Memory Palace

What do we mean when we call something “Piranesian”?

Perspective of Massive Piers and Arches (ca. 1742–43) Janny Chiu/Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

Giovanni Battista Piranesi was a polymath’s polymath. He was an artist, archaeologist, polemicist, dealer, engraver, decorator, and yes, architect. And though Piranesi has some built works—most notably an entrance wall for a piazza commissioned by Giambattista Rezzonico, the grand prior of the Knights of Malta—he has endeared himself to generations of scholars and designers primarily by his paper architecture. Many will, undoubtedly, recognize his Carceri d’invenzione, the gloomy, sepulchral interiors of imaginary prisons published from 1720 to 1778, as well as the grand drawings for his Plan of Rome and the Campo Marzio, both part of a larger, imagined reconstruction of ancient Rome that continues to inspire critical commentary from theorists and practitioners to this day. This is all to say that Piranesi’s work shoulders a heavy burden because it exemplifies a supposedly boundless imagination. It’…

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