The Discovery of Piranesi's Final Project
Stephen Lauf



15 September 1778
Imprimatur for Différentes vues de quelques Restes de trois grands Edifices qui subsistent encore dans le milieu de l'ancienne Ville de Pesto autrement Posidinia qui est située dans la Lucanie received. And let the sales begin.


[15 September] 1922
The last great work of his life was the series of large oblong plates illustrating the Temple at Paestum, entitled Différentes vues des quelques Restes de trois grands Édifices qui subsistent encore dans le milieu de lancienne Ville de Pesto, and published in 1778. The papal imprimatur was dated 15th September 1778, two months before Piranesi’s death. There is nothing of greater dignity of composition in his whole work, but in details of execution, notably in the figures, it falls below his standard. I think this is largely due to the co-operation of his son Francesco. The Frontispiece and pls. XIX and XX are signed by Francesco, and I suspect that he had a fair part in many of the remainder. The original drawings of fifteen of the plates (nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17) are in the Soane Museum, all in the same direction as the prints, except no. 2, which is in reverse.1 Their frames are now labelled G. B. Piranesi and F. Piranesi (the latter on 2, 4, 12 and 16), while the Inventory of 1837 only cites one (impossible to identify) as F. Piranesi. There is no apparent authority for the labels, but it is possible that the entries in the Inventory go back to a contemporary tradition.2 Apart from tradition, and in contrast with undoubted drawings by Giovanni Battista, one would be inclined to attribute the whole series to Francesco. But the architecture in both drawings and etchings is thoroughly worthy of Giovanni Battista, and the title-page, and signature Cav. Piranesi f. on most of the plates, seem too explicit to admit of doubt of the father’s authorship. But in both series the staffage has none of the characteristic style, the vivid and fantastic touch that one notes in almost all the etchings and drawings before this work. The figures are in fact coarsely drawn in broad outlines with nothing of the significance that one is accustomed to find in Giovanni Battista’s work. These coarse and awkwardly drawn figures are far more in the manner of those one meets in signed work by Francesco, e.g. pl. I of the Raccolta de' Tempi Antichi (1780). Moreover, in the architectural parts of this plate, as well as in the plates he signed in the Paestum series, Francesco showed that he was capable of work practically on the same level as the rest of the Paestum series attributed to his father. In his much later work, e.g. most of the large plates of the Antiquités de Pompeia (1804, &c.), Francesco has developed an infinitely broader and coarser manner. He imitates the breadth and vigour of his father’s Carceri, adds a ruthless, almost brutal strength of line, without ever showing one whit of his father’s genius for significant line and concentration of design. Here, again, we are met by a difficulty. This series of the Antiquités de Pompeia is described on the title-page as based on drawings by Giovanni Battista. Now two large drawings, undoubtedly related to this work, which have been attributed to G. B. Piranesi, in the British Museum, a View of a Street in Pompeii, similar to pl. VIII of the Antiquités de Pompeia (no. 1020 in the Paris edition of Firmin-Didot),3 and a View of the Temple of Isis, Pompeii, show the same coarse drawing of the figures seen in the Paestum drawings, with an even exaggerated rudeness of line. The second drawing is not engraved, and the first only corresponds roughly to one of Francesco’s plates, but, granting that they were originals done for this work, are we to follow the title-page and regard them as by Giovanni Battista? My instinct is to attribute these, and the Paestum drawings as well, to Francesco, but there is of course the extreme difficulty of meeting Francesco’s definite assertion to the contrary. One can hardly imagine him disclaiming parentage of his own work, especially when so good as the Paestum. There is one later example, a double plate entitled Dimostrazione dell’ Emissario del Lago Fucino (ed. Firmin-Didot, nos. 1024 and 1025), in which the inscriptions show that G. B. Piranesi designed and etched the plate which was then finished in engraving by Francesco. It is, of course, possible that the father may thus have done slighter sketches of Paestum, which Francesco elaborated into their final form, and that the actual work on the plates themselves may have been shared, as in the Lago Fucino. If one is not content with some such complex theory, with its opposition to documentary evidence, one is driven to admit a remarkable deterioration in the artistic quality of Giovanni Battista's drawings in his latest years.
In addition to the complete set of twenty-one plates, the Print Room of the British Museum acquired in 1914 from Messrs, B. T. Batsford an impression of a rejected plate of the same subject as no. 12, which is as far as I know unique (reproduced here). There is an empty cartouche, prepared for lettering, in the centre of the lower margin. The point of view is slightly different, and the further columns fall throughout in a different perspective to the foreground series. The figures are also different: on the right are two peasants in place of the peasant with a horse; two figures of the artists, one of whom is drawing, in the foreground in place of the three men with a dog; while the peasant seated against the column towards the left does not appear. Although of the same dimensions as the published plate, careful examination shows that it is a different plate, and not the same copper reworked. The general impression is a somewhat weaker relation of the foreground columns to the background (which could have been improved by rebiting), but in general it seems as well etched and composed as the published state, and the figures in the centre foreground are more spirited. It is difficult to see why it was laid aside.
The Paestum series are among the few examples known to me of finished drawings for the plates, which from their size might have been used in transfer. In his early work there was a large number of rapid pen sketches, which can be identified in many cases as studies for his etchings, but they are not engraver's drawings in the same sense as those of Paestum are. In his early imaginative work such as the 'Prisons', with their extraordinary freedom of style, one would expect that Piranesi etched direct on the plate without the intermediate aid of any transfer drawing. In the case of the more formal designs of the Opere Varie, and the more accurate topographical plates, it is almost inconceivable that he could have dispensed entirely with transfer drawings, but their absence might be explained by Piranesi having thrown them aside when their purpose was fulfilled.
1. No. 6 is reproduced in the Burlington Magazine, Jan. 1914.
2. Soane, who was in Rome 1778-80, is said to have received the drawings as a gift from Francesco.
3. Reproduced in Burlington Magazine, Jan. 1914.
Arthur M. Hind, Giovanni Battista Piranesi: A Critical Study (New York: 1922), pp. 19-21.

[1778-9] Pianta di Roma e del Campo Marz[i]o. F. 600. G. 30. XX (Catalogue of 1792). XVI (Catalogue of 1800). Dated Sept. 15, 1778 in catalogue of 1792. This being approbatio it might not have been published until 1779. On 4 plates (2 for the plan and 2 for title and topographical index). This is often bound with later issues of the Vedute di Roma.
Arthur M. Hind, Giovanni Battista Piranesi: A Critical Study (New York: 1922), p. 87.


15 September 2002

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


15 September 2022
If you asked me why I thought Piranesi didn't like the Syon House etchings being dated 1778, it was because he finished working on the plates 4 July 1776. He like the unwitting coincidence.

"By comparison with Ferdinando Bibiena's etchings, or a maquette attributed to the Valeriani brothers, Piranesi's designs represented a clear declaration of independence from the decors dominating Italian stages."
Alice Jarrard, "Perspectives on Piranesi and Theater" in Piranesi as Designer (New York: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, 2007), pp. 209-10.




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