- Piranesi’s Lost Words by Heather Hyde Minor, and: Speaking Ruins: Piranesi, Architects, and Antiquity in Eighteenth-Century Rome by John A. Pinto
In 2014, the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne organized the exhibition The Piranesi Effect, in which contemporary artists’ works were, to quote the museum’s website, “juxtaposed with a selection of prints by Giovanni Battista Piranesi to highlight the many ways in which the strategies and devices used by the eighteenth-century artist and architect are still very much a part of the way artists work today.” Three years after the University of Michigan’s 2012 publication of John Pinto’s Thomas Spencer Jerome lectures on Giambattista Piranesi and the architectural and antiquarian Roman eighteenth-century milieu (cosponsored by the American Academy in Rome), Heather Hyde Minor dedicates her own book on Piranesi to Pinto. Both publications offer a renewed appreciation of Piranesi’s decisive importance for the emergence of an autonomous sphere of graphic, textual, and mental representations of architecture and antiquity. They also exemplify the dynamism of Piranesi studies—both in the academy and in the museum—since John Wilton-Ely’s pioneering research of the 1970s.
Pinto borrows his title from Piranesi: “Speaking ruins have filled my spirit with images that accurate drawings could never have succeeded in conveying” (Pinto, 1). By insisting on this aspect of the Venetian architect, Pinto seems to argue that Piranesi’s major contribution to our understanding of architecture relies on an emotive rather than an intellectual and scientific response. By unfolding the long story of the relationship between eighteenth-century Italian architects and Antiquity, however, Pinto succeeds in portraying Piranesi as a more complex and contradictory figure than most historians have been comfortable with accepting. Both Pinto and Minor question the image of Piranesi as an “antiquarian” in the scholarly sense that the term bore in the eighteenth century, and in light of the many publications devoted to Piranesi as an architect and a designer (notably in Wilton-Ely, Piranesi as Architect and Designer ; and Lawrence, Wilton-Ely, Eisenman, Gonzalez-Palacios, and Graves, Piranesi as Designer ).
In his lectures, Pinto explores the dual relationship of eighteenth-century Roman architects with Antiquity: while one side looks to the past nostalgically, the other looks to the future for integrating historical fragments into a new architecture. Both “palimpsest and template” (275), this phenomenon is described by Pinto in his first two chapters as “the Perspective of Janus.” Piranesi is situated in a general history of changing taste, between the Roman baroque and Classical archaeology. In his third chapter, Pinto analyzes the Venetian’s structural approach to the rendering of antique monuments and convincingly links Piranesi’s “layered topography” (112) with contemporary anatomical representations. Here, a parallel might have been made closer to home with the development of the tracing paper method, employed by antiquarians at the same moment and itself close to the logic by which the anatomical books he discusses were produced. Piranesi developed [End Page 536] this layering method not only in his representations, but also in the field, digging on various Roman and Etruscan sites (notably with his son Francesco) as Pinto describes in his fourth lecture. The last chapter, “A Wider Prospect,” focuses on the books published between 1753 and 1764 on Palmyra and Baalbek by Wood and Dawkins, on Athens by Stuart and Revett, and on Split by Adam, a generation of architects-antiquarians strongly influenced by Piranesi that expanded the diversity of the classical repertoire available to eighteenth-century Europeans. Pinto writes that “striking originality, whether ancient or modern, and a willingness to break the rules are virtues for Piranesi” (65). If a regret can be expressed, it is that Pinto himself did not take the opportunity, perhaps through a more developed conclusion, to break some rules and present a more polemical argument based on...