The Chronicle Review

Behind Historic Preservation, a Surreal History

Erich Lessing, Art Resource

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, famed for his etchings of classical Roman architecture, confounded his admirers with his other favorite topic: enormous imaginary prisons (shown here, Plate IX of the "Carceri d'Invenzione" series).
June 11, 2012

"One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat."

Almost 50 years ago, when a demolition project reduced New York City's Penn Station from a monumental vaulted hall full of air and light to a stifling underground maze, the Yale historian Vincent J. Scully Jr.'s lament came to be the last word on an act of architectural sacrilege. It stood for the belated realization of an incalculable loss, and the conviction that we ourselves had been reduced in the process.

But as pithy as the line is, it's not immediately clear why it should be true. Isn't a god a god anywhere? Isn't a rat a rat even on Olympus? What exactly do buildings have to do with it?

The destruction of Penn Station helped spark a historic preservation movement that continues to shape our cities; and a half-century later, the debate still resonates, from a Mad Men plot line that saw Don Draper's advertising agency enlisted to defend the demolition, to a new, ambitious, and contentious reconstruction plan. To the extent that the preservation movement has succeeded in restraining decades of wrecking balls, it has been on the strength of arguments like Scully's: We conserve the old and outmoded not simply out of nostalgia, not simply for the sake of a living connection with the past, but because buildings are almost like psychotropic drugs. Good buildings elevate, bad buildings alienate—and by replacing the good with the cheap and the practical, we immiserate ourselves in the long run.

Like most ideas that strike us as intuitive or obvious, there was a time when it was strikingly new. It emerged in response to the decay of the richest architectural heritage in the Western world—and it found in that decay something worth fetishizing and saving. This view was in large part the product of a dark and disturbed man, one uniquely attuned to the ways in which buildings can stand as analogues for emotional states—a man who knew how it felt to be both a god and a rat. It might be surprising that one of the fathers of historic preservation was also a father of surrealism, but it shouldn't be.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, a failed Venetian architect, found his calling in the ruins of classical Rome. By the 1740s, when Piranesi moved there, the Eternal City was eternal in name only. Its temples and arches were viewed less as historic treasures and more as standing quarries, cheap sources of raw materials. Long before Piranesi arrived in Rome, much of the Colosseum had been stripped of usable stone. Maffeo Barberini, who reigned as Pope Urban VIII, had carted off the bronze of the Pantheon; "what the barbarians didn't do," the joke went, "the Barberini did." The alternative to plunder was benign neglect: Hovels and shops clustered hard on the Arch of Titus, and the Roman Forum was better known as the Campo Vaccino—the Cow Field.

In an age whose attitude toward old buildings was far more utilitarian than ours, Piranesi was one of the first to be bothered by the decay. In the preface to one of the art collections that would make him famous, he wrote, "Seeing that the remains of the ancient buildings of Rome, scattered for the most part in gardens and fields, are being day by day reduced by the injuries of time or by the greed of their owners who, with barbarian license, secretly demolish them to sell the rubble for modern houses, I decided to preserve them in these plates."

His weapon in this campaign of preservation was a hugely popular series of etchings—the Vedute di Roma ("Views of Rome") and the Antichità ("Antiquities")—that captured the ruins in all their decrepit, imposing glory. If Piranesi the antiquarian was scandalized by the state of ancient Rome, Piranesi the artist and businessman was intrigued. Few works in any era can match his Vedute for combined artistic influence, commercial success, and political impact.

Piranesi was not the first to draw or paint the ruins, but in a field dominated by souvenir hackwork, he was, by far, the most distinctive. He brought to his more than 1,300 etchings the eye of the architect he always imagined himself to be—along with a sense of drama, perspective, and lighting that made the ruins seem even more titanic on his plates than in life. The novelist Marguerite Yourcenar spoke of "their intensity, their strangeness, their violence—as if struck by the rays of a black sun."

His Arch of Titus—one end all monolithic right angles, the other end a crumbling slope overgrown with vegetation—looms like a mountain over the tiny figures who pass beneath and gawk upward, or scurry up its sides, or huddle at the side of the frame. His imagined Appian Way is a riot of misplaced bits of sculpture, crammed to the vanishing point with discarded torsos and heads, temple porticoes and archways, spires and tree branches struggling for air and light through the massed walls of marble—and there again, as if at the bottom of a deep and shadowed canyon, two miniature-seeming horses and a rider. His Temple of Janus is a hulk planted squarely in the earth, catching the slanting sunlight and crowned with a garden of shaggy ferns.

This was not the Rome of reality. It was a city filtered through the prism of an artist's wishful thinking, and generations of visitors to Rome—including Goethe, who grew up captivated by Piranesi's prints—would find the real thing flat by comparison. But at the cost of this artistic license, Piranesi helped rescue the ruins from a millennium of mundanity. He re-established their power to overwhelm and overawe, and he argued that this power was worth conserving.

His vision, moreover, was priced to sell: Piranesi designed each plate to yield as many as 3,000 prints (the average for his time was closer to 100), so his Vedute were produced on a scale large enough to make them a fixture of European popular culture. Few private libraries lacked a copy. The Vedute and the Grand Tour of Italy caught on in tandem: Piranesi's work inspired wealthy tourists to make the pilgrimage to Rome, and often to return home with samples of his work as keepsakes. Bought, sold, and reprinted across a continent, the Vedute helped to spark the neoclassical movement in art and architecture.

