Although he was not a painter, Giovanni Battista Piranesi was the most influential Italian artist of the 18th century, both during his lifetime and for the two centuries since his death. Indeed, Piranesi's influence is all around us in the grandeur of the interpretation of classical architecture in Washington, especially Union Station and the National Gallery's West Building.
Twentieth-century writers have emphasized Piranesi's architectural fantasies, with their romantic freedom and intense emotion, but his views of Rome earned him the most fame in his lifetime and for the longest period after his death. For instance, Goethe found Rome disappointing to see in person after knowing Piranesi's views of it, which he thought much more impressive.
The Canopus of the Villa Adriana at Tivoli is one of Piranesi's largest, boldest, and finest drawn views of Rome. This very generous gift from Ladislaus and Beatrix von Hoffmann shows part of the ruins of Hadrian's villa, built AD 118–138. As early as the 1750s Piranesi visited Tivoli to study and sketch, sometimes taking the artists and architects Robert Adam or Charles Louis Clérisseau along. The Canopus was apparently designed to imitate the Sanctuary of Serapis at Alexandria and decorated in an Egyptian style. Thus, Piranesi's interest in this specific section of the villa demonstrates his constant theme of the magnificence of ancient Rome (in which he so influenced neoclassicism); it also shows his remarkable ability to convey the grandeur of ruins surviving the onslaught of time and nature (in which he so influenced romanticism); and it reflects his prescience in recognizing and using Egyptian art as a source of motifs for architectural decoration.
As with so many of Piranesi's Roman views, this drawing is a fascinating amalgam of transformation and accuracy. Compared with the actual ruins, Piranesi's view enormously enhances the scale by the diminution of figures relative to the architecture, and creates a space that plunges much deeper by showing the building from an angle, a technique he learned from baroque stage designs. However, Piranesi is quite accurate in the number and arrangement of architectural features, as well as in the character of surfaces—he annotated the drawing to remind himself where the stucco and mosaics are located.
Piranesi used this drawing to make an etched view of the same size that can be dated c. 1776. Comparing the two illustrates that his drawing was done in an amazingly spontaneous shorthand, while the print incorporates a plethora of detail. Contemporary artists such as Hubert Robert, who watched Piranesi at work drawing views, were astonished at the fiery swiftness of his draftsmanship in exactly such intense sheets as this splendid example.
upper right in red chalk: Calce / musaico...la volta
Dr. C. Jessen (Lugt 1398a); Dorotheum Vienna, 8 March 1910; Albertina, Vienna (Archduke Federico d'Asburgo); transferred to Erzherzog Friedrich, 1919; (Kunsthandlung Gustav Nebehay, Vienna, by 1925); Duc de Talleyrand, Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt; Private Collection, London; (Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, Lodon, 1991); Mr. and Mrs. Ladislaus Von Hoffmann, Washington, DC; partial gift to NGA, 1994.
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