From The Imaginary Prisons (1761)
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The Arts of Piranesi, on view at the San Diego Museum of Art until July 7. 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park, 619-232-7931; sdmart.org

You can’t always get what you want, and you can’t always determine what history will make of your achievements. Giovanni Battista Piranesi, one of the most ambitious, unstoppably busy artists of the mid 18th Century — he once said, “If I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would have the mad courage to undertake the task” — aspired to be a great architect, and he had all the gifts, but he never built an original building. He’s remembered now mostly for engravings of architectural, archeological, and decorative motifs. One of the subjects he returned to, ruins, have made him especially compelling to us. Modern history is landmarked with grotesquely eloquent ruins (Dresden, Berlin, Hiroshima, Lower Manhattan), and the visual arts, especially motion pictures, have drawn often from Piranesi’s images of eerie debris-scapes and prisons. Movies such as Metropolis, Dark City, The Lord of the Rings, and The Dark Knight derived their design in part from Piranesi’s hoard of haunted spaces.

Born in 1720 in Mogliano Veneto, a small city about ten miles from Venice, Piranesi apprenticed with an uncle, an engineer with a special interest in excavation. At age 20, Piranesi went to Rome in the hope of someday being commissioned to design a building, but the one major architectural job in his lifetime would be a church renovation. In Rome, however, he also learned etching, which would lead to the portfolios of engravings that defined his career and future reputation. By 1743, Piranesi was out of money and back in Venice, seeking commissions and working on his first major project, a series of views — vedute — of modern and ancient Rome.

There was money in vedute, especially works on paper, since they were much in demand by tourists and by collectors who couldn’t afford paintings. The best known vedutisti, and Piranesi’s grand predecessors, were the Venetians Canaletto and Francesco Guardi. The classic veduta depicted a well-observed, characteristic local scene; the capriccio, a kind of fantasy veduta, mixed correct architectural structures in odd combinations, like Canaletto’s drawing of St. Peter’s in Rome rising above the Doge’s Palace in Venice; and the veduta ideata (or imaginary view) combined naturalistic and fantastical structures.

Ancient Mausoleum Erected for the Ashes of a Roman Emperor (1750)

Ancient Mausoleum Erected for the Ashes of a Roman Emperor (1750)

In 1743, Piranesi published his first independent edition of 12 plates, titled Prima Parte di Architetture, e Prospettive (Architectural Forms and Perspectives: Part One). One of these fabulous things, Ancient Mausoleum Erected for the Ashes of a Roman Emperor, announces the scale of his work to come. The mausoleum is an architectural colossus, a gigantic three-tiered confection of niches, urns, pilasters, pillars, statues, and archways, with swags of vegetation sprouting in unexpected places. Piranesi had a fanatical enthusiasm for the ruins of Roman antiquity that he saw all around him, and a romance grew up between him and them. In the dedication of Prima Parte, he says that he was inspired by queste parlanti ruine, “these speaking ruins,” and when there were no actual ruins to observe, he invented them. An expansive selection of these and other of Piranesi’s projects are on view in The Arts of Piranesi, currently at the San Diego Museum of Art.

In 1748 Piranesi began one of his most influential series of engravings, the Vedute di Roma, which he worked on till his death in 1778. The frontispiece shows chunks of archeological wreckage — broken statuary, crumbling bridges, cracked wall inscriptions — with gross eruptions of scruffy greenery. Piranesi started out aspiring to compete with the architects of antiquity, but his real accomplishment was to represent for posterity an accurate, if embellished, archive of Rome’s most significant monuments. His view of the Piazza del Popolo, with its sweeping public thoroughfare and twin side-by-side churches — an obelisk rises like a measuring stick through the center of the composition — represents it as an urban delta, rivering roads of dust streaming to and around the churches, the streets busy with carriages and merchants and workers and soldiers. It’s a rhapsodic architectural illustration and has a liquidity of the ruined past (fallen pillars under the obelisk look like restless sleepers) running through a recently established Roman Catholic present.

