“Battlements that on their restless fronts bore stars” is a line from Wordsworth that Thomas de Quincey approvingly quotes in regard to his opium-induced “architectural dreams,” and, aptly enough, immediately after a page devoted to Piranesi, the etcher, architect, and visionary. You may find this page in The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, that book of terror, beauty, mystification, and fudge (De Quincey deluded himself quite as much as his readers in this autobiography, which, like the confessions of most distinguished men, must not be taken too literally):
“Many years ago,” he wrote, “when I was looking over Piranesi’s Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist, called his Dreams, which record the scenery of his own soul during the delirium of a fever. Some of them (described only from memory of Mr. Coleridge’s account) represented vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery expressive of enormous power put forth and resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls, you perceived a staircase, and upon it, groping his way upward, was Piranesi himself, Follow the stairs a, little farther and you perceive it to come to a sudden, abrupt termination, without any balustrade, and allowing no step onward to him who had reached the extremity, except into the depths below. Whatever is to become of poor Piranesi ? You suppose, at least, that his labours must in some way terminate here. But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher, on which again Piranesi is perceived, by this time standing on the very brink of the abyss. Again elevate your eyes, and a still more aerial flight of stairs is beheld, and again is poor Piranesi on his aspiring labours, and so on, until the ‘unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall.”
This plate was evidently one of the Careeri set sixteen in all which the etcher improvised after some severe cerebral malady. What would we not give to have heard the poet of Kubla Khan describing the fantastic visions of the Venetian artist to the English opium eater! The eloquence of the prose passage we have transcribed has in it some faint echoes of Coleridge’s golden rumble. That these two men appreciated the Italian is something; perhaps they saw chiefly in his work its fantastic side. There was no saner craftsman than Piranesi apart from certain of his plates; no more solid construction in a print can be shown than his various interpretations of the classic ruins of Rome, the temples at Paestum. He was a great engraver and etcher whose passion was the antique. He deliberately withdrew from all commerce with the ideas and art of his own times. He loved architecture for architecture’s sake; not as a decoration, not as a background for humanity, but as something personal. It was for him what the human face was for Rembrandt and Velasquez. That he was called the Rembrandt of Architecture is but another testimony to the impression he made upon his contemporaries, though the title is an unhappy one. Piranesi even in his own little fenced-off coign of art is not comparable to the etcher of the Hundred Guilder print, nor are there close analogies in their respective hand-ling of darks and lights.
It might be nearer the mark to call Piranesi though all such comparisons are thorns in the critical flesh the Salvator Rosa of architecture, for there is much of Salvator’s unbridled violence, fantasy, and genius for deforming the actual that is to be encountered in some of Piranesi’s works. His was not a classic temperament. The serene, airy, sun-bathed palaces and temples which Claude introduced into his foregrounds are seldom en-countered in Piranesi. A dark Gothic imagination his, Gothic and often cruel. In his etching of public buildings at Rome or elsewhere, while he is not always faultless in drawing or scrupulous in observation, such was the sincerity and passion of the man that he has left us the noblest transcriptions of these stately edifices and monuments. It is in the rhythmic expression of his personal moods that his sinister romantic imaginings are revealed, and with a detail and fulness that are positively overwhelming.
It should not be forgotten that in the eighteenth and in the early part of the nineteenth centuries Piranesi achieved widespread popularity. He was admired outside of Italy, in England, in France, and Germany. A generation that in England read Vathek and Mrs. Radcliffe, supped on the horrors of Melmoth and Frankenstein, knew E. T. W. Hoffmann and the Gelman romantic literature, could be relied on to take up Piranesi, and for his lesser artistic side. Poe knew his work and Baudelaire; we see that for De Quincey he was a kindred spirit. The English mezzotinter John Martin must have studied him closely, also Gustave Doré.
