Giovanni Battista Piranesi

From Academic Kids

Giovanni Battista (also Giambattista) Piranesi (4th October 1720 in Mogliano Veneto (near Treviso) - 9th November 1778 in Rome) was an Italian artist famous for his etchings of Rome and of fictitious "prisons".

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Etching of the Pyramid of Cestius

Piranesi studied his art at Rome, where the remains of that city kindled his enthusiasm and demanded portrayal. His hand faithfully imitated the actual remains of a fabric; his invention, catching the design of the original architect, supplied the missing parts; his skill introduced groups of vases, altars, tombs; and his broad and scientific distribution of light and shade completed the picture, and threw a striking effect over the whole. He executed one engraving after another with much brilliancy; and, as the work went on, the zeal of the artist only waxed stronger. In course of time he found it necessary to call in the aid of all his children, and of several pupils. He did not, in fact, slacken in his exertions till his death in 1778.

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The Arch of Trajan at Beneventum as it appeared in the 18th century.

Piranesi's son and coadjutor, Francesco, collected and preserved his plates, in which the freer lines of the etching-needle largely supplemented the severity of burin work. Twenty nine folio volumes containing about 2000 prints appeared in Paris (1835 - 1837).


Influence of Piranesi

His reproductions of real and recreated Roman ruins were a strong influence in Neoclassicism.

The "prisons" (Carceri di invenzione) show enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and mighty machines. These in turn influenced Romanticism and Surrealism.

The style of Piranesi was imitated by 20th-century forger Eric Hebborn.

Opinions on Piranesi

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Piranesi, Le Carceri one of a series of etchings

Thomas De Quincey in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1820) wrote the following:

Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi's Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist ... which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever: some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr. Coleridge's account) representing vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, etc., etc., expressive of enormous power put forth, and resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls, you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further, and you perceive it come to a sudden abrupt termination, without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who had reached the extremity, except into the depths below. ... But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher: on which again Piranesi is perceived, but this time standing on the very brink of the abyss. Again elevate your eye, and a still more aerial flight of stairs is beheld: and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labors: and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall. ...


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