Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) was one of the great polymaths of the 18th century. He carved out an international career as an archaeologist, artist, collector, designer, publisher and author. The principle behind his success was to grasp the multifaceted nature of reality and transform it into something new. He found inspiration everywhere: in the artifacts of bygone epochs and faraway regions, in images from science, technology and opera, and even in denunciations and defeats.
This exhibition celebrating the 300th anniversary of his birth brings this Piranesi principle back to life in all its creativity. It is centred around Piranesi’s masterpieces of engraving, his books, pamphlets, satirical illustrations, and drawings from the collections of the Kunstbibliothek and the Kupferstichkabinett, some of which are being shown for the very first time.
The exhibition begins with a trip back through time to Piranesi’s Rome. While today’s tourists marvel at the city’s ancient ruins in an urban setting, in the 18th century the Venetian-born artist lived and worked in a city surrounded by a landscape of ruins, in which monuments overgrown by plants protruded from the ground. It was in this context that Piranesi found the motifs for his images and architectural visions, collected artefacts for his “Museo”, and conducted research into art and architectural history – the results of which he published in monumental works such as the Antichità Romane (1756). And it was here that he found his clientele and his audience: artists, art scholars, archaeologists, antiques and art dealers came from all over the world to make their fortune in the ‘eternal city’ – or, like Piranesi himself – to earn their immortality.
Opera and theatre have been influential mass media since the Baroque era. Performances took place not only in private residences, but also on the street and in public squares, where religious festivities were staged as elaborate spectacles. In the 18th century, theatre was a big business, for which artists designed stage sets and decorations, and in doing so revolutionised the viewing habits of their audiences. Piranesi, who had already become acquainted with this scene in Venice, picked up on these ideas and used them to dramatise his compositions. Both his Vedute (Views) and his famous Carceri (Prisons) largely owe their magic to the influence of the theatre of the time.
As well as the dream factory of theatre, the technical imagery of the sciences was another a source of great fascination for Piranesi. Imagining his workshop as a laboratory, he experimented with creating futuristic images in order to find ways to communicate the findings of his research on archaeology and art with scholars and the public alike. In the section Piranesi’s Laboratory, the exhibition focuses on the monumental display panels, reconstructions and maps that made him famous within the sciences far beyond Italy, and saw him named a member of the Society of Antiquaries in London in 1757 and an honorary member of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome in 1761. His images are ground-breaking and ahead of their time above all because of their resemblance to a computer desktop featuring a multitude of windows open simultaneously. They succeeded in sealing Piranesi’s status as a pioneer of visual communication.
The chapter Piranesi’s Palazzo takes viewers to the central site of his work: Palazzo Tomati, not far from the Spanish steps, where Piranesi resided from 1761 onwards, ran a large workshop, and opened his “Museo” (a warehouse of antiques and self-manufactured objects) to tourists and art scholars. The drawings by Piranesi that are held by the Kunstbibliothek, including his renowned fireplace designs, provide important information about his work process. Piranesi was open to everything: he drew on both Roman and Egyptian antiquity, Etruscan and Greek art, and often came up with daring hybrid forms. Even the wastepaper in his studio provided points of departure and stimulus for his creative processes. Recycling and re-using were part of his daily routine in the workshop, especially as paper was a valuable resource. The exhibition makes evident how the recto and verso of his prints, drawings and notes were used over and over again for new sketches.
Finally, in the section Piranesi’s Arena, the exhibition also presents Piranesi as a polarising figure in the international art scene. Four people in his life are presented to exemplify this tension, beginning with fellow Venetian Pope Clement XIII (1693–1769), who was particularly important due to his role as a patron, and then looking at three antagonists who infuriated Piranesi to such an extent that he resorted to unusual artistic weapons. He dedicated an entire publication to taking down the argument of French art scholar Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694–1774), who had questioned the significance of Roman antiquity, with words and pictures. The name of his Irish patron, Lord Charlemont (1728–1799), who had withdrawn funding for one of his largest projects, was visually erased from public memory. And to express his displeasure in a dispute with French archaeologist Bertrand Capmartin de Chaupy (1720–1798), he produced a detailed and masterfully elaborate depiction of his own excrement.
The exhibition and catalogue were jointly conceived by students, curators and researchers at the Kunstbibliothek and the Department for Art and Visual History at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
An exhibition of the Kunstbibliothek – Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin and the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, in cooperation with the Kupferstichkabinett – Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin
An exhibition catalogue will be published by E.A. Seemann Verlag. Leipzig, 144 pages, 135 colour illustrations, ISBN 978-3-86502-443-5 (German edition), 978-3-86502-444-2 (English edition), RRP: €27.
Runtime: Sun, 04/10/2020 to Sun, 07/02/2021