Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Grotteschi

The Grotteschi, c. 1747; published in 1750. Set of four prints whose style and iconography join Piranesi’s imagination with the classicism of ancient Rome. The image takes us within the ancient ruins on an adventure to find forms long gone, now partially covered with shrubbery. We are on a visual excavation to uncover the hidden objects beneath. As we gaze across the image we see parts of statuary, satyrs, bones, vases and signs of the zodiac.
The revival of ancient Rome was a theme that fascinated Piranesi. One motif in ancient Roman decoration was the grotesque. Many of the images delineated in this scene are what we would call grotesques, for example the satyr in the mid left of the picture. Piranesi’s use of ancient Roman motifs educates and gives new life to an area that so intrigued him. Through Piranesi the classisicm of ancient Rome is reborn (D. Selinger).

The Triumphal Arch, detail from the Grotteschi, c. 1748

Created when Piranesi returned to Rome after a stay in Venice, where he is said to have worked briefly with Tiepolo, the four etchings of the Grotteschi series reflect Piranesi's encounter with the remarkable prints of the famous Venetian painter. The light, sketchy strokes of varying lengths found in some areas of the prints recall Tiepolo's technique, while the combination of skulls, vegetation, and crumbling ruins, as well as the ambiguity of the subject, are characteristics shared with Tiepolo's Scherzi and Capricci series. A few direct quotations from Tiepolo are seen in the Grotteschi—the smiling herm who appears in The Triumphal Arch has its source in one of Tiepolo's Scherzi. Whether Piranesi worked for Tiepolo or merely became acquainted with him, it appears likely that the older artist introduced Piranesi to the work of his favorite seventeenth-century printmakers. The skeletons in these prints recall certain etchings by Stefano della Bella, while Salvator Rosa—who also depicted piles of bones, ruins, and smoking urns—provid[ing] a model for the scribbled lines and webs of crosshatching that first appear in this series (Metropolitan Museum, New York).

Tomb of Nero (Tomba di Nerone, from the Grotteschi), c. 1747. Etching, engraving and drypoint, 39.6 x 54.7 cm. The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Piranesi's Grotteschi are architectural fantasies. A capriccio (pl. capricci, Eng. caprice) is an architectural fantasy that places together buildings, archaeological remains and other architectural elements in fictional, often fantastical combinations, with staffage of figures. Capriccio fits under the more general term of landscape painting and may also be used of other types of work with an element of fantasy. This genre was developed by Marco Ricci and its best-known proponent was the painter Giovanni Paolo Pannini. The style was extended in the 1740s by Canaletto in the Vedute ideale (panoramas) and Piranesi in his Grotteschi, both etched. The Capricci, an influential series of etchings by Gianbattista Tiepolo (c. 1730, published in 1743), reduce the architectural elements to chunks of classical statuary and ruins, among which small groups made up of a cast of exotic and elegant figures of soldiers, philosophers and beautiful young people who go about their enigmatic business. No individual titles help to explain these works, where mood and style are everything. A later series by Tiepolo is called Scherzi di fantasia (Fantastic Sketches). The son of this artist, Domenico Tiepolo, was among those who imitated this type of imagery, using often the term "Capriccio" in titles.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Grotteschi, 1720 to 1750
by Francesco Nevola
The suite of etchings called by Piranesi the Grotteschi, published in 1750 in the compilation volume Opere Varie, have for more than two-hundred and fifty years eluded interpretation. Long recognised by scholars as being ‘touched by the artist’s tragic imagination', more recent ‘attempts to reduce the Grotteschi collectively or individually, to a specific, hermetic philosophical system have met with little success…’ In this volume these four magnificent prints are viewed as pivotal works in Piranesi’s early output and a comprehensive narrative interpretation of their meaning is proposed adopting an approach, analogous to that applied by Wilton-Ely to explain the iconography of the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, or that used by Gavuzzo-Stewart in her clear penetration of the Carceri. This study which follows step-by-step Piranesi’s youthful artistic and intellectual endeavours between the Venice of Scalfarotto and Tiepolo and the Rome of Gian Battista Nolli, Giovanni Gaetano Bottari and the enlightened Corsini court proposes the Grotteschi as both testament and culmination of his first decade’s experiences. For Piranesi the years up to 1750 were particularly fecund: they are marked by apprenticeships in Venice and Rome, by economic difficulties, by successes and failures, and incessant travels in search of vocational fulfilment. In following these important years we are able to trace how they contribute to Piranesi’s rapid intellectual development and to his evolution of an original, vital, graphic idiom that finds its first mature expression in the Grotteschi universally recognised as the artist’s most ‘venetian’ works. Considered through the viewing filter of the paragone the Grotteschi are presented as Piranesi’s expression of direct rivalry with the great etching masters of the past: from Mantegna, Durer and Rembrandt to Salvator Rosa, Castiglione, della Bella and Tiepolo, as well as his bid to establish his own place among their revered ranks. These works also represent the culmination and conclusion of a series of experiments, protracted over the course of a decade, in which Piranesi appears to have attempted to develop the picturesque capriccio of ruins into a type of image capable of bearing specific meaning, thereby giving visual form to his idea of ‘ruine parlanti’. In conclusion, following a close reading of the visual and textual sources that inform Piranesi’s Grotteschi, the impact of these etchings is assessed on the artist’s work of the 1760s, in particular on his only built edifice, the church of the Knights of Malta, Santa Maria del Priorato, which is the culmination of a second phase of intense creativity in the artist’s career.

