The more than a thousand prints produced by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Venice, 1720−Rome, 1778) are the work of a passionate architect with a painter’s eye who only expressed his creativity in etched plates. A universal master of printmaking, Piranesi earned a reputation as the best visual chronicler of Rome with his scenic views combining the Baroque city with the urban landscape of ancient monumental ruins. In Vedute di Roma (1748−78), the city is a setting for everyday life, which unfolds oblivious to the imposing presence of the architecture rendered in detail by Piranesi with his masterful command of perspective and volumes and painterly effects that create a heightened atmosphere. In contrast, in Le antichità romane (1756), the descriptive and topographic views of Rome are a reminder of a forgotten past and, above all, a pre-Romantic tribute to ruins. In this almost fictious city Piranesi is an antiquarian who collects architectural and decorative testimonies – the basis of his inventions – as he later did in his Descrizione e disegno dell’Emissario del Lago Albano (1762).
But prevailing over Piranesi the etcher of novel Roman vedute who enjoyed extraordinary commercial success during his lifetime is the Piranesi who produced the famous Carceri d’invenzione (c. 1749−50 and 1761). These impossible, colossal, sombre, unsettling, silent, and solitary spaces from which there is no escape were not real prisons or designs but the product of the artist’s boundless imagination.
The small selection of prints on show in this exhibition comes from the series that was acquired in Rome in the late 1700s by the Real Academia de San Carlos and is now on deposit at the Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia. It offers visitors a brief peek inside the universe of this visionary artist, a forerunner of an artistic freedom which, except for Goya’s work, did not return until well into the 1800s and was championed by the avant-garde.
Image: G. B. Piranesi, The Smoking Fire, etching. Carceri d’invenzione, VI, 1761 (2ª ed.)
Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia (Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Carlos de Valencia Collection)