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Great art print series; Piranesi’s Rome

Giovanni Battista Piranesi was one of the great art print series creators of the 18th century, and perhaps throughout all of history. Considering himself an architect and archaeologist before being an artist, his work is exceptionally technically crafted, but undoubtedly shows an artistic flair far beyond technical drawing. Born to a stonemason, and completing an apprenticeship with his architect uncle, Piranesi began working in Rome as a draughtsman, where he learned the craft of etching and engraving, and was told frankly by his teacher that he was far too much of an artist to be a mere engraver.

Over the course of his career he would only act as an architect on one project, and though he was admired as a designer who produced a range of ideas for fireplaces and decorations of different kinds, he became best known for his most artistic pieces. These covered two primary subject areas, one was prisons; the creation of vast and imposing interior views of prison structures, making full use of his mastery of light and shadow, and often featuring experiments with impossible geometries.

But the work that made him famous, and that remains his most admired today, are his many art prints of Rome. It was the first subject he worked on after completing his studies, and views of Rome are also amongst his last works. Initially inspired to inspire those embarking on the Grand Tour of Europe, and draw them to Rome to see it; of course, these tourists also offered a large potential customer base for such images though these were far from simple commercial tourist souvenirs.

Piranesi’s views of Rome are a unique look at the 18th century

Even a glance at any of Piranesi’s art prints reveals a phenomenal technical achievement; everything is perfectly proportioned and composed, the shading and hatching impeccably refined, and the choice of light and shadow often dramatic. Goethe once said that, having first seen Rome through Piranesi’s prints, he was a little disappointed with the real thing when he finally visited. These views were a unique kind of study though, refusing to picture Rome at it’s height, but depicting it’s architectural wonder in the 18th Century, often decaying and crumbling, overgrown with weeds and peopled by drunks and tramps.

Piranesi’s Rome was perhaps one of the first post-apocalyptic visions, depicting an empire declined, the signs of past glory now crumbled by time and a decline of the surrounding society. Though these prints are without doubt the work of an artist they also reveal the deep well of architectural knowledge in his head; from the work we can understand a vast amount about the construction and materials at work, many of which are lost today behind restoration efforts or even complete destruction.

Piranesi was fascinated by Rome, mixing engineering with poetry, and often toying with reality to create tombs, vases, and decorations that didn’t exist, or were vastly manipulated in terms of their scale. His creativity vastly inspired other artists and had a powerful effect on the Neoclassical movement that would come later; depictions of a golden age of construction and society now long past acting as a powerful seduction to attempt to recapture it.

An exceptional art print legacy as one of the masters of the form

Piranesi’s combination of technical brilliance, architectural knowledge, and artistic creativity beautifully blended into bold lighting effects, dramatic compositions, and unique contexts. He created a vision of Rome that excelled the reality, and influenced the style and taste of neoclassicism that bloomed in the last years of life and for decades afterwards. Devoted to his craft, he continued to work up until the day of his death, and left behind a remarkable body of work that represents the technical peak of engraving, some of it’s finest documentary and creative artworks, and some truly great art print series.

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