The ultimate act of fantasia
To mark the opening of a major Piranesi exhibition at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York, one of its curators, John Wilton-Ely, discusses the masterpiece that Piranesi planned for his own tomb.
Saturday, 1st September 2007
For most of his active life G.B. Piranesi was deeply preoccupied with his posthumous reputation, particularly in relation to his work on ancient Rome. In 1757, in a particularly manic vendetta against Lord Charlemont, the failed sponsor of Piranesi’s great survey of the Eternal City, Le Antichità Romane, he published unanswered letters to Charlemont together with miniature copies of the deleted dedications.1 As he stated in the Lettere di giustificazione...a milord Charlemont: ‘I believe that I have completed a work which will pass on to posterity and which will endure as long as there are men curious to know the ruins which remain of the most famous city in the universe. ...And there is reason to suppose that the name of its author will pass on to posterity together with his work.’2 Ruins were a life-long stimulus to his fertile imagination and a large proportion of his work as a designer was bound up with the use of fragmentary antiquity through the transforming power of his imagination. Indeed, his chosen portrait of himself as a frontispiece to the Antichità – half modern architect and half antique fragment – showed him as a kind of Janus figure interpreting antiquity for his own times (Fig. 1).3
Piranesi’s transformation of the capriccio, or architectural fantasy, into a means of exploring and communicating new ideas had led him during the heated exchanges of the controversy about the relative merits of Greek and Roman art to publish a defence of the creative role of fantasia. This took the form of an imaginary debate between two rival architects, published as the Parere su l’architettura, or Observations on Architecture, in 1765.4 This was a rejoinder to the criticism by the Frenchman Pierre-Jean Mariette of Piranesi’s earlier defence of Rome and the Etruscans in Della magnificenza ed architettura de’ Romani (1761), where he had reproduced particularly idiosyncratic and exuberant examples of late Roman architectural decoration.5 Accordingly, the central theme of the Parere was a defence of the speculative processes of the unfettered imagination as opposed to the tyranny of aesthetic theory. In response to the rigorist and minimalist Protopiro, his opponent Didascolo advocated Piranesi’s belief in the creative license of the designer – ‘the crazy liberty of following his own caprice’ as triumphantly demonstrated in the works of Borromini and Bernini.6
Subsequently, Piranesi’s publication of his extremely original and often bizarre designs for chimneypieces as well as a range of furniture in the Diverse maniere d’adornare i cammini... (1769), established his reputation as a highly versatile and resourceful designer.7 The prefatory essay provided a challenging manifesto in which he defended his belief in the importance of imaginative synthesis, drawing from a wide variety of antique sources according to ancient Roman practice, in the face of a growing taste for severity and austerity led by Winckelmann and the pioneers of the Greek revival. A belief that Piranesi can be regarded as one of the last great baroque designers, is surely supported by his assertion that ‘an artist, who would do himself honour, and acquire a name, must not content himself with copying faithfully the ancients, but studying their works he ought to show himself of an inventive, and, I had almost said, of a creating Genius’.8
During the early 1770s, with the decline of the lucrative patronage from members of the papal Rezzonico family after the death of Clement xiii in 1769, Piranesi increasingly turned his mind to the imaginative restoration of classical antiquities for the Grand Tour market. The papal embargo on the export of figurative sculpture connected with the creation of the Museo Pio-Clementino led Piranesi to explore the potential of decorative pieces, such as large-scale vases and candelabra, suitable for sculpture galleries and garden structures. In the mid 1760s he had built up a successful collaboration with specialist sculptors and dealers in the production of chimney-pieces incorporating antique fragments, such as those at Burghley House, Gorhambury and Wedderburn Castle.9 The restorer-sculptors included the celebrated Bartolomeo Cavaceppi as well as Vincenzo Pacetti, Lorenzo Cardelli, Francesco Franzoni, Antoine-Guillaume Grandjacquet and the Englishman Joseph Nollekens; the principal dealers included Gavin Hamilton, Thomas Jenkins and James Byers.10 A Museo, or showrooms for these productions, was established in Palazzo Tomati in Via Sistina, where Piranesi had set up his print establishment in 1761, close to the English quarter of the Piazza di Spagna.11 Enterprisingly, Piranesi was to record and, indeed to advertise, many of these refashioned works in a series of individual plates, later collected in two volumes in 1778, the year of his death, as Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcofagi....12 These arresting images were dedicated to leading connoisseurs, collectors and artists of the Grand Tour world, and frequently included detailed captions about the restored antiquities, describing their discovery, and current location, if already sold.
