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8-30 November 2003
A project by Hugo Worthy

Over the seventeenth century the influence of Giovanni Battista Piranesi was inescapable. His ruins infected the imagination of the chattering classes across Europe. They were a perfect visual match for the gothic Romances that were so popular at the time. In this exhibition we have a selection of highlights from his monumental work, the Vedute di Roma of 1776. Piranesi was an opportunist and had created what amounted in his eyes to little more than a knick-knack for the legions of tourists passing through Eternal City on the Grand Tour.

Piranesi’s ambivalence about his work did not affect the public perception of his engravings. He did not see the productions of these tourist trifles as a suitable crowning glory for his life. He had trained to become an architect and that was his great ambition. Like so many modern architects he never designed a building that was ever to be built. Nonetheless his architectural influence has been huge, most visibly through the work of John Soane. In the eighteenth century, before his architectural designs began to be imitated the decaying ruins of the Vedute he had made so popular became a vital feature for any modish gentleman’s garden. Nonetheless the follies of the English never quite lived up to the fantasias of Piranesi’s engravings. In fact his book of postcards rather out shone the dowdy and ill-kempt Roman sites they ostensibly portrayed.
There are two faces of Rome that we can see in the Vedute. One is the brutal classicism of the imperial city and the other is that same city crumbling into dust. The imperial city has fearsomely exaggerated perspectives that give it a feel we might, anachronistically call Fascist. It is an intimidating place. The ruins of the city are a melancholic tribute to a past age picked over with relish by the vulture-like tourists. In Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma these two faces of the same city hold a message for Enlightenment arrogance. The greatest cities rise and rise until their hubris brings them down. We should still be listening to that today.

Although the image of the ruin was especially popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century it is an image that remains resonant today. The ruin in the modern world more often than not carries the scars of war. They are objects that have been subjected to violence and so all the twisted girders and shattered concrete reinforce mans sense of power. Piranesi’s ruins are quieter than this. They have the calm of the graveyard. These buildings have collapsed not because of moment of violence but because of the incessant workings of time.

The fuzz of growth over Piranesi’s ruins is evidence of their slow return to the earth. The people in the picture, these slightly picaresque tourists, are dwarfed not just by the vastness of the ruins but also by the time scale that these buildings illustrate. The slow and inexorable passing of man. Piranesi used the tourist trade to illustrate great cycles of mans existence. The ascent and decline of great empires leave behind them only ruins. It is a commonplace truth, but one worth repeating.