Davis Museum at Wellesley College
Perhaps Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s best-known work, the Vedute di Roma print series was completed over the course of more than three decades, from 1747 until the artist’s death in 1778. This exhibition focuses on Piranesi’s views of Roman memorial monuments and on 18th century approaches to antiquity, along with his contributions to the scholarly advancement of Roman architecture in the nascent field of art history. It also orients Piranesi’s Roman Vedute within the context of print culture and in relation to the Grand Tour.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.
Whether or not you go, Piranesi: The Complete Etchings presents the prints of he most famous 18th-century copper engraver, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) who made his name with etchings of ancient Rome. His startling, chiaroscuro images imbued the city’s archaeological ruins with drama and romance and became favorite souvenirs for the Grand Tourists who travelled Italy in pursuit of classical culture and education.
Today, Piranesi is renowned not just for shaping the European imagination of Rome but also for his elaborate series of fanciful prisons Carceri d’Invenzione, which have influenced generations of creatives since, from the Surrealists to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe, Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka.In his own day, he was most celebrated for his Vedute, 137 etchings of ancient and modern Rome; so renowned were these startling and dramatic chiaroscuro images, imbued with Piranesi’s romantic feeling for archaeological ruins, that they formed the mental picture of Rome for generations after. Indeed, Piranesi could be said to have shaped a whole strain of contemporary architecture, as well as the wider visualization of antiquity itself
Loosely based on contemporary stage sets rather than the actual dingy dungeons of Piranesi’s day, these intricate images defy architectural reality to play instead with perspective, lighting, and scale. Staircases exist on two planes simultaneously; vast, vaulted ceilings seem to soar up to the heavens; interior and exterior distinctions collapse. With a low viewpoint and small, fragile figures, the prison scenes become monstrous mega-cities of incarceration, celebrated to this day as masterworks of existentialist drama.