The reinvention of Rome

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One of the pleasures of the current exhibition in Rome of the whole cycle of Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma, completed in 1774, four years before his death, is the site. Here we are in the Via del Corso, the street in which he opened his first Roman bottega: it runs from the traditional triumphal entry-gate at Piazza del Popolo to the Campidoglio, and, halfway down, meets the Piazza Colonna with the Roman Colonna Antonina. All these subjects are among the 135 engravings on show, and it is fascinating to compare image and reality. The height of Piranesi’s Colonna Antonina, for example, is hugely exaggerated, its point piercing the cloud-studded sky. We see the Campidoglio with the Ara Coeli church mercifully unshadowed by the monstrous 19th-century Victor Emmanuel monument.

Piranesi’s work is exceptional in the 18th century in that it was fine art intended for reproduction. Already skilled in perspective and the use of light when, at 20, he left Venice for Rome, he had a heightened sense of drama from his early experiences as a stage designer. He often produced capriccios, giving the essence and atmosphere of crumbling ancient monuments and half-buried pagan temples, rather than an accurate account of their 18th-century appearance. Medieval and renaissance additions to old buildings are eliminated; both the Castel Sant’Angelo and the Teatro di Marcello are shown as they would have appeared if left undisturbed. In his earlier vedute, Piranesi also added plenty of local colour – washing strung between the ruins, crinolines parading up the Spanish steps, beggars, tradesmen and animated, arguing groups.

The first 34 of these large-scale views were published under the title Le Magnificenze di Roma in 1751, although it was not until 1778 that all the vedute were finally collected into a single volume, along with two wonderfully inventive frontispieces (also on show, along with the original copper plates), the “Great Plan of Rome” and a detailed archaeological reconstruction of the Campo Marzio area.

A vast number of prints were sold separately in the intervening years to young aristocratic Englishmen on their Grand Tour, with the result that Piranesi’s picturesque ruins had a huge influence on the landscaping of numerous English country houses. His later forays into interior decoration – inspired by Etruscan and Egyptian art, as well as the treasures being dug up in the 1760s from the new excavations at Pompeii – encouraged the Scottish architect Robert Adam to produce, for those same houses, some of the most imaginative interiors then seen in the UK.

Although Piranesi invariably described himself as “Architetto Veneziano” in his engravings, he only ever completed one architectural project – the restoration of the priory church of the Knights of Malta on the Aventine. During the last 10 years of his life, he started a lucrative trade from his new studio in the Via Sistina, restoring “ancient” vases and selling them to a second generation of Grand Tour visitors. He was helped by a distinguished team of restorers, such as Bartolomeo Cavaceppi and the English sculptor Joseph Nollekens.

To publicise his venture, in 1778 he produced a handsome bound volume with engravings, Vasi, Candelabri, Cippi, which indicated in which foreign collections the objects already sold could be found. These included the huge “Warwick Vase”, now in the Burrell collection in Glasgow. Long thought to be one of the finest examples of Roman art, it was in fact created by Piranesi and his colleagues from fragments of marble excavated by the archaeologist Gavin Hamilton at Hadrian’s Villa. Piranesi’s work is certainly beautiful – but you cannot count on its veracity.

‘Piranesi’s Rome: The 18th-Century City in the Grandi Vedute’ is at Museo del Corso, Rome, until February 25. Tel +39 66 78 62 09

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