The Triumphal Arch. Densely filled with arcane imagery, this print reflects the obscure literary allusions and poetic riddles devised by the esoteric society of the Arcadians in Rome, to which Piranesi belonged.

Piranesi, I Grotteschi: Capricci, c. 1747

Capriccio 1, known as The Skeletons

Capriccio 2

Capriccio 3

Capriccio 4

PIRANESI, "Troppo pittore… per essere incisore."
by Francesco Nevola
Roma: Ugo Bozzi, 2010. Italian text. Expanded version of 2009 English edition.
In his biography of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) J.G. Legrand records the etcher Giuseppe Vasi's assessment of his Venetian pupil: 'Vous être trop peintre, mon ami, pour être graveur' - 'You are too much a painter, my friend, to be an etcher.' Recent studies of Piranesi have not explored the full implications of this statement. Vasi clearly refers to his knowledge of Piranesi's career as a painter prior to his apprenticeship as an etcher, referring to it as a hindrance in this purpose. No evidence remains today of any paintings Piranesi might have made, however his biographer Legrand refers that Piranesi studied with Piazzetta, Canaletto and Tiepolo and that he also painted in the manner of Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione and the Bamboccianti. This assertion suggests that a diverse but substantial body of paintings by the young Piranesi, although now lost without trace, once existed. The present work, spans the earliest years of Piranesi's career from his birth in 1720 through to the issue of his first works in a mature technique, the Grotteschi, published in the compilation volume Opere Varie of 1750. In the first part of the present study the chronology of this period is reviewed in detail, taking into consideration the various possible apprenticeships undertaken by Piranesi during these early years, assessing the significance of his contacts among the artists, connoisseurs and aristocrats with whom he had associations in Venice and Rome and documenting his rapid intellectual and artistic development during these tumultuous years spent between the lagoon city and the Eternal City. In the second part of this study the influence of painters and etchers of Piranesi's generation and earlier generations is examined in detail, particularly in relation to his production of ruin capricci - a small but important body of work in Piranesi's output which find their final culmination in his four masterful etchings the Grotteschi. Here points of comparison are drawn from among the greatest exponents of etching from Mantegna and Durer to Rembrandt, Castiglione and Salvator Rosa as well as to contemporary painters such as G.B. Tiepolo and G.P. Panini. The influence on the young Piranesi of artists such as these, is seen not only as part of his auto-didactic approach to the improvement of his own style, but as a means to rival directly and claim his own place among such luminaries' revered ranks. In this context a selection of Piranesi's early etched vedute are also compared directly with the works of earlier masters such as G.B. Falda and A. Specchi as well as his peers Canaletto and Bellotto alongside whom there is a substantial possibility that he worked. The third part of the present volume concerns interpretation. In view of the early eighteenth century taste for rovinismo in prints, paintings and architectural follies to complete landscaped gardens and Piranesi's rapidly increasing wealth of archaeological knowledge, the ruin capricci of his first published volume Prima Parte di Architettura e Prospettiva of 1743, are considered as direct expressions of his concept of 'parlanti ruine' or speaking ruins. Through the introduction of didactic captions, it is suggested that Piranesi transformed these early prints into 'readable' images, thereby introducing to his works evidence of the potent polemical content that would first distinguish his works from those of his peers and later become an integral feature of his productions. In this context, the Grotteschi, the meaning of which has eluded scholars since their first appearance in 1750, are considered as the culmination of this early development of polemical images and for the first time presented as representing a single coherent text based narrative expressing the ancient's creation myth. An elegiac subject entirely in keeping with Piranesi's objectives as an architect-archaeologist, etcher-publisher driven to renew contemporary taste in light of the surviving achievements of antiquity. A role that over the course of his brief fifty-eight years of life Piranesi was to successfully fill becoming the unrivalled father of Neo-classicism.

Piranesi, Plan of a Large and Magnificent College Building, from Opere Varie di Archittetura, Prospettive, Grotteschi, Antichità, 1750

European Ornamental Prints
Piranesi as Designer
Non solo arte

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