Ruins and Reconstructions, Dreams and Nightmares in the 18th century

Last week we showed the detail of a 3D print of one of Piranesi’s designs, which is part of the current exhibition at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London that celebrates Piranesi’s manifold design sketches and architectural fantasies — the genre of drawing was called the „cappriccio“ . The Soane’s Museum, like a handful of other museums (such as Yale’s Peabody Museum) is spearheading the explorations into the world of 3D-printing technology applications in art, that has taken the headlines by storm several times in the last few years, mostly by reporting news of the 3D printing applications in science.

Piranesi’s graphic meditations upon Rome mix proto-romantic imagery of nature and wilderness with the ruins of Rome, if they don’t happen to be pictorially re-imagining a reconstruction of the Roman ruins and seeking to restore the buildings to completeness. Piranesi’s illustrations of a reconstructed and re-imagined Rome offer unusual and somewhat unfamiliar impressions of Rome, because the depiction of Rome as a city of ruins is by a long way more common. Although here and there an artist might have, like Piranesi, sought to imagine an un-ruined Rome, by contrast, the practice of illustrating, painting, or drawing the ruins of Rome flourished and gained wide popularity over a course of time. Roman ruins as a theme in painting reached a peak of admiration and publicity in the later eighteenth century, through painters like Pannini, Canaletto and indeed Piranesi, who together are now subsumed under the name „Vedutisti“ („view-painters“). It coincided, of course with the same epoch when the grand tour was in vogue, antiquarianism, amateur archaeology, and commissioning or inspecting excavations during a trip to the Mediterranean was a fashionable passion of the well-to-do.

Piranesi’s sketches and drawings of the ruins of Rome thus fall within a then extremely popular motif for illustration — which also extended to drawing or painting — the motif of Roman ruins, that celebrated the period’s ideals of pre-industrial cultural refinement and nourished many other dreams, reaching far beyond an interest in Rome and rather turning the Roman ruins into symbolic objects representing certain ideas or feelings to modern man. As Roland Mayer writes: „The taste for Rome’s ruins grew slowly through the medieval period. It snowballed in the eighteenth century, when northern visitors to Italy felt the need to decorate the parks and gardens back home with fake ruins“.

This being said, Piranesi also had a very different and much darker streak in his creative work, as his graphic legacy also includes a richly filled portfolio of sketches depicting imaginary prisons in subterranean vaults and lead the viewer into a distorted and ghoulish world of incubus-like corridors and beast-like machinery, claustrophobic yet enormous Escher-like spaces of illusion and imprisonment. These series, subsumed under the name „Carceri“ (which means „prisons“ in Italian) have had an afterlife of their own, standing in a genealogical line with works of art that betoken an altogether different thematic preoccupation, different aesthetic leanings, a different outlook on life, where the darkness of prisons and workhouses, alcoholism and overcrowded conditions are at the center of artistic portrayals. This genre, which has had manifold ramifications in the art and literature into the 19th and 20th centuries, certainly merits a separate reflection, with beginnings of which I hope to report back next week!