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Piranesi – master of fantasy

Downstairs in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, the gallery have drawn together drawings and prints from their collection to stage an absolutely fanstastic exhibition of work by Piranesi which includes his series of invented prisons many of you will already be aware of.
Up close these etchings buzz with life and the marks are surprisingly loose and rough. An exhibition label sugests that many of the etchings were drawn directly onto the plate rather than sketched in detail beforehand. Lines are drawn and redrawn.

On inspection, lines don’t end where they are supposed to and walls carry on straight through adjoining walls with the power of the momentum of the artists arm. Stray marks give a hairy wild feel and a shadowy confusion.
These Carceri d’Invenzione are in sharp contrast to Piranesi’s super sharp architectural drawing elsewhere in the exhibition which is small but to the point.
The carceri are well represented on the Bridgeman Education art library and I often use them when students seem to be expressing pleasure in using hatching. For some students hatching is laborious and painstaking and the effect can be static but some people seem to to take to it and have something of Piranesi’s elan. I often think that these students have a feel of the sculptor about them, as if they are trying to wind the object into existence.

The exhibition is free to get in and runs until 7th October. It is a great opportunity to see this innovative draughtsman at work.


Posted by author: Emma Drye
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4 thoughts on “Piranesi – master of fantasy

  • I saw one of the prisons prints at the Barber institute in Birmingham, I’d seen them in books before so I was also really interested to see that in life it was so different to how I’d imagined it would be – much larger and looser drawn as you say. I was so surprised as the architecture itself looks like it must have been planned out carefully .. or drawn from life… but to look at the drawing you do feel from it that they were invented without any preplanned design. I wonder what his reasons for doing them were.
    (The Barber institute print isn’t normally on display so don’t anyone make a special trip to see it!)

  • Thanks Emma. I live in Edinburgh so will brave the Festival crowds and head up from Leith to see it. I like what you are saying about crosshatching. I am forever pointing out to students ways of doing it. I didn’t think to direct them to Piranesi. I am also intrigued by why he did them. They seem related to the artistic practice of cappricios- fantasy architectural drawings, but much more psychologically rooted.

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