In spite of the fact that he grew up in the fantastic city of Venice, Giovanni Battista Piranesi was even more fascinated with the amazing city of Rome. He moved there in 1740, when he was twenty, and the city itself became his subject and inspiration. In the course of his career he would create more than 1,000 etchings of Rome’s monumental architecture.
Piranesi studied architecture, engineering and stage design. He is best known for his “capricious inventions”, a series of 14 etchings of invented prisons. These were architectural fantasies, essentially of stage prisons, with large scale walls, aerial walkways, helical stairways and drawbridges (image at left, top and detail, middle). Real prisons of the time were actually small dungeons that bore little resemblance to his imagined architectural fancies, which were actually inspired by his fascination with Rome’s fantastic classical ruins.
As interesting as his etchings and engravings of the imaginary prisons are, with their tiny figures silhouetted against the large structures to give the feeling of grand scale, I’m most impressed with his actual images of the ruins of ancient Rome, the structures of which really are on a giant scale (image at left, bottom).
It’s difficult to understand from pictures just how large and imposing the monuments of Imperial Rome are. When you see them in person, the feeling of scale is dramatic. The Coliseum, with its grand arches that were once filled with sculptures; is as large as a modern sports stadium; and when you stand in the shadow of the enormous pillars and columns at the far end of the Forum, you feel like you’ve been exposed to a mad professor’s shrinking ray.
Piranesi spent his life fascinated with the scale, complexity and grandeur of classical Roman architecture. Spend some time with Piranesi’s etchings and engravings and you may see why.