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Rome Half-Seen, Wholly Envisioned

GIOVANNI BATTISTA PIRANESI (1720-1778), etcher and engraver, always thought of himself as an architect, having been trained in this profession. His great genius, however, was for making prints, and these were so splendid that they made his name. Piranesi was born in Venice in the 18th century - a wonderful combination of time and place for an artist. His achievements proved worthy of his setting, though he is primarily associated with Rome, where he spent most of his life.

The son of a stonemason, Piranesi was clearly very sensible to the mysteries and possibilities of building, even at an early age. His uncle taught him to be an architect, which developed his ideas of perspective and his remarkable draftsmanship.

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Piranesi went to Rome at the age of 20, in the suite of the Venetian ambassador to the papal court, and, because he could not find work as an architect, studied etching and engraving. Of a difficult disposition, he became persuaded that his teacher was deliberately withholding essential knowledge of the art of etching from him, and, disgusted, returned to Venice in 1744.

As it turned out, this was a fortunate move, because he was then influenced by the etchings of Canaletto and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, fellow Venetians - it is exhilarating to think of three stars of such magnitude in the city. But Piranesi had fallen in love with Rome, and before long returned there to make it his permanent home.

A master with pen and pencil, he actually worked as an architect on only two restorations. One of these was Santa Maria del Priorata, the church of the Knights of Malta in Rome, which he successfully executed in 1764.

The eternal city was at that period superlatively beautiful, evocative, and romantic, still untouched by the ugliness of modernity and industrialization. It stood in the enchanting wilderness of the Campagna, where pictorial ruins lay on every side, a medley of antique treasures. Piranesi adored ancient Rome and began at once to make prints of the views he loved, of what he felt might have been, embellished by his own fancy. His output was prodigious - at least 1,000 prints are attributed to him.

Prodigal of invention and imagination, Piranesi's fame rests chiefly on his wonderful plates of architectural fantasies where classical buildings on a vast scale - glorious structures - are presented along with fountains, statues, palaces, carriages, human figures, boats. These were not actual representations, but were based on ``some documentary truth and a noble dignity of composition.'' By the alchemy of art, genius, and feeling, these fantasies, idealizing his visible Rome and embellishing its grandeur, make us feel we know the city and its rich past perhaps more truly than any exact representation might have done. Today we see Piranesi's Rome with its stateliness, its panache.

As a printmaker and publisher he was very successful, letting his interest range through a gamut of the decorative arts, creating elaborate wall panels, chimney pieces, decorative frames, capitals and columns, and gardens, all in a classical style. He published his views of the city, and his embellishments of its fountains, statues, and arches, its flights of stairs.

His most extraordinary series is that of the imaginary prison scenes, the ``Carceri,'' where lofty vaulted arches rise above minute figures undergoing awful tortures. These, with ``all the glow of youthful fire,'' first made him known, and not only in Italy.

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Engraving is laborious, but Piranesi seems to have lessened the drudgery by his own immense enthusiasm. He is described as diligent, impetuous, and quick to take offense - difficult, it would seem. Yet so great was his genius and so striking his prints that after 1760 he had an outstanding position not only in the city of his adoption but all over Europe. In 1765 he was knighted by the pope and called himself ``cavalier.''

Rome in the 18th century was a magnet for men of artistic sensibility. The French Academy and the Prix de Rome drew artists to study there amidst the grandeur and decay of the wonderful city.

Two theories were then in hot dispute. Did the beauty of the city's monuments stem essentially from the Etruscans and the Romans, or should this be attributed to the Greeks? Piranesi espoused the first position. From the arguments and passions arose the international neo-classical taste which domninated the architects of Europe to our present advantage. Among the most famous of these was Robert Adam, who became a friend of Piranesi, the two influencing each other.

The ``Architectural Fantasy'' shown here (pen and brown ink with a brown wash) is small - only a little over 9 in. by nearly 13 in. - yet gives an impression of grandeur, with the great stairway leading to a glorious arch, which in its turn is flanked by porticoes - all part of a vast and noble building. Despite its strong lines and deep shadows, its arches and statues, rich in detail, it gives us the feeling that it was penned in a few moments - indeed, Piranesi had a reputation for swift, strong strokes, and unhesitating lines.

The drawing is supposed to be akin to traditional illusionistic stage designs, and is remarkable by the artist's employment of the diagonal. The composition is so clearly envisaged and executed that the design stands out sharply, thought the print is small and full of diverse themes. Here is the Rome he half-saw, and wholly envisioned, which he has passed on to his viewers to their lasting delight.

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