But even as it shaped a new architecture—from the stately American churches designed by Benjamin Latrobe to the fad for faux "ruins" in English gardens—Piranesi's work also reshaped the city it depicted. The Roman ruins were suddenly more valuable as tourist attractions than as quarries. He may have set out as a memorialist, hoping only to "preserve" a fading world in ink; but the result was the actual preservation of many (though not all) of the monuments he depicted.

To preserve is to arrest change and decay, to hold off entropy, to rope off and regulate; to clear away modern accretions, like the shops that had grown up around the Arch of Titus; or, in the case of working buildings, to keep a tight lid on renovations. To preserve is to remove an object (temporarily, imperfectly) from the flow of time.

As long as Piranesi's ruins were subject to decay—as long as they provided useable rubble for builders, shade for cows, and shelter for prostitutes and fruit vendors—they were also well-worn parts of a living city. The cost of his success was to turn them into something more unearthly. "Rome," said James Joyce, who spent a few uncomfortable months in the city, "reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting to travelers his grandmother's corpse."

That's the kind of arresting image Piranesi would have relished. Outwardly, he was the picture of the respectable artisan, the hardworking craftsman and draftsman. He was even knighted by the pope for his success. But his passion was elsewhere. For purposes largely his own, and with far less commercial success, Piranesi dedicated himself to another set of etchings: enormous prisons, full of dripping stone, labyrinthine passages, and bridges and staircases leading nowhere, engines of punishment, and dwarfed prisoners (or are they guards, or visitors?) wandering numb and passive. Some of the titles are a queasy hint of torture: "The Smoking Fire"; "The Giant Wheel"; "The Sawhorse." These were the Carceri d'Invenzione—"Imaginary Prisons" or "Prisons of the Imagination."

Generations of critics have struggled with the Carceri, stunned that the mind behind the Vedute was also responsible for these works of gothic madness. As one of his contemporaries put it, "that a man who had passed all his life in the bosom of classic art, and in the contemplation of the majestic ruins of ancient Rome ... should have mistaken confusion for intricacy, and undefined lines and forms for classical variety, is scarcely to be believed; yet such was Piranesi."

To Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, the prisons were reminiscent of his own opium dreams. Coleridge assumed that Piranesi conceived of the prisons in a delirious fever. Aldous Huxley, on the other hand, believed that the Carceri were the disciplined work of years, not a single illness. He considered them the best depiction in art of gnawing, aimless depression: "The most disquietingly obvious fact about all these dungeons is the perfect pointlessness which reigns throughout. ... One is made to feel that the genius of great artists and the labor of innumerable slaves have gone into the creation of these monuments, every detail of which is completely without a purpose." In Huxley's best guess at reconciling the etcher's two projects, Piranesi was struck by depression at an early age, as evidenced by the Carceri, and then compulsively churned out the Vedute as an attempt at self-medication.

Yet all of these attempts at explanation share the assumption that the etchings are not about architecture so much as they are about what Victor Hugo called "Piranesi's dark brain." The etchings are both "Imaginary Prisons" and "Prisons of the Imagination"—the prison as the inside of the skull. That is perhaps the most modern thing about them: They anticipate the belief that any subject is an excuse for illustrating the artist's mental state, that every portrait has a self-portrait underneath. In these etchings, Piranesi invented architecture as metaphor for the mind.

And these works of hallucination or delirium or restrained insanity are his most powerful artistic legacy. Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum"; M.C. Escher's infinite rooms; the city-labyrinths of Metropolis and Blade Runner; even the magical moving stairways of Harry Potter—the influence of the Carceri has been observed everywhere fictional architecture is used to suggest unsettling immensity. Just as his recovery of the ruins made Piranesi a father of neoclassicism, his prisons—their incongruities, their pointlessness, their sharp-lined depiction of nightmare—made him a forerunner of the surrealists.

Can we conclude anything from the fact that neoclassicism and surrealism came, in part, out of the same brain? We might think of those tendencies as two sides of a coin, or as relatives who would rather not acknowledge one another. We might think of Piranesi as a testament to the way controlled and correct outward forms can conceal and repress something much darker and more powerful.

And Piranesi, who wielded a quiet political influence rare for an artist in his era or ours, knew something about power. His work suggests that the same power capable of erecting massive monuments to itself can also build an enormous apparatus of punishment; and we know that one of the era's absolutist kings, Louis XV, cherished a personal copy of the Carceri. One can imagine the two sets of etchings sitting one on top of the other—the prisons as the monuments' secret basements.

We could also ask how Piranesi's surrealist tendencies influenced his preservation work. Did his instinct for the strange and forbidding attract him to Rome's decay in the first place? Did it suggest the possibility of a different kind of city, one where past and present are forced to live as neighbors, and time moves at different speeds on different city blocks?

Today, historic preservation is eminently respectable work, the stuff of expert committees and municipal bureaucracies. But perhaps the deliberate conservation of old buildings has something surreal at its root—in the disjointed way it forces us, as we walk down the street, to come face to face with a structure from another age. If we are rarely alive to that strangeness, perhaps it's because we have lived with Piranesi's legacy for so long.

Rob Goodman is co-author of Rome's Last Citizen, a book on Cato the Younger and the Roman Republic, to be published in October by Thomas Dunne Books.