The Carceri (175o) of Piranesi are indoor compositions, enclosed spaces in which wander aimlessly or deliriously the wraiths of damned men, not a whit less wretched nor awful than Dante’s immemorial mob. Piranesi shows us cavernous abodes where appalling engines of torture fill the foreground, while above, at vertiginous heights, we barely discern perilous passageways, haunted windows peering out upon the high heavens, stone fretted ceilings that are lost in a magic mist. By a sort of diabolic modulation the artist conducts our eye from these dizzy angles and granitic con-volutions down tortuous and tumultuous staircases that seemingly wind about the axis of eternity. To traverse them would demand an eternity and the nerves of a madman. Lower barbaric devices reveal this artist’s temperament. He is said to have executed the prison set “during the delirium of fever.” This is of the same calibre as the clotted nonsense about Poe composing when intoxicated or Liszt playing after champagne. It is a credible anecdote for Philistines who do not realise that even the maddest caprice, whether in black and white, marble, music, or verse, must be executed in silence and cold blood. Piranesi simply gave wing to his fancy, recalling the more vivid of his nightmares as did Coleridge, De Quincey, Poe, Baudelaire, and the rest of the drug-steeped choir.
We recall one plate of Piranesi’s in which a miserable devil climbs a staircase suspended over an abyss; as he mounts each step the lower one crumbles into the depths below.
The agony of the man (do you recall The Torture by Hope of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam?) is shown in his tense, crouching attitude, his hands clawing the masonry above him. Nature is become a monstrous fever, existence a shivering dread. You overhear the crash of stone into the infernal cellarage –where awaits the hunted wretch perhaps a worse fate than on the pinnacles above. It is a companion piece to Martin’s Sadak searching for the Waters of Oblivion. Another plate depicts with ingenuity terraces superimposed upon terraces, archways spaced like massive music, narrow footways across which race ape-like men, half naked, eagerly preparing some terrible punishments for criminals handcuffed and guarded. They are to walk a sharp-spiked bridge. Gigantic chains swing across stony precipices, a lamp depends from a roof whose outlines are merged in the gray dusk of dreams. There is cruelty, horror, and a sense of the wickedly magnificent in the ensemble. What crimes were committed to merit such atrocious punishment? The boldness and clearness of it all! With perspicacity George Saintsbury wrote of Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony: “It is the best example of dream literature that I know most writers who have tried this style have erred, inasmuch as they have endeavoured to throw a portion of the mystery with which the waking mind invests dreams over the dream itself. Any one’s experience is sufficient to show that this is wrong. The events of dreams, as they happen, are quite plain and matter of fact, and it is only in the intervals that any suspicion occurs to the dreamer.”
Certainly Piranesi remembered his dreams. He is a realist in his delineation of details, though the sweep and breadth of an ideal design are never absent. He portrays ladders that scale bulky joists, poles of incredible thickness, cyclopean block and tackling. They are of wood, not metal nor marble, for the art of Piranesi is full of discriminations. Finally, you weary. The eye gorged by all the mystic engines, hieroglyphs of pain from some impossible inquisition –though not once do we see a monkish figure – all these anonymous monkey men scurrying on what errand Piranesi alone knows; these towering arches, their foundations resting on the crest of hell (you feel the tremendous impact of the architectural mass upon the earth no mean feat to represent or rather to evoke the sense of weight, of pressure on a flat surface); the muffled atmosphere in these prisons from which no living prisoner emerges; of them all you weary, for the normal brain can only stand a certain dose of the delirious and the melancholy. This aspect, then, of Piranesi’s art, black magic in all its potency, need no longer detain us. His Temples of Paestum sound. a less morbid key than his Carceri, and as etchings quite outrank them.
