Master Architect Of the Fallen Arch
Piranesi Etchings Evoke a Rome in Ruins

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2006

Images of destruction are regular fare, whether from Hollywood or the nightly news. But there is nothing like a Piranesi etching to convey the collapse of civilization.

Ruins on view at the Italian Cultural Institute conjure imperial Rome through the peculiar eyes of the 18th-century architect and artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi. With a vivid imagination and a skilled hand, he translated reality into some of the world's most haunting architectural images.

A triumphal arch crumbles in the sunlight. A magnificent villa is little more than rubble. A marble tomb of unimaginable thickness has been breached. On the remains of its frieze, forgotten heroes parade toward oblivion.

Ancient Rome was grand, but its monuments and mausoleums were never so much larger than life as in one of the artist's epic visions. Piranesi exploded scale in ways that put the focus on the grandiosity of architecture itself. Even in decline, the piles of stone inspire awe. What demands attention is not the calamity that reduced immense structures to slabs and shards, but rather the genius of creation.

That makes this brief exhibition of 24 works all the more riveting. They have come from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Carlos in Valencia, Spain, which has a substantial collection. Piranesi completed nearly 2,000 engravings. (Washington's National Gallery of Art possesses nearly 500. They were last treated to a big show of their own in 1978, the 200th anniversary of the artist's death, when senior curator and Piranesi scholar Andrew Robison gathered 150 prints, books and plates for "Piranesi: The Early Architectural Fantasies.")

More Piranesi is always better. This small group manages to show off the artist's incredible range and astonishing precision with complete clarity -- no matter that the subjects often grew from his own imagination.

Piranesi set out to illustrate the world of Roman antiquities. Here, spectacular compositions of broken urns, obelisks and chiseled stone recall emperors past (including one with a broken nose).

His "Vedute di Roma" ("Views of Rome") charmed 18th-century tourists seeking souvenirs of the Grand Tour, and assured him of a living. Piranesi's knack for rendering column capitals, laurel wreaths and acanthus leaves helped set off a wave of neoclassicism that has yet to subside.

The showstopper is an especially grim series of imaginary prisons, or "Carceri d'Invenzione."

Ten images from 1761 show ghostly characters wandering amid smoky scenes of endless arches, stone stairways and massive scaffolds strung with rope and chains. The artist had a fine instinct for a world-class horror show.

But focusing on the dark side would be to miss an essential aspect. Beyond the prison scenes, Piranesi excelled at scratching billowing clouds on copper plates. A scene of the Palace of Consulta, with its meticulously rendered pilasters and arched windows, is bathed in sunlight. There doesn't appear to have been a palmette or sphinx he didn't like, or couldn't render more exotic.

The exhibition opens with a portrait by Felice Polanzani, who portrayed Piranesi as a puckish character right out of ancient Rome. Piranesi studied set design as well as architecture before landing work with some of the finest printmakers of his day. He experimented with techniques to accentuate contrast and texture, achieving a look and evocative quality all his own.

As an architect, Piranesi completed only one building, the church of Santa Maria del Priorato in Rome. But his work shows a fascination with engineering and construction. One etching is a precise schematic for the lifting of stone blocks with ropes, pulleys and hooks, which speaks to the essential wow factor over the centuries: How did they do it?

This show was created for display in New York at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute and came to Washington almost by accident. The collection was due to be shipped back to Europe when Spanish cultural officers in Washington saw an opportunity to bring the show here. The Spanish Embassy has no exhibition space of its own. Jimena Paz and Francisco Tardio Baeza turned to the Italian Cultural Institute and lined up climate-controlled space in just three weeks. Walls have been painted a pearly green to create a Piranesi Room.

"The European Union does work," said Michele Giacalone, spokesman for the Italian side.

The etchings will make one more stop, in Mexico City, before being returned to Valencia for six months of rest in Piranesian darkness.

Piranesi: A View of the Artist Through the Collection of Engravings of the Royal Academy of San Carlos continues through April 3 at the Italian Cultural Institute, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 610. Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-noon and 2-4 p.m. Closed weekends. Call 202-223-9800 or visit http://www.italcultusa.org . Free.

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