Piranesi’s rebuilt reality
Piranesi’s Paestum: Master Drawings Uncovered
Sir John Soane’s Museum
13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2
February 15 - May 18
The Italian artist’s drawings of Paestum, on display at the Soane Museum, are not as innocent as they look
Among the more fantastical — although sadly unrealised — designs documented in the archive of Sir John Soane’s Museum is that of a vast canine residence, which the Bishop of Derry commissioned from the 26-year-old Soane in 1779 with the purpose of housing his son’s hounds. The architect produced the scheme while studying in Italy on the support of a Royal Academy scholarship, for a client who was journeying across the country on the third of a series of Grand Tours.
Despite disparities in age, wealth and sophistication, the men became friends and travelling companions, and the palatial kennel drew directly on one of the antique sites that they visited in the year of its design.
Standing on the flat coastal plain of Salerno, 85km south of Naples, the city of Paestum was founded at the end of the seventh century BC by Greek colonists. As such, its architectural lineage is quite distinct from that of the antique buildings that Soane had seen in the north of the country. And yet, Paestum’s three substantially extant temples also present a strikingly different character from the Greek models that he would have known through reproductions.
The variant of the Grecian Doric order that they employ struck Soane as “exceedingly rude”: an assessment based on the columns’ lack of a base and the squatness of their shafts. If the encounter proved a shock, it was one that he nonetheless digested and put to use in his own work: Paestum Doric crops up first in the kennel and subsequently in the Barn à la Paestum at Solihull (1798), in the Princess Street vestibule of the Bank of England (1804-05), and in the Mausoleum at Dulwich Picture Gallery (1811-14).
The young Soane was not alone in his fascination for these buildings. On arriving in Rome in 1778 he secured an introduction to Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who was then in the last year of his life but busily working on a series of prints documenting Paestum’s remains. The project was completed after Piranesi’s death by his son, Francesco, and a copy of the published volume, Différentes Vues de Pesto, soon added to Soane’s library. Much later in life the architect also bought at auction 15 of Piranesi’s preparatory drawings for the series — highly complex assemblies of pencil, ink, wash and chalk which offer a fascinating insight into the artist’s working method.
United with two drawings borrowed from European collections, these images form the focus of an unmissable exhibition that opens today at the Soane Museum. At first glance, Piranesi’s large, detailed and seemingly precisely constructed drawings appear to present a persuasive account of the site as it stood at the time of their production. However, straight surveys of Paestum had already been in wide circulation since the 1760s, begging the question of why he might see the need to produce another. The published volume’s lack of any form of a plan supports the suspicion that the enterprise was conceived in more exclusively artistic terms than might at first have been assumed and as soon as we attempt to make any sense of the buildings from the images provided, it becomes immediately clear that this is the case.
“The monumentality of the site is captured very well, and the texture of this eroded travertine that looks like it has had a giant’s fingernails scrape across the peristyle,” says exhibition curator Jerzy Kierkuc-Bielinski. “But when you start looking at how he is achieving these compositions, there are a great many distortions and inaccuracies.”
The exhibition throws light on these myriad liberties: the temples’ relationship is reconfigured freely; multiple vanishing points are employed; the ruins’ human and animal occupants expand and contract in size, impacting on our reading of the buildings’ scale; a population of fishermen is even imported for scenic effect — casually passing over the fact that
the temples actually stand 2km inland. What we take at first to be forensic documentation quickly reveals itself as a world every bit as ambiguous as that depicted in Piranesi’s Prison series.
For Soane, the appeal of these drawings must have lain as much in this quality as in their ostensible subject matter. In his own house we encounter an architecture profoundly indebted to Piranesi’s influence: a dense composition of layered spaces, the boundaries of which remain always in doubt.
Soane’s visits to Paestum’s ruins undoubtedly expanded the repertoire of classical forms at his disposal, but it is tempting to ask whether his encounter with Piranesi’s depictions of the buildings didn’t ultimately have the greater impact on his architectural imagination.