In the 17th century, there were large deserted districts of Rome, built in the time of the Cæsars and still more or less standing; they were largely situated on the outskirts of the city. In those days, you see, Rome was a shadow of its imperial self, a million strong; population crashed beginning in the 2nd century A.D, and had been recovering very slowly: people had been steadily scavenging the old quarters for material with which to build new houses, but there is only so much stone any one house needs, and people mostly took chunks of the Colosseum anyway; the stones are bigger and normally much better than those gotten from the remains of ancient domi, let alone the brick piles of the Aventine rookeries of old. Of course, the insulæ sometimes fell apart even while inhabited, but there were more ruins left of old Rome even in the 18th century than we, perhaps, might think.
Giambattista Piranesi, as mostly he signed himself, was born in 1720, nearer to Venice than to Rome, but he built his house on those ruins. He came to Rome in 1740 as an attaché to the Venetian envoy to the Vatican, and soon learned engraving from Giuseppe Vasi, a master printmaker, and there he was to remain until the end of his days.
These days Piranesi is undoubtedly best known for the Carceri, but in his own time his Vedute di Roma were the more popular; so popular, in fact, that they came to raise the status of Rome itself as a place, as a destination — it having been by then soundly eclipsed in several waves and in cultural as well as political importance, by Genoa, Florence, Naples, Venice; only the church staunchly remained in Rome, along with some ragged remnants of nobility with too much pride and too little money to establish themselves elsewhere. Piranesi's teacher Vasi was himself famous for his prints of Roman landmarks, but Piranesi soon outshone his master; he and Canaletto are undoubtedly the artists of that tradition best known to us today.
For the purpose of making these engravings, Piranesi also became an archæologist; as his series of Vedute grew, the obvious monuments weren't enough for the artist or his audience, and so he joined various excavations, a type of project which had been gaining vogue for some time with the progress of Enlightenment ideals, and drew what he saw there. In several cases Piranesi has preserved detailed plans of excavated sites which are lost or inaccessible to us now; the digs themselves largely do not bear thinking about, however. Being a civil engineer besides — in his youth, he had been trained in civil engineering by an uncle in charge of the Venetian waterworks, and for the rest of his life he thought of himself as an architect first and foremost — he took a special interest in the antique aqueduct system, parts of which were still in those days serving Rome with water, and engraved a series of works, reconstructions and views, of the remains of that system which, again, are valuable resources now, such as his depiction of the important castellum at Porta Maggiore, which is the only surviving evidence of its appearance.
Piranesi also did droves of design works, drawing vases, chimneys, mantelpieces &c. in a highly involved style based on antique principles; however, one of Piranesi's youthful works has now surpassed all his others in fame, and it is highly likely that anyone who has heard of Piranesi before has heard of him in conjunction with them: the Carceri d'Invenzione, which probably deserve their own writeup*, are sixteen plates depicting imaginary prisons that are mentioned more than the entire rest of his œuvre, solidly immured in the edifice of western culture, albeit in a corner out of the way of the current main throughfares. I suppose this is where I should get all indignant, but hell, sixteen pictures is more than most people get.
The prisons are ominous, monumental places full of smoke, chains, stairways and racks; Piranesi was 22 years old when he cut them. They were published three years later, in 1745; thirteen years after that, they were reïssued, and Piranesi took advantage of the occasions to rework all the plates as well as add new ones; these editions are known as the first and second states respectively. The second states are far more elaborately worked; more fully realized, darker, more sinister visions, and probably closer to Piranesi's imaginations, than the first states.
The Carceri are also one of those things that have rippled through art, so that people who have never seen them before might still recognize them; for instance, the first Hellboy movie contains a pretty direct visual quote from one plate. De Quincey apparently went berserk on a description of them. It was Coleridge doing the talking, though, which would probably be enough to freak anyone out even if he were describing a pot of flowers.
Something less frequently mentioned is that Piranesi was very much part of the trade that arose particularly in Italy to profit from the Grand Tourists, young English noblemen bouncing around the Continent in search of Classical Learning, crazy hijinks and exotic whores. These people really were the first tourists in spirit as well as in name, so obviously they wanted a shitload of pictures, genuine sculptures and ancient foreign gewgaws to hork down their homes with when they came back — the status of one's trip quickly came to depend far less on what was actually learned than on the cool shit dragged home. Sound familiar, anyone?
As part of this trade, besides his many other activities he also worked as a restorer of antiques, this being something rather different from what it is today: in the 18th century, restoration involved unearthing fragments of ancient art and designing new works around them. Perhaps the best extant example of this art (and of how different the style could get from that classical one it sought to emulate) is attributed to the hand of Piranesi; it is a giant vase built around a number of marble fragments from Hadrian's Villa which do not belong together. One Sir John Boyd purchased this vase in 1776, and kept it in his garden until the British Museum told his descendants enough and bought it. The Piranesi Vase remains property of the British Museum; it can be seen there today, in the Enlightenment Gallery. Go look at it; it's terrible restoration, but excellent artifice.
Piranesi had two signature tricks in his engraving work, both worth remarking on: drawing people too small and adding shit.
The first of these tricks is ingenious in its simplicity: the tiny people, besides giving life to the picture, exaggerate the monolithic scale of the various monuments, ironically giving a better impression of seeing them in person than would a scrupulously correctly scaled depiction. In this way he is an early precursor of the surrealists and other 20th century art movements, only not a pretentious idiot.
The second trick is equally clever but more problematic. Piranesi had a real knack for »filling in the gaps« in ruins in a plausible way — well, plausible to his contemporaries, anyway — as alluded to on the topic of restoration, above; this permitted him to draw monuments more complete than in reality, but it also means that Piranesi's Rome is not the Rome that really was, but in significant portion an 18th century imagination of what it ought to have been; a product in equal parts of history and Giambattista Piranesi's subconscious.
It should be noted that Piranesi didn't take this approach to all of his work; his Vedute are the main recipients of the inventive treatment, whereas his reconstructions of the aqueduct system are as obsessively precise as it was possible for him to be. (Allegedly Goethe was disappointed by the real Rome, having first familiarized himself with the city through Piranesi's work.)
Supposedly Piranesi in his old age wrote an autobiography, which involved him swashing his buckler and leaping from bridges a lot; his sons sent it to be printed in England, and it may have been, but is now lost to us, a modern Satyricon to the sorrow of all the Earth. We can only hope that one day, a copy of Giambattista Piranesi: Two-Fisted Engraver will come to light in some forgotten corner of a dusty library.
In his life, Piranesi put out over two thousand plates; he died mid-sketch, at Paestum, drawing the then-recently discovered temples there for a planned new series of engravings. He was 58 years old. His son made sure the engravings were published; the architect John Soane bought the originals, which you can see in the Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields, in London. Besides this wealth of images, Piranesi left us with one good quote:
»I need to produce great ideas, and I believe that if I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would be mad enough to undertake it.«
You wrote about visual art again, you dingbat — how do I get a proper idea of how all this stuff looks?
Good question, asshole. Taschen sells a fairly complete book of Piranesi's work, Piranesi: the Etchings, which is very small for reprinting what were typically pretty large works, but which will do well enough; Dover has been putting out a quite large-format volume reprinting the Carceri in their first and second states for decades, but that album appears now to be out of print. They have apparently released a new edition of this book, which appears to be of the same size as the old one, featuring a new, more pointlessly busy cover layout and prefaces you didn't need to read by artists you don't care about, but I am unable to swear to its print quality, which is obviously the important thing.
Or I suppose you could just do an image search for his work, if there's something wrong with you.
Don't lie, I know there's something wrong with you.