Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Lateran Baldachino that Never Was, Part II

Last month, I presented a few sketches by Borromini for the baldachin of Saint John Lateran. I would like to showcase some very rare and largely unknown drawings done by master draftsman, engraver and architect Giambattista Piranesi, of two variant designs for a baldachin proposed for the same location during the following century. These have, to my knowledge, never appeared online and have thus far only been published in two books--one out of print, and in the other, they are so small as to be virtually useless.

These are part of a much larger presentation that also included other variations on the new baldachin, new revetments for the transcept and apse walls, which we will view in a later installment of this series. Before you study them, it is worth setting aside questions of Gothic versus Baroque, and of modern notions of historic preservation, as they represent a real tour-de-force of design and presentation; they have the potential to serve as a marvelous model for future work. Piranesi's take on Roman classicism was radically more imaginative and iconographic than many of the more subdued Neo-Classical imitators who followed him in the next generation. I would strongly urge our readers to consider these designs with an open mind and try to avoid imposing modern notions of historical accuracy and preservation which, however valid, were alien to the era, and to most historical periods before our own.

Piranesi is a fascinating figure. Sometimes pegged, with remarkable inaccuracy, as a sort of proto-post-modernist, his distinctive style might be better appreciated as an application of the compositional ideals of the Baroque to a Roman classicism that is simultaneously more archaeological and more flamboyant than the austere neo-Classicism that followed in Piranesi's wake. In the case of the baldachin, he deploys this unprecedented fusion in such a way that it also subsumes in references to Borromini's existing work at the Basilica, improving on his surroundings while prudently tying his work back into it, elevating the entire composition to a higher pitch of ornament and invention. Note in particular the interesting variant treatment of the reliquary for the heads of SS. Peter and Paul in the first illustration, a free and somewhat more successful adaptation of the spindly two-tier medieval ciborium, which, however historically important, is somewhat awkward and even claustrophobic in the way it crouches over the altar.

Piranesi's breadth of work is astonishing: an entire church (Santa Maria del Priorato, which we have seen in recent posts on the Grand Master's death), souvenir etchings of a Rome both in ruins and reconstructed to its former glory, fanciful designs for clocks, vases, Egyptianate fireplaces, a cafe interior, a bizarre set of views of imaginary prisons (which has bedeviled interpretation--and which often wrongly leads enthuisiasts to paint this endlessly practical Venetian as a melancholic weirdo), and, of course, this magnum opus of the baldachin, now wrongly forgotten. Let us hope it shall not remain so.

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