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’s all manna for a formalist set still invested in a version of Piranesi as designer in thrall to his own wanderlust—contemporary code for those who continue to tilt at windmills in search for something that can be called an “architectural language” or (dare I say it?) autonomy. Moreover, Piranesi is sometimes lumped alongside Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Étienne-Louis Boullée, and Jean-Jacques Lequeu as an avatar of Enlightenment-era “architecture parlante” with ravishing visuals that portray building as its own kind of knowledge. As much as this categorical glomming can be useful in studios and lecture halls, the resulting portrayal of Piranesi is not entirely accurate.

We are in the middle of a groundswell of reappraisal of Piranesi’s work—much of it halted or delayed by the pandemic. In 2021, historians Heather Hyde Minor and Carolyn Yerkes mounted Piranesi on the Page at the Princeton University Library, a show that followed the publication of their Piranesi Unbound by Princeton University Press in 2020. I group these two works together because of their sustained, revisionist argument that placed books and bookmaking at the center of Piranesi’s practice. Revisionism also animated Piranesi and the Modern World, a show at the National Museum in Oslo that drew weak links between Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenman’s late modern architectural fantasies and artist Julie Mehretu’s cartographical paintings all as inheritors of Piranesi’s influence. Then there is Susannah Clarke’s acclaimed novel Piranesi (2020), which is not historical in any sense and yet still captures the kind of fantastical aura that we associate with the Carceri. Clarke’s Piranesi is a prisoner in his own architectural construction, a world-within-a-house that contains statuaries of figures of mysterious provenance. Piranesi is not the character’s name, but rather an assigned sobriquet that captures his, well, Piranesian-ness. And thanks to curator John Marciari’s recent exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, Sublime Ideas: Drawings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, we have a better sense why “Piranesian” is no mere placeholder for architectural imaginations or, indeed, dalliances with the sublime. As the exhibition’s name suggests, drawings were the instruments by which Piranesi understood his world in all its shades and dimensions, a convention that disciplined all aspects of his practice.

It was no accident that drawings took pride of place in this exhibition. The Morgan holds the largest collection of Piranesi’s drawings in the world, an inventory that includes around 150 sketches, studies, caricatures, and other marginalia. Their arrival at the Morgan is a story of chance encounters and art market exchanges, all part of a larger system of networks of patronage and connoisseurship in Gilded Age New York. The drawings in the show ranged from small sketches made on the backs of book pages, caprices with fantastical themes, measured drawings, decorative schemes, and larger archaeological studies. In some instances, those works that originated as concepts for engravings were displayed alongside the final artwork. Each became a potential cipher from which Piranesi’s own engagement with the sublime could become manifest—a point made by Marciari in the book that accompanies the exhibition. Yet no matter one’s degree of engagement with these drawings, both a cursory glance and a studied gaze revealed skeins of lines, dither textures, and viscous blotches superimposed over one another. Although there were plenty of instances where blooms of graying wash and tenebrous charcoal smudges buried buildings and landscapes beneath skies laden with thunderheads, I hesitate to describe the effect as “atmospheric,” only because all these effects were the mark of an artist who was working, reworking, and revisiting his work over time. This was especially the case in drawings where thick, charcoal lines blotted out apses and other architectural details—here, Piranesi redacted his earlier output, obscuring imperfections with a rushed and deliberate hand. There was plenty of fine delineation to be seen in Sublime Ideas, but the drawn lines that really stood out were those that seemed suspended in a kind of momentary tension— lines that were very sketch-y yet registered some kind of internal daemon wresting with Piranesi’s mind. During my visit, I used my iPhone camera to make a quick inventory of the clouds and skies throughout the show. The lines in the engravings appeared as ripples, as if the skies above Piranesi’s fantasies and caprices became interlaced with turbulent emanations. And yet in the drawings, the air and clouds became malevolent, rocked by nimbostratus clusters that gave the paper a patinated glint.

Is there anything more modern than placing oneself in a historical tableau? Is this what makes architecture modern?

