Piranesi, Fantasy and Excess

Pamela Buxton

If Giovanni Battista Piranesi were around today, he’d be thrilled with the opportunities of 3D printing. So says Jerzy J. Kierkuć-Bieliński, curator of the new exhibition Diverse Maniere: Piranesi, Fantasy and Excess, which explores the important relationship between Soane and Piranesi, the Italian architect, printmaker and antiquarian.

In this show, 3D printing has been used to bring some of the objects in Piranesi’s vivid drawings to life. In the library is an extraordinary silver coffee pot which shows Piranesi’s use of natural forms. Here, the spout is a bee, the lid handle is a cluster of shells, and the pot nestles in a shell which in turn sits on a tortoise base.

The Monk’s Parlour is given a bit of glitz with the addition of the Grotto Chair, resplendent with its sea shell back and created in synthetic wood epoxi resin and water gilded. Elsewhere are richly-decorated bronze tripods topped with alabaster, plus an altar, candelabrum, chimneypiece and urn.

In these opulent objects we can see Piranesi’s ability to take antiquity as a starting point and then make it even better. He was no archaeologist but instead produced creatively restored antiques by mining the best in Greek, Roman, Etruscan and Egyptian influences and then synthesising these with his own vivid imagination. In this way, he had no problem coming up with appropriate designs for present day uses such as chimney pieces. A great marketer, his catalogues were published in four languages.

In his hugely influential drawings, he famously exaggerated the dramatic proportions of antique ruins for maximum awe and monumentality. His evocative drawing of Via Appia, shown in this exhibition, is not based on what he found but on what he imagined after reading a description by Cicero. Joseph Gandy’s views of the dome area at the Soane Museum, which make such a tiny space seem so much larger, are clearly greatly influenced by Piranesi.

As an architect, Piranesi completed just one building but through his drawings was hugely influential on Soane (whom he met just once) and countless others, as aided by his drawings, they discovered the glories of classical antiquity and sort to interpret them in a contemporary way in their own work back home. The 3D sculptures on show here do much to bring the work of this important figure to life.

Diverse Maniere: Piranesi, Fantasy and Excess, until May 31, 2014, Sir John Soane’s Museum, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London