le Arti di Piranesi architetto, incisore, antiquario, vedutista, designer
le Arti di Piranesi
architetto, incisore, antiquario, vedutista, designer
Youthful output and Venetian heritage
In 1740 the twenty-year-old Piranesi went to Rome in the retinue of the Venetian
ambassador Francesco Venier. In Venice he had received a solid training in
engineering and technical matters while an apprentice with his engineer uncle Matteo
Lucchesi and the architect Giovanni Antonio Scalfarotto. In Rome he had probably
hoped to start out on a promising architectural career. In fact the recurrent
inscription in capital letters in the frontispiece of his books of prints is «Architetto
Veneziano» or «Architectus Venetus».
The remains of classical antiquity and the ruins of Rome, half buried and on a much
lager scale compared to the more modest later buildings, were a revelation. Piranesi
developed a new conception of time and its passage in the metamorphosis of stone
as it is worn down and perishes.
Despite support from the Venetian constructer, Nicola Giobbe, Piranesi did little to
further his career as an architect. Giobbe was the dedicatee of Piranesi's first book
of etchings, the Prima Parte di Architetture, e Prospettive (1743). In the dedication,
Piranesi laconically complains that it was impossible to emulate the magnificence of
ancient buildings, «since it cannot not be hoped that an architect of our day will
effectively be able to build», especially because of the blindness of «those who
should be patrons of this very noble skill».
So all that was left for an architect to do was «to explain his own ideas in drawings»
and produce prints of them, which was the most effective means of disseminating
models, ideas and taste.
As an architect working with acid and paper, Piranesi enjoyed the kind of freedom
and imaginative outlook which characterised the work of his artist and sculptor
Having been taught etching by Carlo Zucchi in Venice, Piranesi now learned
engraving from the Sicilian artist Giuseppe Vasi. Piranesi’s typically Venetian
sensibility in his gentle pictorial approach, in which the values of mass are dissolved
in the tonal relations and in chiaroscuro, led Vasi to remark: «you are too much of a
painter, my friend, to become an engraver.»
During two crucial stays in Venice from 1744 to 1747, Piranesi further developed
his visionare temperament. Visits to Giambattista Tiepolo’s workshop, where he
could admire and vie with the Venetian master’s etchings entitled Scherzi di fantasia
led to the four Grotteschi. Fluid lines and free handling – distinctive features of
Venetian Rococo – were also to characterise the contemporary etchings in the
Antichità Romane de’ Tempi della Repubblica (1748).
Piranesi left for Rome again in 1747 as an agent for the engraver and print dealer
Giuseppe Wagner. He was never to return to Venice.
He was obsessed with the idea of rivalling the grandeur of the ancient Romans,
which he had studied by reading Vitruvius and Titus Livy: «I need great ideas and I
believe that if I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would have the mad
courage to undertake it».