Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the subject of an exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London (until May 31), was a man after my own heart. When he wasn’t chasing visions of antiquity through remnants and ruins, he was thinking up ways to fill in the gaps to make the past complete.
As an artist, architect and archaeologist combined, Piranesi had an equal regard for mathematical precision and the imagination’s flight. It would be easy to object to many of the grandiose designs he made in the mid-18th century on grounds of inaccuracy. Of those on display, we have the Via Appia in Rome presented as though it were a promenade of towering tombs piled like bric-a-brac in a cluttered shop window. And a pair of griffin-shaped legs he saw at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli are made to support an altar, when in fact they derived from a tripod. But that would be missing the point. If he hadn’t adopted a Frankenstein approach to reassembling the past, it’s doubtful he would have been satisfied he had made sense of it. Besides, it was the hotchpotch nature of these pieces that made them, in his eyes, suited to his own times.
Not everyone, however, agreed. Born in 1720 in Treviso, then part of the Republic of Venice, but resident for much of his life in Rome, Piranesi produced a series of collected works, including Diverse Maniere d’Adornare i Cammini and Vasi, Candelabri, Cippi, Sarcophagi, which bulge with designs for new objects inspired by antique ones. It is only now that many of these pieces, considered for the most part too avant-garde for the period, have been realised in three-dimensions. Eight of the objects have been made in the round for the exhibition. Sir John Soane met Piranesi in Italy in 1778 and soon became an avid collector of his work.
Designers at Factum Arte, a workshop in Madrid, have used 3D printers and computers to make moulds from which each piece was cast. If that sounds light years ahead of Piranesi, think again. Like the great draughtsman, seeking to discover how one ancient fragment fitted with another and using his imagination to plug any discernible gaps, the modern designer and craftsman must join together the various views contained in Piranesi’s drawings to make a whole. A frontal view and side elevation reveal elements of the final picture.
The results are breathtaking. The altar taken from Hadrian’s tripod has sprung from Piranesi’s page to the foot of Soane’s staircase, a thing of bronze and black marble scagliola (plaster resembling marble), no less robust, if a little less ornate, than the sum of its ancient parts. In the drawing-room is a silver coffee pot designed like two interlocking shells with a tortoise base and bee spout. It is crowned with a circle of small shells, these modelled purely on a computer, while that which rests on the tortoise was derived from a natural shell. Other objects include a plaster candelabrum, chimneypiece, and gilt chair (pictured above).
Purists will scramble to discern a difference between the natural and computer-driven forms, but one should really enter the spirit of the project. Piranesi, after all, restored many of the antiquities he acquired, mixing old with new. Many a ruin has been salvaged before now by an injection of cement. If Piranesi were working today, critics might be tempted to describe his use of antiquity as “appropriation”, a term used too often as a convenient way of sidestepping issues of plagiarism. But with Piranesi the process is rather one of continuous rebirth. One can only imagine his delight upon discovering that his antiquities are still evolving.