How would it feel to spend your life so absorbed by crumbling architecture and disintegrating stone you could bring them vibrantly back to life with chalk and a pen? Giovanni Battista Piranesi knew, his talent for accuracy in imagining the details that flirted at the edge of the decaying world so astute he became the go-to guy for recording a history that had, quite literally, fallen away.
Love Among the Ruins
The 18th-century draftsman, etcher and antiquarian cut his teeth sketching the ruins in Rome during a time when the city was a stop on every well-heeled creative’s and aristocrat’s Grand Tour. One of these was Sir John Soane, who met Piranesi in 1778 when he was a young architect visiting the Italian capital. It is said the artist, who died the next year, profoundly influenced the Brit, the four prints he gave him during the time they spent together the beginning of Soane’s passion for collecting Piranesi’s work.
Soane continued to amass Piranesi’s graphic representations of the built and fantasized worlds, adding them to his impressive collection in his London museum, which is now one of the most respected institutions in the world. Among these treasures is a series of monumental drawings Piranesi created when he visited the archaeological site of Pæstum on the Gulf of Salerno south of Naples the year before he met Soane. They depict differing views of three Doric temples—the Basilica, the Temple of Neptune and the Temple of Ceres.
Piranesi Drawings of Pæstum Ruins
on View at the Morgan
Piranesi died before he could finish the set of etchings, which were grouped under the title Différents vues de Pesto, leaving his son Francesco to finish and published them. Thanks to Soane’s acquisition of fifteen of the seventeen surviving Pæstum drawings in 1817, I was able to see them—recently restored and on view at the Morgan Library & Museum here in New York City, their debut in the United States.
These examples of the finest architectural storytelling I’ve ever seen so close at hand illustrate why preserving drawings of this stature is so critical to mapping history—the visual narratives go beyond documenting the architecture; they illustrate the world that was being lived around it at the time. I could almost feel the stone cracking, the blocks of marble sinking deeper into the earth as the peasants lolled in the shadows of the colossal columns.
It was as if the delineations of sunlight and shadow adjusted themselves along the striated surfaces of the edifices as I watched, the morning moving toward afternoon. The oxen were bored while the horses so emaciated you could count their ribs; and the humans, whether ambling or slouching, were utterly cheerless as they slumped into their lethargy.
Through Italy with the Poets
Over a century after Piranesi recorded this world of life gone slack, Christopher Pearse Cranch, a writer touring Italy during his Wanderjahr, versified the downtrodden temples. The poem by the early American Transcendentalist and colleague of Emerson’s was published in the book Through Italy with the Poets in 1908. To me, it echoes the tenor of Piranesi’s vignettes hauntingly.
There, down Salerno’s bay,
In deserts far away,
Over whose solitudes
The dread malaria broods,
No larbour tills the land,—
Only the fierce brigand,
Or shepherd, wan and lean,
O’er the wide plains is seen.
Yet there, a lovely dream,
There Grecian temples gleam,
Whose form and mellowed tone
Rival the Parthenon.
The Sybarite no more
Comes hither to adore,
With perfumed offering,
The ocean god and king.
The deity is fled
Long since, but, in his stead,
The smiling sea is seen,
The Doric shafts between;
And round the time-worn base
Climb vines of tender grace,
And Pæstum’s roses still
The air with fragrance fill.
Pairing Piranesi’s drawings with this sonnet helped me see that his task was on par with a poet’s because the artistic endeavors of both require them to communicate imaginatively constructed worlds. This quote on Piranesi’s biographical profile on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s site illustrates his voracity for envisioning: “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.” This is the M.O. of a poet each time he or she undertakes a new composition, though with an entirely different medium.
Piranesi’s statement was reported by one of his early biographers, who noted his dreams of antiquity often surpassed reality, both in his earliest etchings of architectural fantasies and the fanciful restorations of ancient remains he produced at the end of his career. How fortunate for those of us who came after him that he loved these relics enough to capture them so eloquently.
His renderings of the buildings tell two remarkable stories: the narrative of magnificent scale during a time when it was formidable to achieve it and the tale of decomposition in which seedlings blossom atop giant capitals where a roof should have sprouted instead. It’s as if you are witness to the decay dooming them, in slow motion with a shiftless devil may care. The exhibition, called “Piranesi and the Temples of Pæstum: Drawings from Sir John Soane’s Museum,” will be on view through May 17, 2015. The Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Family Foundation provided funding, and Sir John Soane’s Museum and the Morgan Library & Museum jointly organized the show.
If you’re in New York, make time to see it. It’s not a large exhibition so it won’t take long to absorb unless you are like me and can’t bear to pull yourself away from the grand chronicle of dolor and decomposition that cemented a moment in history so long ago, or so we believe in our sentient definition of eternity’s timeline.
There is a talk at the Morgan this coming Thursday, March 19, about the relationship between Piranesi and Soane. It begins at 6:30 pm—you can find details here. All drawings featured in this DesignLabs post are credited to Giovanni Battista Piranesi, and all images courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum. Because these beautiful works of art are ones I’d love to own, I’m including this entry in my Living with Art series.
The Modern Salonnière and Love Among the Ruins, © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist. Her books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.