Piranesi and the Modern Age | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Piranesi and the Modern Age

Piranesi and the Modern Age
Victor Plahte Tschudi

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2022
288 pp., illus. 25 b&w, 81 col. Trade, 49.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-04717-3.

Reviewed by: 
Robert Maddox-Harle
March 2023

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) was an Italian printmaker, architect, and antiquarian. It is his masterful etchings of enigmatic and impossible architectures that have mesmerised us for over two centuries.

Tschudi, in this incredibly well researched book, investigates the “appropriation” of Piranesi since 1900 in the fields of literature, photography, art, film, and architecture. Firstly, what becomes clear from Tschudi’s explorations is that interpretation of anything, but especially art, changes over time influenced by the ‘fads’ of the moment - modernism, psychoanalysis, post-modernism, and so on ad nauseam. Secondly, the more enigmatic and non-real art is the greater the lasting intrigue, even though this waxes and wanes.

The book is nicely produced, and graphically very rich, as is to be expected considering the subject matter. Piranesi’s etchings, which are by no means exhaustive, are beautifully reproduced both in close-up detail and the complete works. After the Prelude (Introduction) there are six chapters followed by a Coda (Conclusion). Then Index, Credits and Acknowledgements

Chapter 1 - The De Quincey Effect

Chapter 2 - The Etcher Exposed

Chapter 3 - Piranesi at MOMA

Chapter 4 - Moving Prints

Chapter 5 - The Subversive Modernist

Chapter 6 - Campo Marzio as Method

These chapters look at the disciplines of literature, photography, art, film, architecture and urbanism in order, tracing how they have been influenced (and not-influenced) by Piranesi’s etchings.

Just how much influence globally and across all the disciplines Piranesi has had is really the essence of Tschudi’s research. I am not convinced that Piranesi has had quite the all-encompassing influence that Tschudi claims. For example, the Freudian interpretation of Piranesi’s etchings on poetry and literature is very much, ”last century” and wide open to criticism, as are many other psychoanalytic appraisals. For example, I have read a number of psychoanalytical analyses of the Polish artist, Zdzislaw Beksiński, whose work is very dark and dystopian, none of these consider it important that Beksiński grew up during WWII in a town adjacent to Auschwitz? Piranesi may well have been expressing his concepts of a deep, seething unconscious, or equally a version of a Biblical hell (pre-Freud). This enigmatic nature of his etchings, as previously mentioned, is why they are so enduring and powerful.

A somewhat disconcerting influence in Piranesi’s, almost cult following, is the fact that De Quincey wrote a fairly short appraisal of Piranesi that has been taken as gospel. “De Quincey freely admitted: that he had never even seen the prints and was simply relating what he remembered his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge had told him about them. The slightly cynical view would be that these layers of evocations gave De Quincey the opportunity to reinvent Piranesi’s prints almost as he pleased” (p.31).

Much of the discussion is from an American perspective, such as the extensive section on MOMA, and then mainly American architects, with the exception of the fairly detailed discussion concerning Le Corbusier. The architecture chapter I found to be the most problematic. Yes, Piranesi’s etchings depict urban conglomerates, prisons, and buildings but these could equally be, as just one example, a metaphor for the absurdity of life, particularly from a Camusean perspective, or from a Sartrean existential perspective. Referring to William M. Ivins’ (print curator at MOMA) essay, “What Ivins’s essay also indicates is that abstract Piranesi was very much an American discovery, confined to a Manhattan milieu of curators, gallerists, and collectors” (p. 103).

What Tschudi has done, for sure, is using Piranesi as a foil, to delineate a history of modernism, particularly architecture. As Tschudi clearly states this book contains only a small and select presentation of Piranesi’s prolific output - mainly his etchings - his greatest legacy. “In short, rather than a study of a historical figure, this is a book about an ahistorical Piranesi -  a character reinvented in the modern age to legitimize that age precisely as modern” (p.18, my emphasis).

That Tschudi is fully aware of the precariousness of his investigation into the enigmatic nature of Piranesi is evident from the passage quoted below. “This book admittedly offers an ambiguous conclusion to the story it tells. Still, in its ambiguity, I hope this monograph may be inscribed into an esteemed genealogy of Piranesi emulations, for nothing can be more noble in this tradition than the ambition to rein in the endless and contain the infinite, only to be deceived by the format” (p. 231).

I believe this book is an important addition to the literature on modernism and, of course, a wonderful exposé of Piranesi and his work. Perhaps unintentionally the book is equally important as a case study in postmodern deconstruction, authorial intent, and how the fads and trends of different epochs change dramatically our appreciation and understanding of art. This book requires close reading, keeping the ambiguities and enigmatic nature of the whole enterprise in mind.