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PIRANESI, Giovanni Battista. La Antichità Romane opera di Giambattista Piranesi architetto veneziano divisa in quattro tomi…, vol. I, Rome, Angelo Rotilj, MDCCLVII [=1757].

The Italian architect and engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) was born in Venice. He started taking drawing lessons at an early age, and was primarily influenced by the work of architect Palladio. At the age of eighteen years old, he moved to Rome with an ardent desire to know the Eternal City and worked as draughtsman at the service of the Venetian embassy to the Vatican. In Rome, Piranesi studied engraving under Giuseppe Vasi, with whom he later clashed. An impulsive, ambitious and prolific artist, Piranesi worked in harmony with his time, as he was always drawn to and cultivated the dramatic, the inspired and the spectacular.

As with the work of French architect David Leroy (1724-1803), the technique and art of Piranesi's drawings aim to make an impact the viewer. A strong impression, which it is the artist's duty to convey, is deemed more important than precision in representation. Piranesi is among the most dynamic exponents of Neoclassicism; at the same time, he belongs to early Romanticism as well, as the remains of classical civilisations become the cause of poetic emotion.

Piranesi also visited Naples, where he depicted the local antiquities with passion and admiration, and created several copper moulds of his works. He returned to Venice in 1744, where he refined his engraving skills. It was there that he published his first major work “Carceri di invenzione” (“Fictitious prisons”, 1750, 1761 and 1780). The uncanny as well as evocative spaces of the prisons invented by Piranesi disturb the viewer and constitute a lasting influence on visual artists, writers and architects from his time to the present.

Later in his life, Piranesi returned to Rome, where he worked mainly as an engraver and painter and less as an architect. His “Monuments of Rome”, made a great impact on his contemporaries. In contrast to the contemporary intellectual atmosphere, and while scholars (such as Winkelmann, Ramsey, Stuart, Revett) direct their attention to Greece, which they see as the primary inspiration of Roman architecture, Piranesi sustained that the Etruscans, a people older than the Greeks, were the first to achieve aesthetic perfection. His ideas provoked a debate among European scholars, and opened new pathways to the study of ancient legacy.

The two thousand copper engravings drawn and etched by Piranesi in his lifetime were published posthumously in Paris by his sons, in a monumental edition (1835-1837).

Written by Ioli Vingopoulou

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