BMCR 2003.03.10

Observations on the letter of Monsieur Mariette

, , Observations on the letter of Monsieur Mariette: with opinions on architecture, and a preface to a new treatise on the introduction and progress of the fine arts in Europe in ancient times. Texts & documents. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2002. xi, 176 pages: illustrations. ISBN 9780892366361. $35.00.

One is hard-pressed to say which is the greater contribution to readers interested in Piranesi: the first translation into English of his fascinating ‘Observations on the Letter of Monsieur Mariette (hereafter ‘Observations’), as well as two other similarly polemical treatises published with it; or the substantial and illuminating introduction by Wilton-Ely. They, together with the high-quality illustrations, make an exceptionally interesting small volume that will be essential reading for those interested in 18th century debates on architectural decoration and its sources and for all who study Piranesi.

In his ‘Observations’, Piranesi (1720-1778) defends the view that the greatness of Roman art and architecture lies in its Etruscan roots rather than its Greek borrowings and states the case for Rome as the most important inspiration in architecture. This was no small claim in a period when the French, especially Julien-David Le Roy, and Germans, led by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, claimed that the Greeks should be credited as the only important source. Le Roy’s ‘Ruins of the Most Beautiful Monuments of Greece’ had come out in 1758, and Winckelmann’s ‘History of the Art of Antiquity’ in 1764. In the following year Piranesi published his ‘Observations,’ aggressively claiming the superiority of the Romans. This work was published in a single volume together with his ‘Opinions on Architecture’ (hereafter ‘Opinions’) and his ‘Preface to a New Treatise on the Introduction and Progress of the Fine Arts in Europe in Ancient Times’ (hereafter ‘Introduction and Progress’). In these three works Piranesi set out his theoretical views on the value of richly ornamented architecture, at the same time that he claimed the Romans as the chief source for the greatness of modern architecture.

Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694-1774) published a letter in the ‘Gazette littéraire de l’Europe’ of November 4, 1764, in which he refuted claims made in Piranesi’s ‘Della magnificenza ed architettura de’ romani’ (1761). Piranesi published his reactions the following year, writing in the third person and addressing the ‘Gazette’ as if it were the audience: “Now, I ask the ‘Gazette’: has Piranesi ever yet compared the taste of the Romans in architectural ornament with that of the Greeks?” [‘Introduction and Progress’] He puts quotations, which often veer from the original text, in italics. The translation of the ‘Observations’ follows Piranesi’s method of keying his comments to Mariette’s specific remarks. As in the original version, the layout and spacing, with Piranesi’s and Mariette’s texts moving along side by side, makes the parallels especially useful. The translators, Beamish and Britt, have made a clear and lively rendition of the French (Mariette) and Italian (Piranesi), and have also added useful commentary in notes to the text. Anyone who has tried to translate for publication knows the challenges of capturing the spirit of a passage as well as its literal meaning. They excel at both. An example of their lively choice of words: “Che Impostura!” is translated “What chicanery!” (p. 89). The power of Piranesi’s venomous attacks comes through in such passages as: “The person who shines ‘at little cost’ is Signor Mariette, who in telling us the story of the introduction of Greek art into Italy has not even taken the minimal trouble to find the facts that might have spared him a number of assertions revealed for what they are worth by Piranesi in his book” (p. 94).

Wilton-Ely’s introduction not only is a commentary on the works of Piranesi translated in this volume but deals with the entire question of the polemical works in the larger picture of his total output, both the texts and the images of which he was such a master. Of course this is by no means the first time that Wilton-Ely has dealt specifically with the issue of polemics. He has extensive discussions in ‘The Mind and Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’ (Thames and Hudson 1978; chapter IV, “Controversy”), and in ‘Piranesi as Architect and Designer’ (Morgan Library and Yale 1993; chapter 2, “The Architecture of Polemics”); and indeed he edited a book devoted to the issue: ‘Giovanni Battista Piranesi, The Polemical Works, Rome 1757, 1761, 1765, 1769’ (Farnborough, England 1972). One must go to this last work to find the entire texts in facsimile. In the introduction to the present book, he concentrates on the polemical aspects of all of Piranesi’s work, showing how his theoretical outlook championed imperial Roman architecture. In a sense, this highly readable commentary is a distillation of Wilton-Ely’s earlier work on the topic. In the present format it will undoubtedly become accessible to a wider audience.

