Piranesi’s Utopia

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (the Italians have such musical names!) labored his whole life to build a new Rome upon and among the stones of the old Rome. The concept for the most part stayed on paper but . . .

Piranesi was an architectural artist, born near Venice in 1720 (nothing much seemed to be happening that year), but by the time he died in 1778 (the American Revolution was in full swing) he had helped usher in Neoclassicism. That may sound a little dull but it meant he was a catalyst for a visionary new world. His grand dreams pretty much fell on deaf ears, but in the wake of his attempt he left us with the most amazing etchings and a new way of thinking.

Those etchings did, in effect, change the world, not so much how people lived but how people saw, felt, and even dreamed. They were the stepping stones to new imaginative heights. His prison staircases prefigured Escher’s staircases . He served as an impetus for Surrealistic movement. He presented strange perspectives of renewed ruins and passive “modern” figures peopling the debris of the ancient Roman world. His series on prisons, subterranean caverns with endless stairways and enormous arches, are the most famous, but my personal favorite is “The Ancient Intersection of Via Appea and Via Ardeatina”. It looks as if the antiquities section of the world’s museums had been raided and the booty piled one on top the other to tower over the streets. A grand history left to decay as tiny people gape and point and go about their daily lives. In Piranesi’s time, anyone wandering around Italy would have seen isolated instances of this; the rocks of ancient civilization left to the vines and moss. We have virtuously sterilized what we can in museums to protect it all, but Piranesi has embedded the romance of it in our consciousness (even if we’ve never laid eyes on his etchings before) because surrealism took his fantasies and sprouted them with new distorted dreams. Marc Chagall, Man Ray, Max Ernest, Yves Tanguy, Rene Magritte, and Salvador Dali, all owe a debt to Piranesi for opening the collective unconscious to the surreal.

People who spend their lives to fulfill a vision of a better world are fascinating. Whether those strivings are actually reached isn’t as important as the fact that portions of humanity are capable of thinking far bigger than themselves. And I’ve come to believe that the expense of human energy is never left unrewarded. If, as so often happens, the world precludes the vision from becoming envisioned, the effort itself leaves resonances that change the world. Sometimes even beyond that imagined in the initial dream.

As it turned out, Piranesi’s dream to change the world’s architecture was far too small. Instead he changed the world’s mind.

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