This was no mere transformation of paper into air. Rather, this relation between Piranesi’s sketches and engravings only underscored the importance of his drawings. They were more than go-betweens that melded an initial concept to its final resolution. Each was a proving ground for ideas and schemes that would become crystallized by dint of Piranesi’s magnificent (and more well-known) engravings. It is in this sense, then, that Sublime Ideas was a prologue to Princeton’s Piranesi on the Page and Piranesi Unbound. In the latter, Yerkes and Minor observe how books gave Piranesi various opportunities to communicate his work across borders and to cultivate professional relationships and even court intrigue. This media-centric approach also applies to his drawings, for they too are documents that memorialize his indebtedness to patrons and cemented his professional networks. Moreover, Piranesi’s drawings also revealed his engagement with historical materials, from designs that mimicked works by Palladio and Borromini to sheets of sketches and scenographies that documented archaeological ephemera. Sublime Ideas included examples of his later work, such as the drawings of the Temple of Isis and the Herculaneum Gate. In looking at these, one can see that Piranesi’s steady but harried lines activated a studied, exacting engagement with the past. They also highlighted his magpie sensibility, a deliberate borrowing and stealing of ideas that gave his drawings a bustling energy. And yet Piranesi threw his own work into this heady historical mix. Consider his magnificent Perspective of Massive Piers and Arches (ca. 1742–43), a drawing of an interior framed by titanic segmented arches and iron-grated oculi in a scene that foreshadowed the Carceri. But squint, and you too may detect something like the glinting cavernous interior of Hans Pölzig’s Großes Schauspielhaus (1919, demolished in 1988)—which had an afterlife of sorts as Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV’s blinged-out reception hall in David Lynch’s Dune (1984).

In all, Sublime Ideas was a small show that loomed large in the imagination. One reason why was that for every drawing that depicted, say, a Roman mask or an architectural detail, there were works whose vistas contemplated vastness. They typify the dark and difficult stuff we ordinarily associate with the sublime, and yet there is something else about many of these drawings that trigger our instinctual reaction to air-quote sublime as elaborated in Lord Shaftesbury, Joseph Addison, or Edmund Burke’s writings. Fortunately, Marciari dispensed with such philosophical excursions summarily— and to instead let audiences wander through this magnificent show. And through such a wander do we pause, captivated by Piranesi’s renderings of human figures. Some were drawn extravagantly while others suggested literal afterthoughts or set decorations in a drama that was playing out in the landscapes of his mind. Sometimes, they were no more than wisps in midexpression, arms akimbo, animated gestures and fluttering vestments hardened into inky permanence. This is certainly the impression one may get when looking at the people in Piranesi’s archaeological scenes—bodies composed from fugitive brushstrokes, watery shades on the verge of dissolving in midair. But perhaps there is something else in the ways these revenants haunted his drawings. It’s not that they revealed a temptation to place people in scenes otherwise devoid of life—not entirely. Rather, these were the moments when Piranesi played his hand, because by populating drawings with humans of all kinds, he made himself a part of these scenes, allowing a voyeuristic thrill by imagining a polyvisual awareness. Is there anything more modern than placing oneself in a historical tableau? Is this what makes architecture modern? We get a glimpse of this in Clarke’s Piranesi when Piranesi declares, “It is my belief that the World (or, if you will, the House, since the two are for all practical purposes identical) wishes an Inhabitant for Itself to be a witness to its Beauty and the recipient of its Mercies.”

Walking among the drawings that made up this jewel of a show, I thought of the statuaries in the world-within-a-house imagined by Clarke. I also thought of Francis Yates’s The Art of Memory. Specifically, the origins of the Art, which, to ventriloquize classical sources, occurred when patron Scopus held a banquet in his own honor and asked the poet Simonides of Ceos to write and perform a lyric poem about him. On the spot! Not only that, Scopus said that he would only pay him half the agreed commission and that he had to seek the rest of the money from the twin gods Castor and Pollux. Simonides was being stiffed, in other words. Yet dutiful as he was, Simonides obliged. So that evening, things were going as planned. There was food, drink, witty banter. And at one point, a messenger arrived and sat down next to Simonides. He told him that there were two strangers outside who wanted a word with him. Now just imagine, for a second, what must have been going on in Simonides’s mind. He was a marked man. He did, after all, flee after his first patron, the tyrannical Hipparchus, was assassinated, only to find himself in the court of another unsavory noble. But he was dutiful. So he went outside but found no one. No Castor. No Pollux. And soon after, there was a terrible crash. The banquet hall collapsed, killing everyone inside. In the aftermath, Simonides was asked to recall the plan of the banquet hall from memory. He had memorized the seating arrangements, the orderly arrangements, the building. This, according to Yates, was how Simonides invented the art of memory through an engagement with architecture.

One wonders, then, if something similar happens in the presence of Piranesi’s drawings? As a visitor, you must make the connections, see the patterns, constellate the histories. And that was the underlying wonder of this exhibition, because during those moments, the Morgan became its own kind of memory palace, barely holding together the distant strains of an extraordinary artist whose life and work still leave room for interpretation and elicit wonder. In that afternoon spent with Sublime Ideas I also felt as a “witness to its Beauty and the recipient of its Mercies.” The fact that I caught the show only a day before it closed became poignant. You see, I too was in a house, glimpsing an edifice of work that, like the house in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, was crumbling into dust before our very eyes.

Enrique Ramirez avoids palace intrigue by keeping his head low, memorizing seating arrangements at parties, and teaching art and architectural history in various schools along the I-95 corridor.