a new and separate metabolic imagination

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2021.07.04 09:00
Laura Piranesi
I, Stephen Lauf, now seen the very distinct possibility that the orphan print of the Maxentian complex on the Via Appia is the work of Laura Piranesi, and that she and her father worked together in creating the second states of the Pianta dell antico Foro Romano and the Ichnographia Campus Martius. That these projects are the work of Laura Piranesi provides a plausable explanation as to why these particular works remained historically unrecorded (by Francesco Piranesi).

John Wilton-Ely, The Mind and Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978).

According to his som Francesco, the series was begun in 1748, but recent research suggests that certain of these plates may well be earlier than the small vedute of the Archi Trionfali.

While the earliest fixed date for this series is 1751, when thirty-four of the plates were published by Giovanni Bouchard in Le Magnificenze di Roma, it is certain that at least nineteen of them were available in a definable set a good deal earlier, probably indeed before 1748, the traditional date of inception giver by Francesco Piranesi.

Socially no longer the recluse of eccentric habits described by Hubert Robert, Piranesi was bring up a family after his marriage with Angela Pasquini, daughter of the Corsinis; gardener, in 1752. His daughter Laura was born in 1755, and his first son, Francesco, around 1758-9, both of them to be trained as collaborators with the intention that they should carry on the family business.
By 1 March 1761 Piranesi had moved to new premises in Palazzo Tomati in the Strada Felice (now Via Sistina), close to the Trinità de' Monti at the top of the Spanish Steps.

Most important of all, however, Piranesi was no longer dependent on Bouchard and Gravier, now signing his plates presso l'autore nel Palazzo Tomati. He established his own printing business, with a far closer contact than ever with the vital process of produciong his plates. At about this th=ime also he issued the first state of the invaluable Catalogo inciso--a copy of which he presented on election to the Accademia di San Luca--setting out his achievements to date in unprecedented detail, including the first fifty-nine Vedute di Roma.22
22. When Francesco Piranesi issued his own Catalogo in 1792, he individually dated the first sixty Vedute according to the order set out by his father. This has since misled many scholars, in particular Hind, who based his study on this evidence in 1922 (see note 10). Recent research, however, has shown the unreliability of this order. The sequence, as originally classified by the artist according to subject-matter, juxtaposed works of an extremely disparate style: for instance the two views of S. Paolo fuori le Mura (Hind 6 and 7). From 1761, however, the addition of plates, either singly or in groups, in over twwenty-five known states of the Catalogo, enables one to plot the artist's development of the series, which he completed with plate 135 in 1778, the year of his death.

Following the inevitable waning of Rezzonico patronage after the death of Clement XIII in February 1769, Piranesi began to exploit the new areas of contact with foreign clients, especially with the British Grand tourists, which had been established during the previous decade. In addition to a properous printmaking business, his main activities as a dealer were to be concentrated in two interrelated fields--the design of quasi-architectural features such as chimneypieces, and the imaginative restoration of antiquities.
By now Piranesi has assembled a team of specialized assistances at Palazzo Tomati, shortly to be joined by his son Francesco who was now in his teens.1

Among the most elaborate was the alledged funerary monument discovered in the tomb of Augustus Urbanus on the Via Appia. This striking piece, featuring an elaborate rhyton ending in a boar's head on a particularly complex pedestal with supporting chimeras, was restored according to Piranesi's directions by Pietro Malatesta. It was eventually sold to Gustav III of Sweden by Francesco Piranesi in 1785 along with the remaining pieces in his father's Museo, and subsequently entered the National Museum, Stockholm. 12
12. A. Geffroy. "Essai sur la formation des collections d'antiques de la Suede', Revue Archaeologique, XXIX, 1896, p. 27; E. Kjellberg, 'Piranesi's antiksammlung i Nationalmuseum', Nationalmusei Arsbok, 2, 1920, p. 159. In Francesco Piranesi's list of items sold to Stockholm, compiled in 1793 and published in the preceding article, the Monument of Augustus Urbanus appears as no. 20 with restoration by Malatesta.

Running parallel with these early impressions upon European design in the 1770s was a fresh phase in Piranesi's own archaeological studies, cheifly related to sites south of Rome. Recent progress in the excavations of Pompeii as well as Herculaeum had encouraged the artist to make a series of expeditions there from 1770 onwards. The surviving sketches present such a contrast to Piranesi's earlier studies that they have oten been attributed entirely to Francesco who was to etch many of them in the posthumous work Les antiquités de la Grands Grèce, published between 1804 and 1807.29 Executed with a reed pen in a dull brownish ink, their lines a broad and rather course, with only the most summary indications of light and texture by means of crude hatching. The figures are equally abruptly rendered in stiff, awkward poses, with an unsharacteristic indifference to their dynamic function amid the ruins. As Hylton Thomas suggests, this perplexing aridity may reflect the lack of inspiration for Piranesi in the utter deadness of the site, with its lack of vegetation and human activity. Even so, when these drawings are compared with the resulting etchings by Francesco, they reveal a greater vitality than might at first appear. As Thomas puts it, 'the moody intensity of the elder Piranesi has become superficial theatricality in Francesco's print'.30
This contrast in approach between father and son is even more significant in the last major work of Piranesi, the suite of etchings recording the temples of Paestum, issued posthumously as the Différentes vues de quelques restes de trois grandes édifices qui subsistent encore dans le milieu de l'ancienne ville de Pesto.... Although the evidence is meagre it would appear that Piranesi, accompanied by Francesco and their architectural assistant, Benedetto Mori, made an expedition in 1777-8 to examine these Greek temples situated a few miles south of Naples. The father was already suffering from a severe bladder complaint which ultimately causes his death in Rome during the November of 1778. He was to leave behind twenty plates which Francesco completed and published the same year together with a French text.
Although the frontispiece and three of the plates (XVI, XIX and X) are actually signed by Francesco and others indicate his intervention, the seventeen surviving drawings in London, Paris and Amsterdam are unmistakingly in the hand of his father throughout.31 Although, like the Pompeian studies, many of these contain figures which are strangely insensitive for Piranesi, as a whole the drawings possess a far more finished character than any other sketches surviving from his hand. The considerable distance of Paestum from Rome, and Piranesi's deteriorating health, clearly required a more literal record, particularly as Francisco was forced to take an increasing initiative in the etching process, as many of the later plates of the Vasi indicate. Whether in the drawings or the plates, however, nothing is lost of Piranesi's vibrancy of outline where the highly atmospheric light appears to bite into the crimbling surface of the tufa masonry. Nor do his perspective skills, combined with subtlies in tonal recession, fail to describe and evike an architectural experience of the greatest intensity.
29. H. Thomas, The Drawings of Piranesi, London and New York, 1954, pp. 24-5, 57-8; idem, 'Piranesi und Ponpeii', Kunstmuseets Arsskrift, 1952-5, pp. 13-28.
30. Thomas, The Drawings of Piranesi, p. 25.
31. Ibid., pp. 22-4, 55-7.

