Towards the close of the essay in Diverse Maniere, Piranesi makes a final plea for a new system of design, unconstrained by doctrinaire theory, but sanctioned by usage from the past and inspired by nature.
‘Must the genius of our artists be so basely enslaved to the Grecian manners, as not to dare to take what is beautiful elsewhere, if it be not of Grecian origin? But let us shake off this shameful yoke, and if the Egyptians, and Tuscans present to us, in their monuments, beauty, grace and elegance, let us borrow from their stock, not servilely copying from others, for this would reduce architecture and the noble arts to a pityful mechanism, and would deserve blame instead of praise from the public, who seek for novelty, and who would not form the most advantageous idea of an artist, as was perhaps the opinion some years ago, for a good design, if it was only the copy of some ancient work. No, an artist, who would do himself honour, and acquire a name, must not content himself with copying faithfully the ancients, but studying their works he ought to show himself of an inventive, and, I had almost said, of a creating Genius; And by prudently combining the Grecian, the Tuscan, and the Egyptian together, he ought to open himself a road to the finding out of new ornaments and new manners. The human understand is not so short and limited, as to be unable to add new graces, and embellishments to the works of architecture, if to an attentive and profound study of nature one would likewise join that of ancient monuments’.
The debate that dominated design and architecture in Rome in the 1760s is surprisingly like the modernist discourse that dominated the C20th. Piranesi directly tackled cries of ‘less is more’ and calls for a reductive simplicity and purity. He argued for an inspirational response to the accumulation of cultural sources, resulting in a dynamic sense of design to reflect the needs and capabilities of the time. For Piranesi, culture is not a dead academic subject but a living and constantly revitalised force. This is evident in the way he responded to the fragments of antiquity he was excavating and reconstructing. He was happy to develop images, like the Vedute di Roma, that stimulated the romantic interest in decay (prefiguring the Romantic cry that there is one thing more beautiful than a beautiful thing, and that is the ruin of a beautiful thing). But his deep respect and interrogation of the remains of antiquity led to his desire to restore, re‑interpret and re‑present those objects.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, the cultural and political map of Europe was very different to today. The ancien régime of empire was slowly giving way to the emergence of European nation states. The Italian peninsular was split between eleven different kingdoms, duchies, minor republics, Austrian-controlled areas, and of course the Papacy. By the 1760s European power bases were being dramatically renegotiated, fashioning the idea of nation as a powerful imagined community. Antiquity was reappraised along similar ideological lines. Nationalistic preoccupations recreated the classical world in their own image: there were claims that the Etruscans were originally Greek, that Egyptian culture was corrupted by Roman influence, and Rome was simply a commercial power absorbing immigrant influences. Piranesi sidestepped such assumptions. He was more interested in the flow of ideas and less concerned with narrow subjective assertions about cultural origins. The major omission here is the influence of Assyrian culture on the Mediterranean in antiquity. Assyrian culture was the source of a direct and powerful narrative style. It was also important for its developed system of civil servants and for its freight forwarding that enabled a free flow of goods and ideas from as far as Afghanistan in the east to Spain in the west.
Candelabra: an archetype adopted by Piranesi
In his own designs Piranesi loved to ‘experiment, venturing beyond the bounds of conventional taste’, and in his treatment of antique fragments he was unable to control his desire to improve and restore. The fireplace gave him a ‘facade’ to decorate, but the candelabrum gave him a fully three-dimensional form, essentially offering four facets with infinite room for variation. He played with repetitive elements while introducing novel ways to break the symmetry of the form. On this complex three-dimensional ‘canvas’ he could introduce references to poetry and the arts, while also dealing with the passing of time and the transitory nature of human life.
While Piranesi was working on the Lateran designs, at the height of his career, he would have regularly passed the red granite obelisk of Tuthmosis III, the largest standing ancient Egyptian obelisk in the world, in the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano. The obelisk is reported to have fallen during an earthquake. It was found in three pieces in 1587, restored by Pope Sixtus V and erected in the piazza a year later in place of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, which was moved to the Capitoline hill. While simpler in form, this obelisk (and other obelisks in Rome), may have triggered Piranesi’s interest in vertical objects decorated with a complex narrative on each face.
Abbondio Rezzonico (1741–1810) became Senator of Rome, and resided in the Senatorial Palace on the Capitoline Hill from 1765 until 1809. With Piranesi’s help he transformed it into a magnificent residence. He also kept the gilt-framed drawings of the Lateran project to line the walls of the corridor, stimulating the imagination of many visitors including Goethe.
Abbondio was brother of Giovambatista Rezzonico, and nephew of Pope Clement XIII (Carlo Rezzonico). He was ‘Principe Assistente al Soglio Pontificio, Senator of Roma, Patrizio Romano and Nobile Veneto’. According to biographer J‑G Legrand, Piranesi taught two of the Rezzonico nephews to draw. He greatly influenced their understanding and appreciation of Rome, the importance of Roman design and the new developments surrounding design and taste in Rome in the 1860s. Abbondio married Princess Donna Hipólita in Rome in 1768. Abbondio was to be the last descendant of the Rezzonico dynasty, with a magnificent house on the Venetian mainland, now called Villa Rezzonico‑Borella, one of the few remaining traces of a family that held great power in Rome and Venice.