Monday, October 08, 2007

The Genius of Piranesi

Growing up in suburban Florida, my first introduction to the exotic work of the eighteenth-century Venetian engraver Giambattista Piranesi came in the domestic confines of my home--through my parents' capacious private library. In addition to architectural standards such as Chippendale's Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director and Palladio, it included a massive two-volume edition of the master's complete engravings, filled with page after page of minute reproductions of delicate depictions of Roccoco clocks, brooding, Escher-esque views of imaginary prisons, ichnographic plans of Rome's Campus Martius resembling circuit diagrams, Babylonian capricci, chimneypieces held up on the heads of Egyptian pharaohs, and his enigmatic best-selling engravings of the Colosseum and a hundred other ruins. Piranesi only built one building in his life, but the decorative fantasies he unleashed in his portfolios helped inspire a whole wave of neoclassical and romantic imitators after his death in 1778. (Sadly, his love of dense ornament that enlivens much of his classical work seems to have been ignored by many of his subsequent imitators with their fondness for pristine surfaces.)

As a consequence, I was delighted to hear that New York's Cooper-Hewitt Museum--an obscure branch of the Smithsonian which, unfortunately, does not share the free admissions philosophy of its Washingtonian sisters--was mounting an exhibition to collect Piranesi's various forays into design. I'm told this is one of the few shows to examine Piranesi's sizable influence as a designer and architect, rather than as Rome's greatest civic booster since Augustus or a scholarly enigma. His reputation as the producer of the Vedute, or views of Rome, sold to vacationing English milords, as well as his weird engravings of Kafkaesque fantasy dungeons (the equivalent to opium-fiend Thomas De Quincey of sixties tie-dye and Grateful Dead album covers) have obscured the beautiful and innovative nature of his decorative and architectural plates, which suggest a mind both more fertile and more stable than his most famous project.

Piranesi's fame as a designer rests on three sources. First, there were his decorative and interior design engravings, which inspired and were inspired by an assortment of chimney-pieces, interior designs, sideboards and couches he undertook for fashionable Roman cardinals and other European cognoscenti, often featuring exotic combinations of Roman, Greek and Egyptian work that resemble styles that only came into fashion a full quarter-century after his death, and often in a manner lacking his own distinctive ornamental flair.

Piazza of Santa Maria del Priorato, Rome, Piranesi's single built work. Neo-classicism without archaeological sterility.

Secondly, his single completed architectural work, the elegant Church of Santa Maria del Priorato, the single hardest interior to get into in Rome. This oratory belonging to the Knights of Malta is an extraordinarily clever tour-de-force, a collage of antique fragments stitched together with a mixture of Baroque artistry and archaeological creative license that drew on the past and respected its canons without degenerating into rule-bound cut-and-paste classicism.

The interior of Piranesi's church of Santa Maria del Priorato.

Third and last, and sadly never built, was his monumental series of watercolors for a new high altar in the Lateran commissioned by Pope Clement XIII, by far one of the greatest bits of paper architecture to (never) be created. The exhibit includes extensive examples of all of these--the richly-worked, snake-handled silver urns that were inspired by his work; marble chimney-pieces and long Roman couches of dark wood and gilded rosettes; enormous watercolor renderings of baldachinos and sarcophagus altars, putti, clouds and globes, able to be squinted at up close behind glass.

Largely the exception in his inventive, even cheerful oeuvre rather than the rule, Piranesi's bizarre and highly personal Prisons of the Imagination series is now, ironically, one of his principal claims to fame.

The Cooper-Hewitt Piranesi as Designer tends to cast such works in a modernist and even post-modern light, probably as part of the little game art historians like to play whenever they want to enjoy beauty without the guilt of appearing hidebound. Piranesi, though, exemplifies rather the extraordinary heights that can be reached within the boundaries of tradition when understood as a living entity rather than as mere archaeology--despite his own archaeological background. The exhibit concludes with a hallway full of videotaped interviews with the various elderly enfant terribles of modern design--Eisenman, Venturi, the usual suspects--all talking about how their work was inspired by Piranesi, and accompanied by drawings that suggest they had their fingers crossed behind their backs when they said it. (Only Robert Stern, the most traditional architect there, is honest enough to admit his work partakes of the Piranesian tradition in a fairly generic way, as they are both classicists.)

Piranesi's ceiling design for Santa Maria del Priorato.

Such an appraisal of Piranesi--a feel-good pat-on-the-back that allows us to enjoy beauty without thinking too hard about the tradition (and in the case of the Lateran projects, the religiosity and hierarchy) that gives it logic and authority--is typical of today. Piranesi was not a fashionable, broody anarchist of the Eisenman variety, nor a flippant producer of pseudo-classical jokes in the postmodern mode, but an artist, a lover of beauty, a businessman, a knight of the papal order of the Golden Spur. Whenever a new book on a classicist comes out, it's usually at pains to call him "radical," or "progressive"--which is appropriate; one can be a progressive classicist just as one may easily be a conservative one, and the Janus-faced tradition has need of both. Strangely--for an inspirer of the Empire look of the next century, his work really has more of the exuberant, heavily-ornamented character of the early, innovative Baroque, despite its rectilinear antiquity.

Piranesi's fanciful reconstruction of the tomb-lined Via Appia in Rome.

Precisely because the classical universe contains such rules and customs is what allows its borders to be expanded; Piranesi's quasi-mannerist transgressions of custom only make sense if you--and he--accept the past as a serious force to be reckoned with, and the manifestation of a living entity that can be enter.d in to, even if it may have to be dug up and dusted off from time to time. The flippancy of the postmoderns that classicists such as Thomas Gordon Smith found shallow and silly in our own time makes such a serious engagement impossible.

Piranesi's preliminary sketches for the high altar of Santa Maria del Priorato, Rome.

Yet, while Piranesi's flights of fancy remind us of the necessity of artistic rules, he also reminds us of their flexibility. He is not a mere magpie creator of collages, as many people would suppose, but a master who melded a coherent artistic form out of his interpretations of the past. (Indeed, he freely and even humorously notes in the preface to his Campus Martius engravings that his reconstruction departs from the record of ruins simply because it looked better to him. And as a man whose sensibilities had been shaped by an extensive study of beauty, it is his prerogative to do so, so long as he's honest about it.)

Architectural precedent shows the canons of art are capable of organic development--not such much that they may be broken and forgotten, but they may be expanded upon, experimented with, rediscovered and reworked, without losing their initial potency. The artificial copy-book classicism which the public is most familiar with (e.g., don't put a trigylph above a Corinthian capitol, or I'll break your arm) is a fairly recent invention, and has its place as a starting-ground like the ABCs might be for reading Dickens or Cervantes. But, as the wonderful roller-coaster-ride of Piranesi shows us, it is certainly not its end.

NB: The images of Santa Maria del Priorato, Piranesi's crowning achievement, are from this article, "Piranesi's Shape of Time," which I have not read and cannot vouch for, but is supplemented with some wonderful illustrations of the great man's work.

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