There is no evidence that this vase actually existed other than Piranesi’s Print. If it once existed it is probable that, like the Warwick Vase, it was based on fragments excavated by Piranesi in Hadrian’s Villa. Its current whereabouts is not known.
In Rome in the late 18th century there was a thriving trade in restoring and selling classical antiquities to visiting foreigners. Piranesi was increasingly making and selling work from the 1760s onwards. When he started losing the patronage of the Rezzonico family, especially after the death of Pope Clement XIII in 1769, he was more reliant on this work to supplement his business selling prints. He worked in close collaboration with entrepreneurs such as Thomas Jenkins, James Byers and Gavin Hamilton. Piranesi was recognised and valued for his expertise, and in 1757 he had been made an honorary member of the newly formed London Society of Antiquaries.
he protocols that governed ‘restoration’ were very flexible. Piranesi, deeply engaged in the process of learning from and understanding the Antique creative mind, viewed originality as a process rather than a state of being. The extent to which he was interested in improving and reconstructing the fragments that were being discovered is clearly revealed in Sir William Hamilton’s remark about the Warwick vase:
Piranesi’s business was carried out from Palazzo Tomati in Via Sistina, conveniently near the British Quarter of the Piazza di Spagna. Palazzo Tomati still exists but nothing remains of any significance in the interiors where Piranesi had his printing business and ‘museo’. The visitors were a roll‑call of leading patrons on the Grand Tour from 1761 onwards, including Sir William Hamilton, Sir Roger Newdigate and Charles Townley. On Piranesi’s death a complete room-by-room inventory of the palazzo was compiled, but the list is not sufficiently detailed to identify all the restored antiquities. However, as John Wilton-Ely observes, ‘when Gustav III of Sweden made a belated Grand Tour in 1783 he visited Palazzo Tomati and purchased from Francesco, Piranesi’s son, a large part of the remaining antiquities, especially those works which were too fanciful or bizarre for earlier clients and these are now in Stockholm.’
The scale of many of these objects is still surprising: a 2‑metre-high candelabrum, and vases with no function other than to inspire awe. Piranesi embraced the theatricality of the Classical imagination from the start of his career. His early work Prima Parte di Architettura e Prospettive (influenced by Bibiena’s theatrical designs) contains prints depicting small figures wandering in a stage set where everything is on a vast scale: buildings, fountains, monuments and vases dwarf the individual in an awe-inspiring fictional representation of the classical ideal. Mythical creatures
Richard Dalton (1713?–91) was an artist, antiquarian and dealer who originated from Darlington, County Durham. He began his career as a painter but later became a significant antiquarian-dealer, partly through his activities as George III’s Librarian and later as Surveyor of the King’s Pictures. He acquired works for the King and also for Lord Grosvenor and Lord Bute, as well as advising eminent scholars such as Thomas Hollis. He is known to have built up a personal collection of antiquities, although not much is known about individual works which, at his death, were sold at Christie’s in 1791. Many of them may have been acquired from Piranesi and at least one other is included in Vasi, candelabri (Wilton‑Ely 967).
The print is dedicated to Lord Fortrose (1744–81) of Seaforth, a member of the Society of Dilettanti. He made three grand tours to Italy in 1752, 1763–4 and 1768–71. As a British aristocrat who spent a great deal of time in Italy, he was considered ‘un grand pezzo’ (a big fish) and Piranesi was aware of the kudos associated with his name. The prints in Vasi, candelabri were issued individually over several years, partly to advertise his restoration business. They were only collected together in a two‑volume publication in 1778. Some plates in Vasi, candelabri depict objects owned by specific patrons. Piranesi frequently dedicated prints to other people, with the financial incentive that multiple copies of the print might be acquired by owner, dedicatee, and their associates.
Piranesi was not interested in slavishly making copies. He was motivated by an elevating impulse to ‘make’ alive. He wanted to respect, reflect upon, and celebrate. His ambition was to exceed the extraordinary artefacts then being discovered all around the Mediterranean.
Piranesi’s clearest and most direct summary of his approach to architecture and design, Observations on the Letter of Monsieur Mariette, stresses the importance of the creative imagination in conditioning both the past and present. He strives to explain what can happen when we understand how to mediate and transform our environment.
Pierre-Jean Mariette (1697–1774) was a collector and dealer of old master prints, and he came from a family of engravers. He had great respect for Piranesi as a connoisseur and printmaker, but he could not accept Piranesi’s claim that the magnificence of Roman Art was derived from its Etruscan roots rather than its Greek borrowings. Mariette followed the ‘less is more’ argument about Greek art. He promoted the ideas of German art historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–68), who argued for the refined simplicity and purity of Greek style over the Romans’ excessive decoration and decadent corruption of Greek purity. The argument characterised all subsequent accounts of the classical rebirth of the Renaissance. Piranesi steadfastly championed artistic freedom:
Piranesi’s writing style was direct, and he relished an open confrontation with Mariette. Both would have been fully aware of Winckelmann’s assertion, in Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (1755), that ‘The one way for us to become great, perhaps inimitable, is by imitating the ancients’. Piranesi was interested only in merging knowledge about their achievements with his extraordinarily fertile imagination. Piranesi’s ideas brimmed with imaginative capricci, but they were soon to be marginalised as the theories of Winckelmann and the followers of Greek taste became generally accepted.
Another Venetian, Antonio Canova, born in 1757, the year before Piranesi’s son Francesco, was soon to be considered as the epitome of neoclassical style. His delicate renderings of flesh in marble were much more in keeping with the new taste than Piranesi’s baroque extravagances and cross-cultural references.
Piranesi’s riposte to Mariette at times adopts a proto-Ruskinian tone about the integrity of manual labour, and hints at the intellectual bankruptcy of a privileged and aesthetic class for whom culture is a tasteful endgame of refinement and indulgence. Piranesi was happy working alongside talented sculptors including Antoine-Guillaume Grandjacquet, Francesco Antonio Franzoni and Lorenzo Cardelli, who could realise his sketchy designs in three dimensions. They were also highly skilled in patinating new marble to hide that it was not antique material, which was necessary to satisfy the aesthetic demands of his potential clients.