Piranesi and the modern age

He was born 300 years ago, but the Italian artist Piranesi, with works such as his "Imaginary Prisons", still has a great influence on modern society and culture.

The fourth of October, 2020 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778). Piranesi was an architect, graphic artist, archaeologist, author, set designer, furniture designer, antiques and art dealer, and one of the most prominent personalities of the 18th century.

Yet his influence was also felt long after his time. He is best known for his etchings depicting city views, architectural fantasies and prison scenes. Piranesi's visions had a major impact on modern photography, film, painting, literature and architecture. The influence of the 18th-century master has also contributed to the various disciplines' understanding of modernity itself.

The ambivalence, contradictions and contrasts read into Piranesi's art have helped shape the modern age, from essayist Thomas De Quincey to Walt Disney, and architects from Louis Kahn to Rem Koolhaas.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, "The Lion Bas Reliefs", 1745/ 1760–1775
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland
Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang is an early example of Piranesi's influence on the science fiction genre.

Rome as it could have been

Piranesi was born and raised in Venice, but moved to Rome at the age of 20. He was obsessed with Rome's many layers of history, stacked up in ruins and fragments. He made the city his motif. Although he devoted himself to graphical works, he referred to himself as an architect and almost always signed his copper plates with "Piranesi architetto".

By the time he died, Piranesi had managed to produce more than a thousand copper plates, using mainly etching techniques. In architectural representations that balanced between reality and fiction, figuration and abstraction, and past and present, he recreated the city as it was and as it could have been.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi," Prisoners on a Projecting Platfor", 1745 / 1760–1775.
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

Etching

Etching is a graphic technique belonging to the family of intaglio printing. The starting point is a copper plate that is covered with an acid-resistant wax or resin called etching ground. The image is engraved in the etching ground using a blunt instrument. The plate is then treated with acid to create depressions where the metal is exposed. When printed on paper, the image on the plate will be reversed.

When Piranesi arrived in Rome in 1740, he quickly became a student of the famous graphic artist Giuseppe Vasi (1710–1782). Under Vasi, he learned to perfect the etching technique. Piranesi's etchings stand out with their picturesque expressions, smooth transitions and cloth-like texture rather than correct detailing.  

Distorted reality

In the 18th century, there was a great demand for urban landscapes among tourists taking what were known as Grand Tours, and Rome was an obvious destination. Piranesi's renditions of Rome were eagerly collected, and ended up on the walls of houses and castles throughout Europe, including Norway. The etchings helped to distort the image of Rome.

Some visitors were completely disappointed in the encounter with a city that turned out to be far less magnificent than the one Piranesi had envisioned for them. But still others valued these prints in their own right, as a renewal of the genre. When writers around 1900 called Piranesi "the Rembrandt of architecture", it was not only because of his technical virtuosity but also because he brought the monuments to life, as if he were drawing psychological portraits of Rome's architecture.

Piranesi and the National Museum

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, "The Man on the Rack", 1745/ 1760–1775.
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

In 1877, the Norwegian art historian Lorentz Dietrichson (1832–1917) took the initiative to establish the Christiania Copperplate and Hand Drawing Collection. An advertisement was placed in a newspaper to encourage benevolent collectors to donate to the newly created collection. In 1908, the collection formally became part of the National Gallery (today the National Museum). Two Piranesi prints were among the first donations made.

This was the beginning of the National Museum's collection of his art. The collection has grown since then and in the 1970s the museum was able to acquire works from the famous series Carceri d´'invenzione (Imaginary Prisons) which was published for the first time in 1749–1750 and then in an enlarged and heavily edited edition in 1761.

The series is an example of Piranesi's architectural fantasies. Here he moves away from dramatic but recognisable images of Rome to architectural representations that are surreal, almost hallucinatory, as he plays with spatial perspectives. The Carceri series has inspired artists, architects, filmmakers, writers and philosophers to the present day, and has contributed to the recognition of Piranesi as avant-garde, still relevant 300 years after his birth.

The exhibition "Piranesi and the Modern Age" at the National Museum

The National Museum is working on an exhibition dedicated to Piranesi for the new National Museum, with the working title "Piranesi and the Modern Age". The exhibition will present the 18th century artist to a Norwegian audience. It will also take a closer look at the rediscovery of Piranesi in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Based on the National Museum's own collection and borrowed works, the exhibition spans different periods and disciplines. The exhibition will show works from the 18th century to the present day; graphics, painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, books, architectural models, architectural drawings, copper plates and film. These will be juxtaposed and hopefully draw some new parallels to our recent past and establish some surprising connections.

Steven Holl, Porta Vittoria, Milano, watercolor, 1986.
Rem Koolhaas / OMA, The Qatar National Library, plan, 2017.

Piranesi made his debut as a "modern" artist at the legendary exhibition "Cubism and Abstract Art" in 1936 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, curated by the museum's founder and director Alfred H. Barr Jr. Not only did this exhibition consolidate the modern directions in art, but largely helped to chart their course.

Barr included a print from Piranesi' s Carceri series in the exhibition, and defined Piranesi as a proto-cubist. In line with Delaunay, Picasso and Braque, Piranesi earned a place in the canon of modern art. The coming exhibition picks up where Barr left off, and pursues Piranesi's influence into our own time.

The exhibition Piranesi and the Modern Age opens in the new National Museum and is based on Victor Plahte Tschudi's research. Tschudi is an art historian and professor at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, and his book of the same title will be published by Princeton University Press in 2021. Wenche Volle is Senior Curator at the museum, Ellen J. Lerberg is Senior Curator Learning, and Rikke Lundgreen is Project Manager.