The Dizzying Imagination of PIRANESI at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam

Piranesi achieved notoriety through his engravings of nightmarish prison scenes, the likes of which could have been used to illustrate Dante’s Inferno or scenes from a scary planet in Star Trek or Dr Who. They would equally be at home in one of today’s computer games – in fact, the settings for Game of Thrones were inspired by the pictures. This exhibition offers a wonderful and comprehensive overview of Piranesi’s work. By his own admission, with his engravings he was determined to preserve the ruined temples and buildings of Rome forever as he witnessed their gradual destruction by greedy owners.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) had been trained by his father, a stone mason. His brother, a Carthusian monk, taught him about archaeology and antiquity and his uncle finally brought him to architecture.

He took on the task of recording the ancient buildings of Rome as a photographer would today. Much of his work was the rather romanticised recording of buildings, but his imagination had other plans for his work. He was influenced by Venetian theatre, by fantastic fables. The dimensions of the buildings in his work were gigantic, the figures of people, tiny. The engravings of temples, such as the Temple of Neptune, lying in ruins, gradually devoured by ivy and trees growing out of the old walls, are the most dramatic; often groups of cows and sombre figures of beggars linger or amble among the fallen stones. They are scenes of utter desolation and devastation. Piranesi was a master draughtsman, an expert at manipulating perspective; he used light and dark shadows to create an atmosphere of doom which no doubt best expressed his melancholy when witnessing the loss of such treasures.

It is said that he only ever secured one actual architectural commission. Perhaps his tendency to over-dramatise was too much for his prospective clients. Going through this exhibition it  becomes clear what influence Piranesi had on future generations of artist and architect. Isambard Kingdom Brunel owed much to Piranesi’s detailed record of the imposing, grandiose Roman buildings. And, looking at Piranesi’s imaginary prison series, so did the Netherland’s own M C Escher – the crazy, inescapable labyrinth of stairs leading to nowhere in particular.

This is a unique chance to see these spectacular works together, on loan from the now closed Boijmans van Beuningen Museum. Anyone who has ever done any etching or engraving can only stand in awe when considering the task of drawing directly onto enormous sheets of copper, with almost no preparatory sketches, and inking and printing the plates, some of which seem to be a meter wide. Highly recommended.   Astrid Burchardt  1st June 2019

The Dizzying Imagination of Pirenesi continues at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam until 1st September