Diverse Maniere appeared at the end of the 1760s, the most significant and productive decade in Piranesi’s career, in terms both of theory and practice. It brings together a clear concept of his radical aesthetic and an impressive collection of designs that articulate his taste and interests. Chimneypieces dominate the first part of the publication, followed by commodes, clocks, vases, side tables, small candelabra, coffee pots, chairs and a surprisingly large number of doors for sedan chairs and coaches. It is effectively a manifesto of his design ideas with the text published in three languages (English, French and Italian) making it accessible to an international audience.
It's subtitle is the ‘Apologia in Defence of the Egyptian and Tuscan Architecture’. Diverse Maniere is much more than a continuation of Piranesi’s polemical defence of the Etruscans, although this clearly plays a part in the spirit of the designs. The work includes a chart of Etruscan inventions and two diagrams showing the influence of shell forms upon their vase designs. The main argument calls for a coherent new system of design, growing from a study of nature combined with all that is excellent in the past, regardless of whether it is Greek or Roman, Etruscan or Egyptian. Piranesi’s criteria are essentially visual, rather than academic and historical, and he aired some remarkably original ideas on the stylisation of natural forms in antiquity.
It remains uncertain how many of the designs in Diverse Maniere were actually executed. Chimneypieces were made for the Earl of Exeter (Burghley House) and John Hope. Various articles of furniture were made for Monsignor Rezzonico, including a pair of side tables with minor differences in design (now in the Minneapolis Institute of Fine Arts and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Despite the small number of objects that can be clearly identified as being made directly from ‘Piranesi designs’, it is undeniable that this publication exerted a profound influence on the development of taste and style in England, France and Russia at the end of the 1700s and which continued to flourish in the 1800s.
This particular tripod, on a page with a number of other objects, is dramatically different in spirit from the Isis Tripod illustrated in Vasi, candelabri. The most obvious difference is the presence of a self-referential double helix cornucopia that occupies the central area between the three legs of the tripod. The ancient Egyptians repeated characters and added phonetic components to prevent gaps in their hieroglyphic inscriptions. Piranesi also appears to be cenophobic, continually adding layers of decoration of diminishing scale, doubtless something he learnt from his close study of nature and shells, mixed with his native Venetian sensibility. Piranesi’s notion of beauty and elegance is found not in reductive simplicity but in the mastery of the language of organic decoration and the poetic reverberations it stimulates.
Lightness of touch
While many of Piranesi’s drawings for the construction of Santa Maria del Priorato are sketchy, he worked with the masons and sculptors to ensure the sculptural elements they produced had the look and feel he wanted. The illustrations in Diverse Maniere are designed to be as clear as possible so that they could be taken to England, France or elsewhere and fabricated in his absence. However they cannot be considered as production designs. The drawing of this tripod conspicuously leaves out one of the legs so that complex detail on the central double helix can be clearly seen. The heads of the satyrs on each leg are cited as an archetype, as is much of the decorative pattern. Piranesi clearly assumed that any skilled artisan-modeller would possess a degree of knowledge of the language of design and be able to improvise around a theme to produce a harmonious result. Exact details, of the fluted dish set into the top, and of fixing the floating barley‑twist element in the centre, are left open-ended.
The Rezzonicos were rich Venetians who had bought ‘patents of nobility’ from the Venetian state in the seventeenth century. Giovambatista’s grandfather Giambattista Rezzonico established the family’s importance in Venice and bought a magnificent, unfinished palazzo on the Grand Canal, now renamed Ca’ Rezzonico. His practical and business mind was able to realise one of the great building projects in Venice, originally designed in 1649 by Baldassarre Longhena, but only completed in 1756 when Giambattista commissioned the architect Giorgio Massari to finish the project.
The Rezzonicos wanted to have the same impact on cultural life in Rome. So when Giambattista Rezzonico’s son Carlo was elected Pope in 1758, and the Pope had two Rezzonico nephews as his Maggiordomo and as a Senator, the Venetian Rezzonicos were at the zenith of influence in Rome. Their natural choice for a designer was the Venetian Piranesi, with his unlimited ambition, imaginative fertility and original ideas about architecture and design.
Carlo Rezzonico (1693–1769), Bishop of Padua from 1743, was elected Pope Clement XIII in 1758 and served until his death in 1769. Pope Clement XIII was known for honesty, piety, and modesty (famously for adorning the sculptures in the Vatican with mass-produced fig leaves). He was also known for nepotism, although arguably he was no more nepotistic than other popes. As an unworldly man from new money, he needed Venetian support that he could trust in the complex political environment of Rome. He appointed his nephews, Giovambatista and Abbondio Rezzonico to positions of influence and, through their counsel, commissioned Piranesi to design domestic interiors and furnishings for Castelgandolfo, the Quirinal (at that time the Papal residence), and the Campidoglio.
The Rezzonico family gave Piranesi the opportunities, financial backing and confidence freely to develop his architectural and design ideas. In 1764 Pope Clement XIII gave Piranesi his first major commission as an architect. Piranesi prepared magnificent designs for the reconstruction the Lateran Basilica. Bent Sørenson (in John Wilton‑Ely: Piranesi as Designer) remarks that Piranesi’s first attempt as an architect was no less than to reconstruct one of the most important churches in Christianity, the Basilica San Giovanni in Laterano, the cathedral of Rome. But Piranesi’s designs were not accepted, and the commission was later abandoned. Pope Clement XIII later gave Piranesi a knighthood (the Sperone d’Oro, 1767), which, according to John Wilton‑Ely, may have been to compensate the architect for his disappointment. Piranesi’s other major architectural commission was the reconstruction of the church of Santa Maria del Priorato, and the surrounding area on the Aventine hill that served as the home to the Knights of Malta. This work still stands as a testament to Piranesi’s ideas and his radical approach to design.
After the death of Pope Clement XIII in 1769, Giovambatista Rezzonico acquired the title Cardinal in September 1770 and went to live with his brother Abbondio in his sumptuous apartment at the Capitoline hill.