Director of Factum Arte
As you arrive on San Giorgio Maggiore you are confronted by Palladio’s beautiful and majestic church of San Giorgio. This Venetian landmark was built from Palladio’s designs and not completed until 1610, thirty years after his death. At the time there was nothing unusual about this. It has taken three centuries of museum culture to turn rich and varied ‘subjects’ into discrete ‘objects’ located in a specific time and attributed to a specific hand. In the C18th Piranesi was resisting this emerging tendency and through his many polemic writings was asserting the importance of looking in depth into the complex and revealing biography of cultural artifacts. This approach to keeping culture alive has come to characterize the work of the Fondazione Giorgio Cini under the directorship of Professor Gagliardi. The exhibition Le Arti de Piranesi is a logical extension to this approach. The creation of a group of objects from Piranesi’s designs is a celebration of the importance of treating our cultural heritage as a living and dynamic sourcebook. The resulting objects are not copies of existing artifacts but interpretations of his designs performed for the first time.
These objects, made by Factum Arte have been selected to show the full range of Piranesi’s genius as a designer. The starting point in the selection was Michele De Lucchi’s conviction that Piranesi “should have been born 300 years later ... when he would have been capable of exploiting all the technological potential that we have”.
The selection focuses on designs from Diverse Maniere, Piranesi's catalogue of fireplaces, furniture and object designs that was published in Rome In 1769 in three languages to ensure it reached the widest possible audience. But Piranesi's re-interpretations of the antique are also represented by three objects: a tripod based closely on the antique and a candelabrum and an altar made from designs in which Piranesi used his connoisseurship to reconstruct complete objects from fragments of antiquities he discovered in his excavations at Hadrian’s villa. These works give clear insights into Piranesi’s prolific creative energy. In his work as an architect/designer, caught between Venetian caprice and Roman imperial splendor. Piranesi developed a new approach that has had a profound influence on future generations of artists, architects, designers, decorators and film-makers – The greatness of this pre-modern figure lies in his ability to move beyond issues of national or cultural identity and merge a wealth of influences that made Rome the extraordinary, fertile place it was.
Looking at the finished silver patinated bronze Isis tripod in Madrid is a viscerally strange experience. It addresses something fundamental about making, and the complex and messy language of things. My only experience of this object, reputedly found in Pompeii, is through an image etched by Piranesi. Piranesi is the fulcrum with the tripod from antiquity on one side and the contemporary realisation on the other. When making an object from a design done 232 years earlier the issues are essentially the same as if the design was done last week. There are many levels of mediation and many transformations that enter the equation - the fact that we are making the object using a range of technologies that did not exist in the C18th adds a new dimension.
If Piranesi was standing beside me now, would he be effusive and ‘a complete madman in everything’ or would he be shocked by the idea of modeling in a digital space? Would he share my wonder that in its early gestation (while the endless conversations and transformations were ongoing), the tripod only existed as a virtual form in a computer’s memory displayed ephemerally on a screen? It was not until this digital data was used to control a laser that gradually moved and hardened a tank-full of resin, that this object assumed anything resembling a physical presence. Once it emerged from the tank of resin, the various parts were then subjected to more physical transformations for it to become what it is: from resin to silicon encapsulation and into wax; from wax to plaster encapsulation and into bronze. Once in bronze it starts to assume the physical properties it now has. But more transformations still await it: silver patination and heat, chemical reactions and abrasion, dragon’s blood and airbrush sprays, complex manual activity aided by C19th recipe books. All these mediations produce a surface that wants to tarnish to black. How to hold those physical properties in a stable form is another issue, another skill and yet more conversations and mediations.
The same is true for all the objects we have made, even if the details differ. Some might have once existed as remnants of antiquity. Others never existed except in Piranesi’s fertile imagination. Our privilege at Factum Arte has been to spend time thinking about these things.
Piranesi was dependent on a group of craftsmen, many with the same skills required today. The resources I command are also dependent on a group of artisans, both digital and physical, backed up by software writers skilled in the arts of visual language, who have naturally migrated to Spain as a result of the free flow of information that the internet has made possible: English, Japanese, Spanish, French, Brazilian, Russian, and some of less discrete cultural origins. All share a common interest: to make things articulate and to enjoy the possibilities that emerge when the biography or ‘social life’ of an object is given more weight than conventional assumptions about authenticity and originality. The originality of an object belongs in the conversations that happen as it is being made, and the way those conversations condition the character of the finished object. If you can read back and grasp these conversations, the object becomes articulate.
Before an object speaks to us, we need to ask it the right questions. If you don’t, it stays mute. Piranesi was a complex character and his conversations were happening across time. The objects he suggested in etched lines on paper are remarkably eloquent.
Piranesi was capricious and celebrated it. I feel privileged to have spent six months in his shadow and to have been able to listen to his voice in these prints. I can see some of his limitations, but I admire the way he fought the revisionist reading of antiquity and the renaissance projected by aesthetically motivated scholars in the mid‑C18th. I celebrate the extraordinary generosity with which Piranesi shared his ideas and passions. Hopefully the objects we have made in Madrid keep this dialogue alive and active.