Thursday, April 11, 2013

Virtually Piranesian

The San Diego Museum of Art
The Prado, Balboa Park
Through July 7, 2013

On view until July 7 at the San Diego Museum of Art, Piranesi, Rome, and the Arts of Design surveys the work of one of art’s great design fabulists, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778).  The extensive and beautifully installed exhibition reveals a paradoxical figure, whose single completed building is a strange footnote, but whose numerous etchings of real and imagined places have influenced and inspired architects, painters and poets for two centuries.  Utilizing new computer skills and rendering methods, the show brings Piranesi into the virtual world of The Matrix, but it seems like the 18th Century draftsman and architect was already there.

Deftly avoiding the risk of stuffy connoisseurship that can limit Piranesi’s appeal, the curators have taken a cue from Piranesi’s most entrepreneurial venture – his innovative etching techniques – and gives them a new life with a high-tech kick in the pants – a computer generated three dimensional walk-through of his famous series of etchings, Le Carceri d'Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons).

Produced by Factum Arte of Madrid, the animation takes the static images and projects them onto 3D models and slowly turns a series of these 2 dimensional prints – whose mysterious spatial extents have always intrigued architects  - into a phantasmagoria equal parts “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Draughtsman’s Contract.”  Accompanied by a haunting Bach prelude performed by Pablo Casals, the video is mesmerizing. It can be viewed online here.

Further pushing the boundaries between art history and art resurrection, additional videos show the elaborate and time consuming process of creating virtual models of some of Piranesi’s un-built projects and designs.  Slathered with elaborate ram’s heads and enigmatic faces (Sibyls? Nymphs?) a fireplace mantel jumps from an 18th century etching onto a 21st century computer.  Finally, using a stereo-lithographic printing process, the lost piece is brought into the museum as an actual object. 

Other objects brought to life from the etchings include Brobdingnagian urns festooned with griffins and other fantastic creatures, elaborate candelabra and lost antiquities.  Fragments of designs are scattered on tables in the style of an 18th century wunderkammern, testimony to Piranesi’s art but also the technicians’ skill and science bringing these pieces to life from the black and white prints.

Bringing these historically “un-built” items back to life through science and technology might please Mary Shelley, as there is something monstrous and fantastic about even the smallest Piranesian detail.  His one built project is a church for the Knights of Malta, Santa Maria del Priorato on the Aventine Hill in Rome.  Covered with emblems and symbols for the military and naval heritage of the Knights of Malta, they are double-coded with Classical references and allegorical references to his patron, Cardinal Giambattista Rezzonico.  These are objects and symbols that try to transcend time and reference both tradition and innovation.  Like his un-built work, it is didactic and a bit creepy.  Not sure how Dan Brown missed this building as a plot device for “The Da Vinci Code”.

Rounding out this technological assessment of Piranesi is a side-by-side comparison of modern photographs and the etchings of the monuments and piazzas of Rome that Piranesi popularized for his European Grand Tour patrons. Piranesi’s vision of these monuments – with their extreme shadows, groups of brigands, overgrown ruins and wild sense of scale, contrasts nicely with the more somber reality of the photos.  

Previous assessments of Piranesi have championed his place as a pre-cursor of Romanticism – a purveyor of a mad worldview shared with Blake’s visions, Fuseli ‘s beasts or the late capriccios of Goya.  Championed by admirers as diverse as writers Victor Hugo and Baudelaire, art historians Henri Focillon and Siegfried Gideon, Piranesi was the touchstone for all things irrational during the supposed age of reason of the neo-classical 18th century. Subsequent surveys emphasize his place in his own time – eagerly exploring the newly discovered wonders of the ancient world, wondering at the newly revealed variety and diversity of the ancients, and the discovery of other, older and more mysterious cultures outside the classical tradition. 

While his more popular counterparts championed the newly fashionable Greek influence on architecture, Piranesi stood firm in his conviction of the genius of Roman (and Italian) design.  One series of etchings was essentially an 18th century flame war with a French theorist over the relative “genius” of Italian or Greek architecture.  Unfortunately, France and the neo-classicists were in ascendance, and while influential with late Rococo design and the Adams Brothers in England, the move to less, not more, and rational, not the uncanny, was already afoot.

Like uncomfortable and disturbing dreams, architectural fantasies haunt design theory and historically have disrupted contemporary orthodoxy.  From the allegorical and arcane imaginings of late medieval and early Renaissance romances such as Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili to the blasted streets and crumbling dirigible like buildings dropped into war torn Sarajevo by Lebbeus Woods, the irrational and the sublime run a deep counterpoint to the rational and ordered precepts of Renaissance theory or today’s neo-Modernism.  The nature of Piranesi’s un-built work is a natural for an imagined or virtual place.  Now that Piranesi can be seen in an artificial way that strangely is more natural for us – in a movie, as a simulation, his influence will be felt again.