...the founder of a prosperous business, now to be carried on by his twenty-year-old son and other members of the family.
Very little is known of Laura Piranesi, apart from the fact that she published a series of reduced versions of plates by her father, or of the later publishing activities Pietro in Rome during the 1800s, but Francesco's active life is well documented.35 Having been trained in architecture by Paris, in landscape by the Hackerts and in etching by Cunego and Volpato, Francesco was clearly groomed to continue his father's work. Apart from his involvment in the latter stages of the Paestum plates, he also took a major part in the Vasi, along with other members of the workshop at Palazzo Tomati, and brought to completion a number of his father's other projects. For instance, he helped to produce the two volumes on the Trajan and Antonine Columns begun in 1775. In 1781 he published the six-plate plan of Hadrian'a Villa, Tivoli, and four years later another of the excavations at Pompeii (a later edition followed, incorporating fresh discoveries up to 1795). A plate of diagrams relting to the Emissarium of Lake Fucino, based on his father's work, was issued in 1791. He also added further plates to the existing series of the Archi Trionfali, Trofei, Vedute di Roma and Antichità Romane. By way of a supplement to the latter he issued two further volumes in 1780 and 1790 respectively, the Tempi Antichi; the second volume was devoted to a fully measured survey of the Pantheon. To consolidate these achievements in 1792 he produced a complete catalogue of the firm's products, dividing the works into thirty-two sections with Roman numerals which he added to the plates at the time.
Francesco's individuality becomes more distince after 1784 when, following his introduction to the visiting King of Sweden, Gustav III, he was appointed the Royal Agent for the Fine Arts in Italy. The same year he issued a new addition of the Antichità Romane, dedicated to Gustav, with a portrait medallion of his father derived from the Nollekens bust. Francesco seems to have seen little future for his antique dealing since in 1785, shortly after acquiring the outstanding sculpture of Endymion for the Swedish Royal Collection, he sold the bulk of the Museo at Palazzo Tomati to Stockholm, where it remains.36 By now he was becoming increasingly involved in revolutionary politics, and in 1794 was appointed Swedish Conul at naples, where he carried on counter-espionage. Returning to Rome four years later he became, with his brother Pietro, a fervent Jabobin, serving office in the short-lived French Republic. However, with the arrival of the British and Neapolitan forces there, the two of them fled with the rest of the family to Paris, taking with them the printmaking business founded on the success of their father's plates.
Established in Paris, the Calcographie des Piranesi frères developed into a prosperous business, reissuing the bulk of the graphic works in a finely printed edition of twenty-seven volumes in 1800-1807. It was for this work that the architect J. G. Legrand, son-in-law of Clérisseau, perpared his life of Piranesi, based on family recollections and an autobiographical manuscript.37 Apart from setting up a less successful manufactory for terracotta replicas of antiquities formerly in the museo at Palazzo Tomati, Francesco now issued three volumes of the Antiquités de la Grands Grèce, largely derived from his father's Pompeian sketches. As has been seen, these plates lack the inspiration of the original drawings, and it is particularly revealing to see how much more successful were those etchings produced by Francesco from the seven detailed drawings by the French architect Desprez and published in 1788-9 along with the plan of Pompeii.
Shortly after the turn of the century Pietro Piranesi returned to Rome, where he published Piroli's Bassorilievi antichi di Roma, and in 1810 at francesco's death the family business came to an end. The total collection of Piranesi's plates was acquired by the Parisian firm Firmin-Didot, which continued to issue impressions until 1839. At that date they were purchased on the orders of Gregory XVI for the Calcografia Camerale (now the Calcografia Nazionale), and returned to Italy.
The later work of Francesco Piranesi, particularly represented by the Antiquités de la Grands Grèce, registers a shift of emphasis in the portrayal of antiquity. The delicate working and subtle effects of light in his father's plates, even as late as those of Paestum, are replaced by a greater simlification of form and cruder tonal contrasts. The very last traces of the Rococo are replaced by the bolder and more direct expressiom of Romanticism, in which an appeal to the emotions is conveyed through the charged language of the Sublime.
35. For the life and works of Franxesco Piranesi see exhibition catalogue Giovanni Battista e Francesco Piranesi Calcografia Nazionale, Rome, 1967-8, passim.
36. Geffroy, op. cit., pp. 1ff.; Kjellberg, op. cit., pp. 115ff.
37. Legrand, Nouvelles de l'estampe, op. cit., pp. 191ff.




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