In 1769 Piranesi had joined forces with Gavin Hamilton in the excavation of an extensive quantity of marble decorative fragments from the marshy Pantanello area of Hardian’s Villa at Tivoli.13 This remarkable cache of material, which included portions of large ornamental vases and candelabra, contributed to the creation of a number of outstanding productions. Most notable among them was the giant Warwick Vase, acquired by Sir William Hamilton and sold to his nephew, Charles Greville, later Earl of Warwick (now in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow) and two exceptionally ornate candelabra purchased from Piranesi in 1775 by Sir Roger Newdigate and given to the University of Oxford (later transferred from the Radcliffe Library to the Ashmolean Museum).14 Among the 11 candelabra restored or produced by Piranesi that were advertised by plates in the Vasi, candelabri... was one featuring the heads of a bull and two lions, dedicated to Prince Abbondio Rezzonico; two others that were eventually bought from Piranesi’s son Francesco by Gustav iii (now in the Royal Palace, Stockholm); and another (now in the Lady Lever Gallery, Port Sunlight) that found its way into the sculpture galleries of the great Regency connoisseur Thomas Hope, first at Duchess Street, London, and later at the Deepdene, Surrey.15
It was during this period that Piranesi decided to recreate the most ambitious candelabrum of all to form a funerary monument to himself as an heir to the creative fantasia of ancient Rome (Figs. 2 and 3).16 Two illustrations were devoted to this work in the Vasi, candelabri..., one in perspective and one in elevation, as was customary for his more elaborate productions (Figs. 4 and 5). These plates were dedicated to the British virtuoso Charles Morris, who spent over 20 years in Rome and Naples, as also were pairs of plates of one of the Newdigate candelabra and of the more elaborate of the two candelabra now in the Royal Palace, Stockholm.17 A detailed caption accompanying the elevational view of this monumental work, which was three-and-a-quarter metres high, indicated that Piranesi had already decided that he would be interred in the Certosa, that is S Maria degli Angeli in Rome, which had been fashioned by Michaelangelo from the central hall of the Baths of Diocletian. The candelabrum’s scale and complexity would be appropriate for such an awesome space.
Adopting the standard pattern of virtually all his other candelabra, Piranesi’s monument was to be composed of three basic elements; a triangular base supported by tripod animal feet, a tapering central area with elaborate relief sculpture and an elaborate shaft or stem bearing the bowl. Parts of this composition are resolved in a summary pen sketch design in the British Museum (Fig. 6) in which the central relief element is absent but the baroque outline of the abundant acanthus leaves is already in evidence, culminating in what appears to be a branched candlestick.18 As usual with Piranesi, no finished studies for his restored antiquities exist and it seems clear that once the general idea was established, it was, significantly, improvisation based on available antique fragments and the dialogue between designer and sculptor that determined the final composition.
Captions to the plates of the Vasi, candelabri... were clearly devised to promote the market value of the objects through learned discussion and technical description. Piranesi includes a particularly elaborate iconographic description in the caption to his elevational view (Fig. 4).19 Since the work was composed of antique fragments and substantial contemporary additions, the speculative tone of his interpretation is skilfully intended to convey a sense of discovery, neatly evading distinctions between ancient and modern. As he explains, this candelabrum (or ‘lamp’ as he calls it) was to be placed on a magnificent circular pedestal in front of his tomb in the Certosa. Flanking the foot of this monument are three Erotes or Genii (only two are visible in the plate) with folded wings and reversed torches in the act of mourning. The triangular base of the monument is supported by lion’s feet, complete with masks, as well as a circular support, ornamented with acanthus leaves and adding further reinforcement beneath, which is not mentioned. The base is enriched at the angles with winged sphinxes, dressed in pleated garments and terminating in serpentine tails that interweave with the pendant festoons between them. Above the latter are baskets of flowers alternating with shells. Three rams’ heads project above the sphinxes to support an elaborate circular altar with elaborate mouldings and rich reliefs that forms the central element of the monument. Prominent among the motifs are four heads of fauns or theatrical masks that, we are told, may allude to the four types of poetry, the four ages of man, or the four seasons symbolising the span of human existence. The pan pipes (seen only in the perspective view, Fig. 5) and a shepherd’s crook by the fauns’ heads represent summer and autumn respectively, while nearby are seen the figures of two more fauns, adjacent to the mask of winter, gathering pine cones – the last fruits of the season and symbols of life’s ending. The remainder of the work that surrounds the shaft supporting the bowl is composed of leafy branches of acanthus, festoons and lions’ heads, all alluding to the products of the earth necessary to the life of mankind. Finally, Piranesi states that the candelabrum was originally found in pieces in the palace of Duke Salviati at Longara.
