Friday, December 21, 2012

the ruins & the depths

Giovanni Battista Piranesi was trained as an architect, but in his lifetime was celebrated and famous as an artist, or an engraver, to be exact. Starting at age 20, he produced etchings of ancient Roman ruins from drawings made on the spot, such as this gorgeous ærial view of the Flavian amphitheatre, or Colosseum as it's known today.

After a four year side-trip to Venice, Piranesi set to work in 1747 on his comprehensive visual catalogue of Roman monuments and ruins, putting out an incredible amount of finished work until 1784, by which time he'd pretty much exhausted the subject. He combines the architectural draftsman's precision with the enthusiasm of a committed antiquarian, and though he played fast and loose with size and perspective at times, depicting the ruins as impossibly grand, the obsessively-rendered detail transports the viewer to another place.

Besides the views of the ancient city which made him famous during his lifetime, Piranesi worked for years on a series of a different sort of views, these showing the nightmarish architecture and fantastic perspectives of dungeons and cellars which never existed -- the "Carceri" series. Like this one, "The Round Tower," all of them feature confusing and irrational relationships among a proliferation of staircases, overhead walkways, and catwalks. Besides inspiring the twentieth-century Dutch engraver Maurits Escher, I believe Piranesi was consciously depicting the deepest, darkest, and most inaccessible part of any personality, and what the character Morpheus in the film "The Matrix" called "A prison of the mind."

Please mouse click on these pictures to see them in a larger size, so as to appreciate Piranesi's mastery of detail.

Piranesi died in 1778, aged 58, of overwork and the pulmonary effects of the chemicals necessary for etching metal plates.

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