Piranesi was famous already in his time and he continued to be all the way through to our age. He is especially known among architects who have been fascinated with his etchings for the last 200 years. Sir John Soane admired Piranesi too but he also had the privilege to meet him before he died, when he travelled to Italy at a quite young age. Later on, when Soane became an architect and eventually a professor of architecture he purchased 15 of the Paestum drawings. He extensively used them to illustrate the lectures he gave to his students at the Royal Academy of Arts and he also built a special room in his house with an interesting sliding-panel structure to fit all of them together in the same space.
At my first visit to the Soane museum a few years ago I did not even know what to expect when I entered that special room. The door closed behind me and a man with white gloves started his apparently usual drill of moving around the panels in order to reveal the drawings that were hidden underneath. The room was packed with visitors that seemed more curious about the mechanism than the actual exhibit. Quite predictably (considering I am an architect) I was totally surprised and overcome with joy when I realised that I was faced with Piranesi originals! Unfortunately I had only a little time to look at them, since the gloved man was swift in his moves and also quite soon rushed us out for the next group of visitors to come in.
The Paestum drawings were made as preparatory studies for the prints Piranesi made with the same subject. It is rather impressive they were saved as he was notoriously known to destroy all his studies in order to create the illusion that he was infallible. Piranesi wanted people to think that he was so uniquely gifted that he made the prints spontaneously and to perfection. Soane owned 15 drawings from this series which have been reunited with two more brought here from Paris and Amsterdam for this exhibition.
However it should be mentioned that the actual Paestum temples are also truly special for many reasons. They are in Italy but they have Hellenic origin which means that they were created by Greek colonists in the 6th century BC. However they are not representative of neither Greek nor Roman architecture. It seems that their style lays somewhere in the middle and their enormous Doric columns would ultimately be consider disproportionate by most Greeks and Romans.
Another interesting fact about them is that they were not discovered before the mid-18th century. Because of that and also due to the stone they are made of they demonstrate rather peculiar signs of natural erosion. Piranesi was fascinated by them and he managed to grasp their quite unique atmosphere in the way that only he was able to.
The exhibition captions placed under each drawing reveal interesting information like the fact that the figures in front of the temples were added posthumously by other artist’s or Piranesi’s son, which only makes sense as they do look rather odd. We also find out that the drawings are full of ‘mistakes’ as far as the geometrical accuracy of the perspective views and the positioning of the vanishing points. However to me this piece of information was truly unimportant because the geometric accuracy seems trivial in evaluating a work of art’s value. Most Piranesi lovers adore his work because of the out-of-this-world quality that it has and not its precision.
The mystic ‘air’ that his famous Prison etchings have is evident in these drawing as well. Especially the ones least refined with the rough layers of chalk and almost harsh watercolour washes are the most impressive because the artist’s true spirit and dark vision come through and truly grasp the viewer.
Piranesi might have been a self-obsessed perfectionist of an artist but he was also a huge before-of-his-time talent which makes him both classic but interestingly enough, always relevant. Soane was also very notorious in his hoarder-like accumulation of art-works and historical artefacts that shocks the museum-visitor that does not know much about him. The particularity of both is present in this exhibition which is definitely worth visiting.
The exhibition will be on until the 18th of May and it is free. See more at the Soane museum website here
Read more about Piranesi here
Read more about Sir John Soane here