The issue of his tomb had taken on fresh urgency by 1777, when Piranesi contracted a serious bladder complaint, and despite medical advice persisted in undertaking an arduous expedition to record the three Greek temples at Paestum, situated south of Naples in a wild and inhospitable region.20 On his return to Rome he appears to have sent a letter to a friend on 12 May 1778 enclosing a rapid sketch of ideas for his tomb which tantalisingly throws no light on the role of the candelabrum (Fig. 7).21 This shows the artist in the guise of one of his gesticulating figures from the later plates of the Vedute di Roma, seated on a stone parapet in front of a classical wall with two orders of pilasters. It is possible that by now Piranesi was sadly aware that his tomb would be housed not in the Angeli but in the more restricted space of his local parish church, S. Andrea della Fratte, where he was interred after his death on 9 November 1778. That his intentions for the candelabrum were not forgotten by his widow, Angela, his eldest son, Francesco, and siblings, is indicated by its prominence in the background of a posthumous oil portrait by Pietro Labruzzi that was probably commissioned by the family and painted in 1779 (Fig. 9).22 The likeness was clearly based on the portrait bust that Joseph Nollekens carved around 1761 to mark Piranesi’s election to the Accademia di San Luca (where it remains).23
However, within a short time Piranesi’s body was transferred to a place of honour in his sole work of executed architecture, S. Maria del Priorato, Rome, at the order of his greatest patron, Mgr Giambattista Rezzonico, Grand Prior of the Knights of Malta, and dedicatee of the Diverse maniere. By now, however the austere aesthetic of Winckelmann’s theories was increasingly dominant in taste and significantly the Piranesi family, shortly after the father’s death, had already commissioned a conventional memorial statue of him. Produced by Giuseppe Angelini, who had worked for Piranesi in the restoration business, this over-life sized image, dressed al antica in a toga and leaning on a herm, was nearing completion in November 1779, when it was noted by the young Canova on a visit to the sculptor’s studio (Fig. 8).24
As with Pope Julius ii or Browning’s imaginary bishop ordering his tomb at St Praxed’s church, the wishes of the deceased about their preferred commemoration rarely have control beyond the grave. It appears from early biography of the artist by the architect J.-G. Legrand that Piranesi’s family arranged for this acceptable if frozen image to balance the extravagant candelabrum on the opposite side of the nave in the priory church, as if gazing at his ultimate fantasy.25 In this they would have followed in spirit the reported wishes of Piranesi, according to Legrand, when the artist said ‘My shade would be overjoyed if a similar masterpiece were to shine upon my tomb.’26
Within a short time, the three Erotes at the base of the candelabrum had been clearly deemed superfluous and were returned to the family Museo at Palazzo Tomati, where in 1785 they were included in the sale of the residual antiquities by Francesco Piranesi to Gustav iii of Sweden.27 Two now surmount columns in the Royal Museum, Stockholm.28 Meanwhile, the candelabrum was seen in S. Maria del Priorato on 1 January 1786 by Prince Stanislas Poniatowski of Poland, who commented: ‘Close to there, also on the Aventine [is] the priory, disfigured by Piranesi’s ugly church, in which there is a candelabrum, made up of beautiful pieces of sculpture assembled quite tastelessly and not even set up on the perpendicular’.29
In 1790, when Angelini’s statue was engraved by Franceso Piranesi from a drawing by Tommaso Piroli, the candelabrum is mentioned in the caption as still being situated opposite it in the church.30 However, in the later 1790s the colossal funerary capriccio appears to have been quietly returned to the family Museo in Palazzo Tomati, from where it was acquired by Cardinal Braschi.31 At this point a dramatic turn of events intervened in the candelabrum’s fortunes, when it was sequestered with the cardinal’s collection by the invading French in 1798. Dismantled and put into three crates, the candelabrum was included among the material sent by ship from Naples for the newly created Musée du Louvre.32 Meanwhile Francesco and his brother Pietro, who were involved in revolutionary politics as officials in the short-lived republic, fled with other members of the family to Paris in 1799, where they set up the short-lived Calcografie Piranesi frères.33 The candelabrum, which was eventually regained by the Piranesi family, appears to have been sold back to the Louvre in 1815, where it awaited the next turn of fate.34
With the restitution of works of art looted by Napoleon after the Restoration, the Louvre underwent a major reorganisation under Ennio Quirino Visconti in 1817, when a sequence of impressive rooms, each focused on a major work, was devised.35 Visconti, by leading a reaction to Winckelmann’s restrictive criteria of antiquity, was to open the way for a fresh appreciation of late imperial art, such as that of the Hadrianic era, in which Piranesi’s imaginative restorations could be included.36 The candelabrum was to be given a setting beyond even the wildest dreams of Piranesi himself when the former Salle de Diane became La Salle du Candélabre. Its opulent milieu is illustrated in Musée de Sculpture Antique e Moderne de Louvre in 1841 by the Comte de Clarac, who succeeded Visconti in 1818 in charge of the antiquities of the Musée Royal (Fig. 10).37 However, yet another twist of fate in the candelabrum’s fortunes has since taken place as a result of our current respect for the integrity of the authentic fragment. Neither antique nor modern, Piranesi’s sublime synthesis continues to evade categorisation and the candelabrum has now been moved to a niche on one of the principal staircases of the Louvre to await its next reincarnation.
John Wilton-Ely is emeritus professor in the history of art, the University of Hull. He is a guest co-curator of the exhibition ‘Piranesi as Designer’, sponsored by Eli Wilner & Co, at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York, 14 September-20 January 2008. For more information, telephone +1 212 849 8400 or visit www.cooperhewitt.org
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