Giovanni Battista’s Piranesi figure has grown over time. I don’t want to say that he was not the most important artist in his time, capable of changing the history of the taste across the art of the engraving, but the fame of Piranesi has gone in crescendo since his death in 1778.
Yes, with the perspective given by almost two centuries and a half, we can observe and undestand Piranesi and realize that his work has stood the test of time, and is still modern. The black brain of Piranesi – to paraphrase the great Yourcenar – is, nevertherless, multifaced. There is as many Piranesi as aspects of his world that you would like to approach. The archeologist defending the romanity of Della Magnificenza, the chronicler of the Sights of Rome, the visionary of the Carceri, the diffuser of the style Luis XV of Vasi and Candelabri, etc. Piranesi is an artist of border, like Goya. He lives on the edge of two periods: Romanticism and Neoclassicism. He defends with romantic passion the rigorous dogma from that one that is neoclassic. Reading his theoretical writings, we can see that he is a dogmatist. Any voucher to defend the Roman origin of the Antiquity against the assault of the phylo-hellenists. He is capable of arguing with ciceronian retorica that before that the Romans were the Etruscans. And before? Not even a word about Greece. For Piranesi, the ancient world begins and finishes in Rome. Rome against Greece. Piranesi against Winckelmann. This combat is the one that remains in tension during the last decades of the 18th century, a time marked by the new archaeological discoveries that see the emergence of the silent poetics of the ruin.
Piranesi is, yes, a poet of the ruin. A poet and an anatomist, also. A poet who bathes his views of the vestiges of what was the Eternal City and dintorni with the chiaroscuro one of the ink and the whiteness of the paper and an anatomist that lifts, for example, a system of sewer of the Campo Marzio to defend an idea: the Romans were the best in public engineering. In him everything is exaggerated, from the sights, which he lengthens and oversizes them incorporating small picture cards in such a way that the “grandtourists” who discovered Rome after seeing the sights of Piranesi were totally disappointed, up to the superlative adjectives that he uses: always the magnificenza…
Piranesi is an inventor of images, the first surrealistic one of the history of the art who taken by the opium creates an underground world that more than one century later Dostoievski will write: the memory of the subsoil. And he does it with the series of the Jails that it is one of the most disastrous graphical projects of the history in a purely commercial sense. Of the first edition, very little copies were sold, so that he had to re-engrave the plates to make them more attractive. It’s difficult to imagine this mand and his frustration, re-engraving his work to make it more commercial, and that he would enter History precisely for those images where the man loses the centrality that he had since the Renaissance. The Carceri are at the origins of the Soviet cinema of forefront, specially of Eisenstein who confessed that he was inspired by them when shooting the film “The Strike”. And from Eisenstein to Blade Runner there is just one step, like of Escher to the labyrinthic world of the games of our videogames. The origin of these images is situated in the fantasy of Piranesi.
Why are his engravings relatively accesible? For two reasons: first, because he engraved them in large numbers, and many copies were made: he and his family were living of this graphical production. And second, because Piranesi was only an engraver – unlike other engravers who were great painters as Durer, Rembrandt, Goya or Picasso, for mentioning four emblematic names-, and the only of his building that made real to the margin of his engravings, Santa Maria of the Priorate in the Piazza Cavalieri di Malta in the Roman Aventino, it is monstruous. There rests the man who wrote his name in the aquatinta of a paper as Keats he did , near there, in the water.