Giambattista Piranesi was born at Venice in 1720. Bryan says that about 1738 his father sent him to Rome, where he studied under Valerians, through whom he acquired the style of Valerian’s master, Marco Ricci of Belluno. With Vasi, a Sicilian engraver, he learned that art. Ricci and Pannini were much in vogue, following the example of Claude in his employment of ruins as a picturesque element in a composition. But Piranesi excelled both Ricci and Pannini. He was an architect, too, helping to restore churches, and this accounts for the proud title, Architect of Venice, which may be seen on some of his plates. He lived for a time in Venice, but Rome drew him to her with an imperious call. And, notwithstanding the opposition of his father; to Rome he went, and for forty years devoted himself to his master passion, the pictorial record of the beloved city, the ancient portions of which were fast vanishing owing to time and the greed of their owners. This was Piranesi’s self-imposed mission, begun as an exalted youth, finished as an irritable old man. Among his architectural restorations, made at the request of Clement XIII, were the two churches of Santa Maria del PopoIo and 11 Priorato. Lanciani says that Il Priorato is “a mass of monstrosities inside and out.” It is his etching, not his labour as an architect, that will make Piranesi immortal. He seems to have felt this, for he wrote that he had “executed a work which will descend to posterity and will last so long as there will be men desirous of knowing all that has survived the ruins of the most famous city of the universe.”
In the black-and-white portrait of the etcher by F. Polonzani, we see a full-cheeked man with a well-developed forehead, the features of the classic Roman order, the general expression not far removed from a sort of sullen self-satisfaction. But the eyes redeem. They are full, lustrous, penetrating, and introspective. The portrait etched by the son of Piranesi, after a statue, discovers him posed in a toga, the general effect being classic and consular. His life, like that of all good workmen in art, was hardly an eventful one. He married precipitately and his wife bore him two sons (Francesco, the etcher, born at Rome, 1748 Bryan gives the date as 1756 – died at Paris, 1810) and a daughter (Laura, born at Rome, 1750 date of death unknown). These children were a consolation to him. Both were engravers. Francesco frequently assisted his father in his work, and Bryan says that Laura’s work resembled her father’s. She went to Paris with her brother and probably died there. She left some views of Rome. Francesco, with his brother Pietro, attempted to found an academy in Paris and later a terra cotta manufactory.
The elder Piranesi was of a quarrelsome disposition. He wrangled with an English patron, Viscount Charlemont, and, like Beethoven, destroyed title-pages when he became displeased with the subject of his dedications. He was decorated with the Order of Christ and was proud of his membership in the London Society of Antiquaries. It is said that the original copper plates of his works were captured by a British man-of-war during the Napoleonic conflict. This probably accounts for the dissemination of so many revamped and coarsely executed versions of his compositions. His besetting fault was a tendency toward an Egyptian blackness in his composition. Fond of strong contrasts as was John Martin, he is, at times, as great a sinner in the handling of his blacks. An experimenter of audacity, Piranesi’s mastery of the technique of etching has seldom been equalled, and even in his inferior work the skilful printing atones for many defects. The remarkable richness and depth of tone, brought about by continuous and innumerable bitings, and other secret processes known only to himself, make his plates warm and brilliant. Nobility of form, grandeur of mass, a light and shade that is positively dramatic in its dispersion over wall and tower, are the characteristic marks of this unique etcher. He could not resist the temptation of dotting with figures the huge spaces of his ruins. They dance or recline or indulge in uncouth gestures. His shadows are luminous you may gaze into them; his high lights caught on some projection or salient cornice or silvering the august porticoes of a vanished past, all these demonstrate his feeling for the dramatic. And dramatic is the impression evoked as you study the majestic temples that were Paestum, the bare, ruined arches and pillars that were Rome. It is Paestum that is the more vivid. It tallies, too, with the Piranesi plates; while Rome has visibly changed since his day. His original designs for chimneys, Diverse Maniere d’Adornare i Camini, are pronounced by several critics as “foolish and vulgar.” He left nearly two thousand etchings, and died at Rome November 9, 1778. His son erected a mediocre statue by Angolin for his tomb in Il Priorato. A manuscript life of Piranesi, which was in Lon-don about 183o, is now lost. Bryan’s dictionary gives a partial Iist of his works “as published both by himself in Rome and by his sons in Paris. The plates passed from his sons first to Firmin-Didot, and ultimately into the hands of the Papal Government.”
De Quincey’s quotation of Wordsworth is apposite in describing Piranesi’s creations: Battlements that on their restless fronts bore stars”; from sheer brutal masonry, gray, aged, and moss-encrusted, he invented a precise pattern and one both passionate and magical.