The Inventive Hand: Selected Works by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

January 27–March 20, 1999

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) embodies the spirit of late Baroque art and architecture in Rome. A consummate printmaker, he was one of the most prolific artists of the eighteenth century. His bold inventiveness and fantastical imagination, manifested in the sheer power of his graphic technique, established new heights in printmaking.

The Inventive Hand: Selected Works by Giovanni Battista Piranesi draws upon the extensive holdings of Piranesi's works in Columbia University's Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library. The exhibition features selected prints from the Vedute di Roma and Le Antichità Romanae and includes the four Grotteschi as well as the complete first and second editions of the Carceri. Among other notable works are the monumental map of the Campi Martii (1762) and the twenty-three rare presentation drawings of one of Piranesi's few architectural commissions, the renovation of San Giovanni in Laterano (1764–7). Piranesi trained as an architect, engineer, and stage designer in Venice, prior to settling permanently in Rome in 1745. Although Venice and architecture loomed large in his self-conception—he referred to himself as architectvs venetvs throughout his life—his outstanding achievement came in printmaking: in his masterful handling of etching and in his true and invented views of Rome.

Expanding the genre of topographical views, Piranesi infused his compositions with liberal poetic license and imaginative verve; he abandoned conventions. The blurring of the line between empirical reality and pure fantasy provided a seedbed for Piranesi's fertile imagination. The four prints that he called Grotteschi, dating between 1747 and 1749, articulate this fusion in their inventive caprices on linearity and the macabre. Skeletons, heads, tombstones, and decaying objects intertwine in a dramatic explosion of line and atmosphere. Disregard for convention and rules is a defining characteristic of the developing genre of the capriccio. This approach combined with his scenographic training culminated in the fantastical, dramatic meditations of imaginary prison interiors, the Carceri d'Invenzione (1749–50). Increasingly fascinated with oblique angles and implausible spaces, Piranesi was compelled to rework the plates twelve years later: heightening the drama through deepening chiaroscuro, intensifying line, and manipulating spatial relations

The Inventive Hand: A Selection of Works by Giovanni Battista Piranesi is curated by Caroline J. Goodson, Jennifer E. Jones, and Caroline A. Wamsler, Ph.D. candidates in the Department of Art History and Archaeology, working with Professor Joseph Connors and Professor David Rosand. Fabio Barry also made contributions to the study.