Piranesi and the anxiety of modernity

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Carceri d’Invenzione, 1749, etching, 25 1/16 x 19 7/16 inches

Contributed by Armin Kunz / Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) created innumerable views of ancient and modern (that is, Baroque) Rome that together formed his monumental print cycles “Antichità Romane” and “Vedute di Roma.” They established his fame and lured generations of travelers to the Eternal City. Today, however, he is best known for the series of merely fourteen etchings that was first published in 1749–50 as “Invenzioni Carpric[ci] di Carceri.” Shown here is the title-page in its first (of nine) states, with the name of the Roman publisher Giovanni Bouchard misspelled as “Buzard.”

Piranesi spent the years 1743 to 1747 in Venice and his “Carceri,” created soon after his return to Rome, still betray the influence of La Serenissima as well as of Baroque stage design. More immediate antecedents were the prints of Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770) who had etched a set of “Vari Capricci” in the 1740s and whom Piranesi met during his Venetian sojourn.

In 1761 a second edition of the“Carceri” was published. Apart from adding two plates, Piranesi had extensively reworked each of the compositions. Throughout, the diaphanous luminosity of the earlier states had been transformed into a densely etched darkness that is ultimately more appropriate to the gloomy subject matter of the scenes. The architectural elements show an even more pronounced structural imponderability and the small figures that the artist added throughout help in projecting the vastness and monumentality of the settings.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, The Drawbridge, from Carceri d’invenzione, 1749–50, etching, 24 15/16 x 19 7/16 inches
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Invenzioni capric di carceri all’acqua forte, 1749-50, etching, 24 15/16 x 19 7/16 inches

Piranesi’s “Carceri” have since become a universal screen upon which to project the anxieties of modernity. This reception probably started with Horace Walpole, who encouraged artists as early as 1765 to “study the sublime dreams of Piranesi, who seems to have conceived visions of Rome beyond what it boasted even in the meridian of its splendour. Savage as Salvator Rosa, fierce as Michelangelo, and exuberant as Rubens, he has imagined scenes that would startle geometry, and exhaust the Indies to realize.” William Beckford, the founder of England’s “Dark Romanticism,” also found inspiration here for his own subterranean fantasies.

It is fascinating to observe how the “Carceri” gradually became part of the wider image of Rome that was forming over time in the minds of the grand tourists as well as of those who stayed home and experienced the Eternal City through books, prints, and paintings. A rare early example of this diffusion are two mezzotints by the “architect-graveur” George-François Blondel (1730–ca. 1792).


George-Francois Blondel, A view of the inside of the New Prison at Rome, 1765, mezzotint, 20.5 x 15.7 inches

The son of the more famous French architect Jacques-François, the younger Blondel had studied in Paris, made the obligatory trip to Italy, and ultimately ended up in London in 1764. It must have been the English predilection for a technique that made him decide to embark on a series of eight prints that were, as the title page said, “curiously engraved in Mezzotinto at London” and published as a set in 1766. The first one, seen here, is titled “A View of the Inside of the New Prison at Rome.” The “Carceri” served clearly as Blondel’s model. The title to the second plate of the set reads “A View of a Prison of the Composition of Mr. Blondel done at Rome.” The Frenchman in London therefore knows that Piranesi’s prints do not have the same topographical value as the “Vedute.” He understands them correctly as “Invenzioni” and sets out to compete with the Italian master by creating his own imaginative and equally “capricious” prisons. They stand out through their technique: for the first time “mezzotinto” is used here to depict architectural themes on such a grand scale.

About the Author: Armin Kunz is the owner and director of CG Boerner, a Chelsea gallery that has specialized in prints and drawings since it was founded in Leipzig in 1826.

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