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  • Fresh Legacies: Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Enduring Style and Grand Tour Appeal
  • Clorinda Donato
The Serpent and the Stylus: Essays on G. B. Piranesi, eds. Mario Bevilacqua, Fabio Barry, and Heather Hyde Minor (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006). Pp. vi, 274. $90.00.
Piranesi: Vasi candelabri cippi sarcofagi tripodi lucerne ed ornamenti antichi, Exhibition, 5 May to 19 August 2007 in Gorizia, Italy, at the Palazzo Attems-Petzenstein, Musei Provinciali, Gorizia and at the Muzej za umjetnost i obrt, [End Page 508] Zagreb, 9 April to 13 May 2002. Catalog (same title), eds. Andelka Galić and Vladimir Maleković, Italian translator, William Klinger (Zagreb: Museum of Arts and Crafts, 2007). €14.00.

The peripatetic and eclectic span of the life and oeuvre of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Venice 1720–Rome 1778) is fully explored in this exhibition and these volumes dedicated to his career. From Venice, to Rome, to Zagreb, and to Gorizia: the essays and engravings discussed and displayed remind us of a number of things at once about Italy’s eighteenth century. They also teach just as many afresh as they show us what this renaissance man of the Enlightenment, Piranesi, was able to achieve. Artist, architect, and engraver, both itinerant and serially stable throughout the Adriatic at the height of the Italian Enlightenment, Piranesi has received short shrift in the world of interdisciplinary eighteenth-century studies. However, this lack of attention is easily forgiven when his reach and itinerary are recognized and evoked. Both are explored in the set of nine essays that make up The Serpent and the Stylus. True to the second part of the title, Essays on G. B. Piranesi, this collection focuses with clarity and precision on specific aspects of Piranesi’s multifaceted career. Divided in four parts, the volume addresses in chronological order: I. Piranesi’s Early Years: Drawings and Etchings; III. Rome vs. Athens: Polemic and Archaeology; III. Piranesi Architetto; and IV. Piranesi’s Critical Fortunes. This organizational structure provides the reader, both casual and academic, with a grid for approaching Piranesi’s copious output. The four parts establish the range, in time and field, of Piranesi’s activity, while the essays of each section delve into Piranesi’s art in the study of the richly nuanced milieux of Grand Tour patronage, artistic collaborations, evolutions, rivalries, and jealousies coupled with their glorious or nefarious aftermath, as the case may have been. Whether glorious or nefarious, Piranesi’s output always dazzles, treading the line between intimidation and playfulness that made his work a favorite among aficionados of the pittoresco, the tamed grandeur of his style that appealed in particular to the foreign eye.

The cowritten introductory essay by the editorial team of Bevilacqua, Minor, and Barry reminds the reader immediately of the magnitude of Piranesi’s activity and the difficulties inherent in doing justice to “an architect, engraver, antiquities restorer and dealer, draftsman, archaeologist, furniture and fireplace designer, author and bookseller” (1). The mention of his legacy in the nineteenth century as inspiration to Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, and Marcel Proust immediately brings to mind Piranesian images that match the teeming Parisian streets of realism’s pen, softened by the pathos of Romanticism, as well as images that may have populated Baudelaire’s dreams and designed the scaffolding of Proust’s psyche. The editors trace the convoluted path of Piranesi’s rise to fame and recognition in both his day and ours. The peaks of Piranesi scholarship have moved from Henri Focillon’s first modern monograph some 100 years ago to the first catalogue raisonné of his work in 1918, to the heady discoveries of unknown drawings in American collections in the 1970s, to greater appreciation of the innovative qualities of his most famous etching series, the Carceri and the Caprici, in the wake of applying the more refined techniques of graphic analysis that now exist. The Serpent and the Stylus marks the first time, however, that Piranesi as a cultural corporation and interlocutor has ever been fully examined. The strategies Piranesi developed to set taste and control the market with his style from his studio at the top of the Spanish steps reveal an able businessman who outpaced...


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pp. 508-511
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