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Giovanni Battista Piranesi, ‘Interior of the Temple of Neptune, Looking Southeast’, ca. 1777–78, brush and brown ink and wash over black chalk on paper. Courtesy of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.

NEW YORK, NY.– In 1777, the great Italian draftsman and printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) visited the haunting and majestic archaeological site of Paestum on the Gulf of Salerno, about 60 miles south of Naples. A Greek colony dating to circa 600 B.C., Paestum had long been abandoned when it was rediscovered in the eighteenth century. Antiquarians eagerly studied the site, visiting its three ancient Doric temples, then identified as the Basilica, the Temple of Neptune, and the Temple of Ceres. The Basilica and the Temple of Neptune are among the best-preserved early Greek temples.

Piranesi immediately began a set of monumental drawings that combined an antiquarian’s interest in the buildings with an appreciation for the picturesque qualities of the ruins. The drawings were preparatory for a set of prints, but unfortunately, the artist died in 1778 before completing the project. The drawings—the last of Piranesi’s illustrious career—were ultimately completed by his son, Francesco, and published posthumously the same year.

The Morgan Library & Museum is exhibiting fifteen of the seventeen surviving Paestum drawings for the first time ever in the United States. The works are on loan from Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, where they recently underwent restoration. Piranesi and the Temples of Paestum: Drawings from Sir John Soane’s Museum will remain on view through May 17.

The Morgan is delighted to be the first American museum to exhibit these remarkable drawings,” said Peggy Fogelman, acting director of the Morgan. “Their beauty and majesty of scale are truly impressive, offering museum-goers a bold encounter with the artist’s unique style. We are grateful to Sir John Soane’s Museum for lending us these unforgettable works.”

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Giovanni Battista Piranesi. ‘View of the Temple of Neptune, Looking South-West’ (Study for plate X of the Différentes vues de Pesto), ca. 1777-78. Pen and brown ink and wash over black chalk, and red chalk, heightened with white on paper. Courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Famous for his etchings of Rome and his fantastic “prisons” series (the so-called Carceri), Piranesi’s career in art and architecture began in his hometown of Mogliano Veneto, near Treviso to the north of Venice. His education commenced with an introduction to Latin and the history of ancient civilizations, provided by his brother Andrea. Piranesi went on to study architecture under his uncle, Matteo Lucchesi, a Venetian architect and engineer who specialized in excavation and served as the Magistrate of Waterworks (Magistrato delle acque). In 1740, Piranesi went to Rome, where he studied etching and engraving under Giuseppe Vasi. He remained there for three years, collaborating with pupils of the French Academy. Following his time in Rome, he moved to Venice, where he often visited with Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, one of the great painters of his day.

In 1747, Piranesi returned to Rome and opened a workshop on the Via del Corso, beginning two of his best known projects: the Vedute di Roma (The Views of Rome) and the Carceri (Prisons). The Vedute (continued from 1748 until 1774) depict both the modern city and Rome’s ancient ruins. The Carceri (published in 1750, with a second edition in 1761) imagines an extraordinary world of subterranean vaults with implausible, intertwining stairways and fantastic machinery. The works have been credited as highly influential for the Romantic and Surrealist movements.

Piranesi garnered much praise and recognition during his lifetime. In 1761 he became a member of the Accademia di San Luca, and, in 1767 he was honored with the knighthood of the Golden Spur.

The Paestum Drawings: Measured and Imaginative
Piranesi’s Paestum drawings underscore the artist’s distinctive approach to architectural perspective, often featuring off-center vanishing points to enhance the splendor of a view. Interior of the Temple of Neptune, Looking South-East (Study for plate XVII of the Différentes vues de Pesto), as an example, offers a spectacular rendition of the second-tier columns of the interior colonnade. This drawing demonstrates particularly well the ways in which Piranesi combined architectural study with compositional drama. The viewpoint seems to blur the distinctions between the columns of the Temple of Neptune and those of the Basilica beyond, while the atmospheric play of light and shade makes this one of the most evocative drawings of the series.

In a similar manner, View of the Temple of Neptune, Looking South-West (Study for plate X of the Différentes vues de Pesto) depicts the exterior of the well-preserved structure. The triangular pediment had remained almost entirely intact, and this drawing is a carefully rendered study of the façade’s details. However, the related etching shows the façade from a slightly different view, which suggests that Piranesi used not only the drawings exhibited here, but also a set a measured works on paper that do not survive, when he prepared the prints.

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Giovanni Battista Piranesi. ‘Basilica with the Temple of Neptune in the Right foreground. Exteriors.’ (Image © Sir John Soane′s Museum)

Paestum: History of a Greek Colony
Located in a malarial swamp, Paestum includes the remains of a former Greek colony that had been largely ignored until the mid-eighteenth century, when the rediscovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii aroused a new interest in the desolate site. It is particularly known for its three Doric temples, which are among the best-preserved examples of their kind: the Temple of Hera I, (ca. 550-30 B.C.), the Temple of Hera II (ca. 450 B.C.), and the Temple of Athena (ca. 500 B.C.).

Aside from remaining archaeological evidence, little is known about the early centuries of Paestum, which was founded as Posedonia by Greek colonists around 600 B.C. Originally, eighteenth-century archaeologists mis-identified the structures. The Temple of Hera I, the oldest surviving temple in Paestum, was initially referred to as the Basilica, a Roman civic structure, until Greek inscriptions later revealed that the goddess Hera was worshipped there. The Temple of Hera II was thought to be a place of worship for the sea god, Neptune (or Poseidon, the Greek god for whom the colony was named), though it is now understood that the temple houses two altars, likely in tribute to Hera and Zeus. The Temple of Athena, located on the highest point of the town, was erroneously known by Piranesi and his contemporaries as the Temple of Ceres, until terracotta statuettes depicting the goddess Athena were uncovered.

Sir John Soane
In 1817, the English architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837), who had met Piranesi in Rome shortly before the artist’s death, acquired fifteen of his Paestum drawings, which are on display in this exhibition.

Soane’s house, museum and library in London have been a public museum since the early nineteenth century. On his appointment as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806, Soane began to arrange his books, classical antiquities, casts, and models so that students of architecture might benefit from access to them. In 1833 he negotiated an Act of Parliament to preserve the house and collection after his death for the benefit of “amateurs and students” in architecture, painting, and sculpture. Today Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of England’s most unusual and significant museums with a continuing and developing commitment to education and creative inspiration.

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Giovanni Battista Piranesi, ‘View of the Interior of the Basilica, Looking West‘ (Study for plate VI of the Différentes vues de Pesto). Black chalk and wash with pen and brown ink on paper, ca. 1777-78. Courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum.

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