequeathed by history and re-shaped by circumstance, and Piranesi’s insightful and reconstructive imagination.


Piranesi’s People, a series of ten short films, and Printmaking in Piranesi’s Time, both written and narrated by Colin Holden, run as a forty-minute audio visual loop at the rear of the Gallery. His lavishly illustrated accompanying book, Piranesi’s Grandest Tour: From Europe to Australia (2014), eloquently conveys Piranesi’s continuing influence across a wide range of the visual arts and design, with particular emphasis on the collection practices of Melbourne’s libraries and galleries.


As part of the wider ‘Piranesi Project’, Guerra e Amore (2013), two large-scale hand-printed linocut works by Melbourne-based artist Angela Cavalieri have been installed in the Trescowthick Information Centre (until 15 June, 2014). Cavalieri was the Library’s Creative Fellow (2012-13), “I wanted to create a new body of work that was based on music and art. At first I wasn’t sure how to approach this, but it became obvious that, given my work is text-based and strongly focuses on storytelling, that researching into the State Library of Victoria’s collection would be a valuable place for me to start”, Cavalieri recalls. “I wanted to focus on the music of the early Italian Baroque composer Claudio Monteverde [1567-1643], especially his madrigals, where poetry is put to music. At the State Library, I began exploring Monteverde’s influences and interest in word-painting, where the musical forms reflect the lyrics and the emotions. I focused on the Eighth book, the Madrigals of War and Love (Madrigali dei guerrieri, et amorosi) (1638)”.


Angela Cavalieri, ‘Guerra’ 2013, hand-painted linocut, acrylic, oil on canvas, 290 x 500 cm. Photography: Greg Wallis.


Cavalieri, whose family hails from Calabria, received an Australia Council (Overseas Development) grant to complete an artist residency at the British School at Rome in 2003. During this time, she became interested in the aesthetic and conceptual possibilities of creating images that combined language with architecture. Classical inscriptions are a prevalent feature of Roman buildings and ruins, denoting the importance of the written word in the history and culture of the Empire. In Piranesi’s works we literally see Rome as ‘a city written over’.


“Piranesi has always had a presence through my artistic career and I certainly was continuously exposed to his work both in Europe and here in Melbourne. When looking at Piranesi’s prints at the State Library I felt a strong connection and familiarity to Rome”, Cavalieri notes. “I could identify with the buildings and places he depicted. For me, Piranesi’s buildings and architecture had presence and imaginary possibilities that I wanted to re-invent and use to create my own structures to house the stories of the Madrigals”.


The two prints took over a year to produce, and although Cavalieri’s printmaking process is very different to that of Piranesi, she identifies with the ‘hands on’ manual nature of it. “I also think that, for his time, the scale is very, very impressive and the fold-outs of some of the prints in the bound copies are huge and amazing!” The accompanying short film by Greg Wallis documents Cavalieri’s initial research and sketches, followed by the labour-intensive process of drawing, painting, and carving on the floor of her Brunswick studio. “When I was drawing the text, it all had to be done back-to-front, so then when it’s printed it would be reversed. I spent up to two months working on both the linos, the structure was to house the text so if I didn’t get the drawing right then the whole thing would fall apart eventually …”, she recounts. Seven assistants helped Cavalieri ink-up and position the lino blocks for the canvas to be laid down on top of it, and then burnish and rub the back to facilitate the transfer of the image. “I think the printing process with these prints took about six hours, and it was so good at the end to see it hanging on the wall!”


• Keith Murdoch Gallery & Trescowthick Information Centre, Ground Floor, State Library of Victoria, 328 Swanston Street, Melbourne (VIC) –


• Artist site –


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.