Back in the conformist ‘50s when some Americans felt oppressed, there was a backlash fashion for the art of the 18th-Century Italian engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Now he’s back again in a handsomely installed exhibition at USC’s Fisher Gallery titled, “The Art of Exaggeration: Piranesi’s Perspectives on Rome.” It’s impossible to avoid a sense that the show is somehow linked to a wave of neo-conformity presently sweeping the land.
The most renowned printmaker of his day, Piranesi actually wanted to be an architect. It was certainly disappointing to him that he never received more than one architectural commission, but it was lucky for posterity.
He made his fame with engravings of the eternal city’s ancient monuments. It was the heyday of the Grand Tour, and patrician travelers loved buying into his grandiose vision. The English were especially avid. Architects as noted as Robert Adam were influenced by Piranesi’s energetic and fantastical renditions of the Coliseum and Forum. He certainly contributed to a British fashion for planned ruins and architectural follies.
He was no mere topographer. Born in Venice, he brought to Rome his hometown taste for making exotic imaginings real. He studied Baroque theatrical design and used all its panache and hyperbole. He employed bird’s-eye views, stretched perspectives and dramatic contrasts of light and dark. He innovated within the folio format of his prints. One depicting Trajan’s Column folds out to nearly 10 feet high. An especially pyrotechnic night piece shows Castel Sant’ Angelo lit by exploding fireworks. It leaves no doubt that Piranesi was an early Romantic.
He was also a businessman. In the period of the Enlightenment, nobody had a problem with the idea that the soul of an artist and the mind of an accountant could coexist in one body. Piranesi calculated the potential profit of an edition of prints down to the last scudi. Since his clientele was largely foreign, he catered to them, establishing a workshop in Paris.
His combined sense of theater and calculation was fueled by an artistic ego determined to leave its mark. But fashion rolled over on him in the form of a Neo-Classical revival that preferred the grace of Greece to the muscularity of Rome. Piranesi fought back, ferociously issuing broadsides and bad-mouthing his opponents to influential friends.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that he was at least as interested in guarding his turf as in defending aesthetic principle. It does take a fairly well-developed sense of paradox to appreciate the fact that the work that gained him the fame he so desired amounted to the most scathing criticism of the spirit of Rome on visual record.
It wasn’t his topographical views that attracted later Romantics, Surrealists, Beatniks and disillusioned yuppies. It was a series of experimental imaginary views of architectural interiors. He etched images of great, cavernous, labyrinthine spaces spanned with arches, bridges and endless staircases crisscrossed with senseless threatening shadows.
Clearly a product of the subconscious, these haunted scenes evidently did not initially sell very well. Rather than cutting his losses by backing off, Piranesi had the courage to further dramatize his point. Comparative prints hung side-by-side show that he added the tombs, skeletons, spikes and instruments of torture that qualified the suites title, “Prisons.”
Far from addressing the glory and civilizing influence exercised by Rome at it’s best, they speak of its arrogance and oppressive giantism. And they speak across the centuries. They are not about the oppression of a wretched individual in a tiny cell. They are about whole peoples held in the thrall of collective paranoia by the force of massive society. These prisons are as much today’s corporate monoliths as they are ancient ruins.
Like Goya’s later prints, they combine a vision of an evil world that makes us want to reject it with a surpassing felicity of execution that makes us want to embrace its beauty.
The exhibition is based on a complete collection of Piranesi prints owned by USC and fleshed out with loans. It’s an exercise for students graduating from the Museum Studies Program. They organized the exhibition under the guidance of professor Eunice Howe. It’s handsome, professional and comes with a particularly encouraging little catalogue. Essays contributed by the students show directness and clarity in a field too often plagued with pretentious jargon. Student curators include Julia Doran, Christine Knoke, Leslie Rabinovitz, Marisa Rothman, Angline Taccini and Kelly White.
* USC Fisher Gallery, 823 Exposition Blvd., to April 15, closed Sundays and Mondays, (213) 740-4561.