Piranesi's Dark Brain

Etchings that could be the 18th-century equivalent of postcards get a show at UAMA

Henry James' novels are full of Isabelle Archers and Daisy Millers, America ingénues who hasten to the Old World to drink in the splendors of classical Rome.

In the 19th century, when James was writing, a Grand Tour of Europe had become de rigueur for well-brought-up young ladies and gentlemen, particularly from the rising merchant classes of America. But the Grand Tour wasn't invented by entrepreneurial Americans: The English pioneered it way back in the mid-18th century. With archaeology in its infancy, interest in the classical world reached a fever pitch, and well-heeled Europeans rushed to see the marble ruins of the ancients for themselves.

The artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose work can be sampled in a small show at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, was well positioned to take advantage of the onslaught of visitors. He moved to the new tourism epicenter of Rome in 1740, after studying architecture and engineering in his native Venice. A prodigiously gifted draftsman--and entrepreneur--Piranesi created etchings by the thousands of the crumbling Coliseum, the Forum and other Roman ruins.

He used copper plates, working the metal so carefully in parallel lines that he routinely pulled some 3,000 prints from a single plate, way above the average of 100 prints, according to Marguerite Yourcenar's essay "The Dark Brain of Piranesi" (the title comes from a Victor Hugo poem).

Piranesi published these pictures in fine volumes with such titles as Views of Rome. He sold the prints to wealthy travelers, who brought them back home to every corner of Europe, where their awestruck neighbors conceived a desire to see the amazing antiquities in person. Thus the artist not only capitalized on the craze--he intensified it.

In the same way that brightly colored tourism photographs today create a longing, say, to see the Eiffel Tower or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Piranesi's views of the haunting Roman ruins triggered a virtual rush for the Eternal City. His views weren't clichéd, but they became the standard images of ancient Rome. So influential was he, that he helped instigate a movement that might be called historic preservation. Before his time, Romans saw the disintegrating monuments as a fine source of stone, and they carried off the tumbled marble to insert in their own walls. After Piranesi, the architectural remnants were prized and preserved as is, charming reminders of the ancient world.

But Piranesi's work was neither tame nor tidy. He drew ruins, not reconstructions, and romanticized them, so much so that Byron, Keats and Goethe came to Rome on his account. It's not surprising that these Romantic poets were so inclined, because Piranesi's work stands in between rational classicism and emotional romanticism. The architecturally trained Piranesi rendered the buildings ably, but he exaggerated their proportions, and endowed them with dramatic shadows and light. He made his ruins monumental--not to say monstrous--and had them dwarf the tiny humans he pictured venturing inside them. And not all his work had a basis in the actual city. Some prints, while inspired by classical architecture, were dark fantasies of nightmare prisons, the famous Carceri.

The 19 Piranesi etchings at the UAMA give us a chance to see what the fuss was all about. Drawn from its own collections, The Reason for Ruins was curated by Christina Lindeman, a doctoral candidate who will be the first-ever art history Ph.D. from the UA. She's divided the show between Piranesi's pictures of standard tourist sites and the fantastical creations from his imagination.

"View of the Arch of Constantine and the Coliseum" is typical. Dated 1760, this etching pictures the familiar stadium rising up in the background. Piranesi, son of a stone mason and nephew of an engineer, lovingly records the stone arches and pillars, and the concentric circles of the amphitheater. The whole thing is composed of straight, sure lines, but Piranesi varies them nicely, from light, thin pale strokes of ink to thick, dark and jaggedy ones. (Yourcenar points out that in later printings from the same plate, the etched grooves wore down, the ink pooled and the shadowing patches grew more prominent.) Anyone making the Grand Tour would be proud to bring this print back to a London drawing room as evidence of the traveler's taste and erudition.

But there's something not quite photographic about his view. The Coliseum is unrealistic, towering gigantically above the city. A tiny Cinderella-style carriage approaches the ruins, presumably carrying the same type of wealthy traveler who might buy the print as a souvenir. Nearby, Lilliputian visitors in 18th-century dress wander around. And in the foreground, another drama altogether is unfolding. Under wild branching trees, a disorderly band of beggars presides, complete with a beggar king in tri-corner hat, and underlings bowing to him in homage.

The classical order that Piranesi is ostensibly celebrating is undermined by a dark and disorderly romanticism. Danger lurks in the shadow of the monument to rationalism. And the grand structures overpower the diminutive humans in a way that becomes more ominous the more you look at them. These are, after all, vestiges of imperial Rome.

Most of the pictures follow this same pattern. "Porticos Surrounding a Forum with a Royal Palace" has wildly exaggerated perspective, with giant arches and pillars' pediments looming above the ant-like humans lost in their grand spaces. And the city seems infinite: Glimpsed dimly through the archway, its distant buildings seem to go on forever.

In the end, these deceptively staid architectural views have more in common with the terrifying prisons than you might have thought. The prison series, justly famous, is represented here by just one example, "The Carcere III (The Round Tower"), from 1761. An etching tinted with sulphur, this pictures a dark and shadowy prison with no exit. Endless staircases circle around the great Round Tower, but they never meet up. Bridges to nowhere extend from one side of the structure to the next, but they lead only to dead ends, not doorways. Tiny humans travel these stairs and bridges nonetheless, trapped for eternity. Dark brain, indeed.

Piranesi heightens the fear with an ant's-eye perspective. We're at the bottom of this dungeon, like inmates at the lowermost circle of hell, looking up, trying vainly for a glimpse of the heavens we know must be above us.

This scary Carcere apparently appealed to Louis XV. It's disconcerting to read in Yourcenar that the French king had a copy of the prisons book in 1763, not long before the Revolution; whether he prized it as a how-to or as an art book is unclear. But for sure Piranesi endures, at least in part, because his vision foreshadows the apparatus of the modern state and its horrors--including the new American torture chambers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

At the very least, there's an unease in this work, an anxious worry that the good old classical world is not all it's cracked up to be. Isabel Archer and Daisy Miller found this out the hard way. Isabel naively married a European who turns out to epitomize Old World corruption. And poor Daisy died of malaria, a Roman fever caught in the shadow of the Coliseum.

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