The exhibition lets us check Piranesi’s inventiveness by matching many of his images to photographs taken over recent years by Gabriele Basilico, who made a series of pictures of the vedute that Piranesi illustrated. Basilico’s Rome isn’t quite as strewn with fragmented antiquities, and his photos lack the awe before architectural grandeur that Piranesi obviously felt and celebrated. A couple of Basilico’s pictures offer the more common contemporary sight in Rome — the scaffolding and netting that grip buildings like the Pantheon that are in restauro. (It has been the fate of this raucous modern city to be always in restauro.) Compare Piranesi’s heroical representation of that house of worship to Basilico’s more discreet, inquisitive, squared-away version.

The Arts of Piranesi isn’t easy to take in. It doesn’t have the wraparound pleasures and splash of painting exhibitions. The works, mostly black-and-white and sepia, are installed in somber galleries, and the deployment has a processional rigor. (I felt like I was viewing the troops.) The rigor is appropriate, though, since Piranesi was a fastidious topographer and cartographer. His overhead maps of the Campo Marzio and other areas of ancient Rome, as well as his schematics for various waterway projects and infrastructure details like sewer channels, pipes, and viaducts, will provide a little bit of historical heaven for viewers interested in engineering and city planning. The splash, what there is of it, comes toward the end. Piranesi left behind many unexecuted drawings of décor, of chimney-pieces, chairs, urns, tripods, and other domestic accoutrements. His designs have recently been digitally remodeled so that his intentions could be realized, as with a candelabrum and an altar basin that challenge our sense of visual surfeit. The giddy shocker is a gilded Grotto chair with scallop-shell back and whorling arms. For Piranesi, elaboration ruled, and excess barely sufficed.

One modern critic called this artist “the Rembrandt of Ruins.” His imagination was at ease in sumptuous desolation, especially when it depicted the Roman past coexisting with an imaginary disintegrated present. In a capriccio grottesco included in his 1750 Opere Varie (a grottesco included fantastically exotic, monstrous elements), in an overlit background a swirling cloudy darkness frames Rome’s Triumphal Arch and, in the foreground, a cataclysm commands our attention: ferocious vegetation squirms from stones and broken pillars and musical instruments while human figures haul around remnants of a ruptured civilization. All this dust-enraptured ruination creates a barbarously elegant scene.

In another engraving, Piranesi depicts the ancient Appian Way as an open-air archeological warehouse, a boulevard packed tight with ewers, urns, statuary, and ornaments. (He lived in the first great age of modern archeology: extensive excavations were taking place in Herculaneum, near Naples.) In Skeletons, a boneyard is strewn with burial shrouds, tombs, and architectural fragments, and bestriding this mess of mortality are over-muscled human figures overseeing their own fatedness. I think Piranesi’s obsession with the streaming of the past into the present went perfectly with his love for architectural elaborations that extend endlessly into imagined space. In his fantasy of a harbor scene, for instance, the piers that meet the turbulent waters — along with imperial staircases and platforms and passageways — lead us into a parable of indeterminable destinations.

This indeterminateness saturates Piranesi’s most famous work, the Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), a series of 16 prints that don’t so much depict humans suffering in confinement as they depict the stupendous oppressiveness and unendingness of spaces and structures that articulate such confinement. What oppresses, in other words, is the unfinished incompleteness of the housing, as if torment and isolation were constantly reinventing their means. It’s the tyranny of the invisible. In the great vaulted spaces of the Carceri, delirium and unreason are given carefully, madly elaborated structures composed of gangways, platforms, chains and pulleys, shattered masonry, archways and bridgeworks to nowhere, turrets and tunnels, observation decks, ropes and racks and pikes and, tucked into shadowy recesses, the prisoners themselves, whose despair can be calculated by the spaces that contain and miniaturize them. The figures, phantasmal emanations crosshatched into shape, seem there and not there.

I think the Carceri was primarily a thrilling adventure in exploring space and the theatricality of evil, with emphasis on the theatrical; by the time he etched them, Piranesi was an expert in Venetian set design. But you can’t always control what your successors will make of your work. Romantic writers — De Quincey and Coleridge, most famously — took up the prison imagery as an externalized representation of the sufferings of the inner life. But it was a much later writer, Marguerite Yourcenar, author of the great Memoirs of Hadrian, who stated most strongly how Piranesi’s soaringly oppressive confinements are the visual expression of “the key features of the dream state: the denial of time, the unevenness of space, the hints at levitation, the intoxication of the impossible reconciled or overcome, the absence of visible links between the participants or characters in the dream, and finally the fatal and inevitable beauty.”

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