Piranesi’s increasingly spirited defense of Roman architecture and design was spurred on by the growing fascination with Greece by his competitors from the middle of the 18th century onward. As first Le Roy’s work and then Stuart and Revett’s ‘The Antiquities of Athens’ (1762-1816) emerged, it became more imperative for one so steeped in the greatness of Rome to launch a counter-attack to the vociferous and well-illustrated books bought for the libraries of the cognoscenti in England and the continent. Indeed, Piranesi soon seemed to be out of step with the growing taste for neo-classicism, which made his taste and ornament seem too baroque for many of his contemporaries. Not unusual were verbal lashings from distinguished contemporaries such as Vanvitelli, who wrote, “It is really amazing that the lunatic Piranesi dares to become an architect…” (p. 37).

Wilton-Ely shows that early on Piranesi got out of his depth in terms of argument and was more effective when sticking to his brilliant etchings (p. 24). Indeed, Mariette himself was a great admirer of Piranesi’s talents as a printmaker and even wrote to a colleague that his dispute with Piranesi in no way diminished his respect for him as an artist (note 64, p. 71). This was high praise from an adversary.

On the other hand, especially in his ‘Opinions,’ Piranesi set out his theories at their most sophisticated level. Through the voice of an architect, Didascolo, speaking for Piranesi and debating with his protagonist, Protopiro, he expresses his belief in the freedom of expression and ornament. It would have been helpful if Wilton-Ely had delved into the implications of the names of these two spokespersons: Didascolo was the “teacher”, and Protopiro, the “novice”, suggesting something like the Town Mouse (Piranesi) and the Country Mouse (his opponents).

In the ‘Introduction and Progress’ Piranesi mounts a vicious attack on the Greeks, with statements such as: “Shall I nonetheless take up the pursuit of those miserable relics of ancient Greece?” Then, in Ciceronian fashion, he says he doesn’t need to, since he has already addressed the problem in ‘Della magnificenza…,’ but he then goes on to slice away at the notion, again, that the Greeks were responsible for greatness in architecture, and proceeds to point out their debts to the Etruscans and Romans. This, in effect, was his theme song throughout the three essays.

Wilton-Ely closes with a section entitled “Legacy and Reception.” Here he gives an analysis of how Piranesi’s views on creativity and artistic license, as manifested in his church of Santa Maria del Priorato on the Aventine as well as in his inventive prints, were received by his contemporaries, from the Marquis de Sade to Quatremère de Quincy. Wilton-Ely demonstrates Piranesi’s use of his theories on ornament and flamboyant architecture in his own unexecuted drawings, illustrated here.

Following the translation and illustrations is a thorough bibliography. At a time when a number of new catalogues are coming out on Piranesi (for instance, from Berlin and Stuttgart1), and debates on modern architecture raise similar issues to those seen here, this book is bound to be of great value to architectural historians as well as those interested in prints and all aspects of antiquity. In sum, in this work we have a high quality production by the Getty Research Institute, with excellent commentary by a top scholar in the field of Piranesi studies, coupled with a sensitive and highly readable translation of works that have been difficult of access. It is a winning combination.


1. Vision Piranesi, exhibition held at Stadthaus Ulm, ed. Max Stemshorn and Susanne Groetz (Berlin 2002); Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Die Wahrnehmung von Raum und Zeit: Akten des Internationalen Symposiums Staatsgalerie Stuttgart 25. bis 26. Juni 1999 (Marburg: Jonas, 2002).