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Piranesi, Giovanni Battista

PIRANESI, GIOVANNI BATTISTA, born at Venice, in 1720, was one of the most distinguished artists of the last century, and in his own peculiar walk unrivalled. At the age of eighteen, he was sent by his father (who was a mason) to study architecture at Rome; to which he devoted himself with such enthusiasm as to thwart his parent's intentions, for on being summoned to return home, he refused, observing that Rome with its monuments was the adopted land of his affections—the birth-place of his talent. On this, his father withdrew his allowance, but instead of being tamed into submission, or at all discouraged, the young artist soon after (in 1741) brought out his first work on triumphal arches, bridges, and other architectural remains of antiquity. This production instantly established his reputation, the engravings being treated with such mastery, and being altogether so decidedly superior to any former representations of similar subjects, as fo make an epoch in chalcography and architectural delineation; which latter had till then been almost uniformly very coarse, tasteless, and insipid, and nowhere more so than in Italy itself. With occasional exaggeration of chiaroscuro and effect, there is great vigour of execution in Piranesi's productions, which may partly be ascribed to his singular manner of working, it being his usual practice to draw his subject at once upon the plate itself, and complete it almost entirely by etching in aquafortis, with very little assistance from the graver. Hence his works are marked by a freedom and spirit that can otherwise hardly be preserved. The same circumstance also accounts for that astonishing rapidity of execution which enabled him to produce, within less than forty years, about two thousand engravings, most of them of very large dimensions and full of detail.

It is true he was not wholly without help from other hands, for all his children (three sons and two daughters) were brought up by him to assist him in his labours; and he had likewise several pupils, among others Piroli, a name of some note. Still such aid must have been comparatively inconsiderable, since it is evident from the peculiar manner and spirit which pervade his works, and which have never been caught by any of his scholars, that all his plates must have been executed chiefly by his own hand. The following is a list of his principal works:—' Architecture Romana, 208 plates, 4 vols., atlas folio; 'Fasti Consulares Triumphalesque Romanorum;' 'Antichita d'Albano,' 35 plates; 'Campus Martius,' &c, 54 plates; 'Magnificenza dei Roinani,' 44 plates; ' Vedute di Roma,' 2 vols., 130 plates of modern buildings at Rome; 'Collection of Candelabra, Vases,' &c.; 'Collection of Chimney-pieces,' a series of most splendid designs; 'Carceri d'lnvenzione," 16 plates, filled with exceedingly wild but most picturesque conceptions; 'A Collection of Antient Statues and Busts,' 350 subjects; 'The Trajan and Antonine Columns;'' Antiquities of Herculaneum and Pompeii.' A complete set of his works (comprising many not here enumerated) amounts to no fewer than twenty-nine folio volumes, many of which are of unusually large dimensions, some of them being on double elephant paper, and the plates opening to ten feet in length. Their contents afford an almost inexhaustible mine of antiquity, both as regards architecture and sculpture; and indeed his 'Magnificenza' alone, containing as it does many specimens and fragments of antient architecture till then little known, and so different from the usual routine examples of the orders, would alone have sufficed for his fame. Several of these, and other specimens of antient art engraved by him, such as vises, candelabra, &c, have been since copied in later works, yet even where they have been correctly and tastefully delineated, they are immeasurably inferior to the same subjects as touched by Pirancsi.

In addition to his other numerous and extensive labours, he executed one or two of the plates in the 'Works' of Robert Adam, the English architect, where their superiority to the rest manifests itself very strongly. Piranesi did not execute much as a practical architect: the wonder is, that he should have found time to accept any professional engagements of the kind. Nevertheless he did so, and among the churches which he was employed by Clement XIII. to repair or rebuild, are those of Santa Maria del Popolo and the priory of Malta. It is in this last-mentioned edifice that a monument by Angolini, a life-sized statue of him, has been erected to his memory; an engraving from which is contained in the second volume of the ' Library of the Fine Arts,' a publication containing many valuable papers, and to which we are indebted for tome of the particulars above given. Piranesi died at Rome, November 9, 1778.

Note - this article incorporates content from The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (1840)

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