Today marks the opening day of an exciting auction, hosted by New York art and antiques gallery Jonathan Burden to benefit the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. The gallery is selling a set of 15 exquisite reproductions of Italian printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Temples at Paestum. Because the originals are too delicate to hang in direct sunlight, the Soane commissioned two sets of reproductions, which were created by the celebrated German firm Hahnemühle: One set is to hang permanently to the Soane, while the other is on display at Jonathan Burden from now until March 31st. Art and history lovers around the world can view the lots and bid on iGavel. And in honor of this thrilling auction, we take a closer look at Piranesi’s work and his influence.
Few people have expressed fantastical dreams of antiquity quite like Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an 18th-century denizen and one of history’s greatest printmakers. The son of a stonemason and master builder, Piranesi was made famous by his romantic views of Rome (ancient and contemporary) and his wildly imaginative interiors, especially prisons.
When Piranesi arrived in Rome (from Venice) in 1740, he apprenticed himself for a short while to Guiseppe Vasi, whose etchings of Rome were hugely popular with pilgrims, scholars, and travelers on the Grand Tour. Coupled with Piranesi’s in-depth understanding of archaeology and ancient building methods, this tutelage did the young etcher much good: Soon, Piranesi was creating etchings of everything from ancient Rome’s aqueduct system to imagined interiors of weird and wondrous buildings. And etching the ancient and modern buildings of Rome was a lucrative source of income for the artist: Piranesi infused his work with drama, playing up the contrast between light and shadow and magnifying the scale of buildings to make them appear even grander than they were.
Piranesi famously—and some might say, abrasively—lauded Roman architecture as far superior to its Greek counterpart. He used his extensive knowledge of ancient engineering to defend his argument: The Romans hadn’t adopted ideas of structural beauty and function from the Greeks, he said, but had been influenced by earlier Italians, the Etruscans.
But his deep love for Roman art and architecture didn’t prevent Piranesi from turning his eye to Greek art and architecture. In 1777, near the end of his life, Piranesi visited Paestum, an evocative archaeological site on the Gulf of Salerno south of Naples. At the site of this long-ago Greek colony, in preparation for a set of etchings, he created a series of drawings of the three Doric temples from the first half of the sixth century BC: the Basilica, the Temple of Ceres, and the Temple of Neptune. Piranesi died in 1778, before completing the set—called Différents vues de Pesto. His son, Francesco, finished the work, which was published posthumously that same year and revolutionized architects’ and artists’ understanding of classical Greek architecture. Nearly 40 years later, Sir John Soane, an English architect who had met Piranesi shortly before his death, acquired 15 of the surviving 17 drawings.
And now, nearly two centuries after Soane’s acquisition, art lovers have a rare opportunity to own this tribute to one of Italy’s most influential artists, whose devotion to architectural history and imagination has inspired writers, set designers, and other artists, including the 20th-century Surrealists, who admired Piranesi’s dramatic work. “We are pleased to have this opportunity to hold this sale and support the Soane,” says Jonathan Burden, founder of the eponymous gallery. “We hope a designer or collector will seize this rare opportunity to acquire this significant collection of Piranesi drawings and that they will find their rightful home.”
New Yorkers are invited to view the reproduced set at Jonathan Burden, along with three spectacular cork models of the temples at Paestum by master model maker Dieter Cöllen of Germany. On March 25th at 7 PM, the gallery is hosting a reception with an introduction by Mark Rakatansky, PhD, an architect and Piranesi expert from Columbia University.