Time himself, that perverse and obstinate Destroyer | Marie Antoinette's Gossip Guide to the 18th Century: Time himself, that perverse and obstinate Destroyer

February 24, 2010

Time himself, that perverse and obstinate Destroyer

Giovanni Battista Piranesi – where to start! He began his career in architecture with a typical apprenticeship under his uncle (family thing!), eventually landing him a position as a draftsman in Rome, with the papal court.  His position at court was satisfactory, as could be expected, already talented in drawing, he continued to improve his skills which would lead him to success as an artist in 18th century Rome.

Drawing scenes of the ruins and buildings of Rome was only useful if one could actually sell the work and make a profit. It did not take him long to realize members of the court were not looking for images of the ruins to adorn their studies.  They could look out the window for that!   However, just outside, riding in posh carriages were rich men, young and old, taking the Grand Tour. Who better to sell works of art to? And as a bonus: they were willing to spend.

Paintings and drawings were desired but prints were ideal.  They could easily be reproduced, and therefore you could make a larger profit on a single work or view.  They were also affordable to purchase. The demand was for vedute, or views.  Like a modern day postcard, those on the Grand Tour would purchase the artworks to take home.  They were a reminder of the amazing sights from the trip!

When he was 27 he opened a studio in Rome.  It was typical for artists to depict ruins as background elements, decorative and pictorial, adding a classic and beautiful tone to a scene.  Piranesi portrayed his ruins slightly different. By bringing the ruins to the foreground of an image and portraying the worn, crumbling surfaces he was able to depict time in the form of nature overtaking architecture.

Upon the ruins, vines and leaves would sprout, grass and moss would grow. Here is a great example. In some cases this vegetation would completely cover sections of a ruin. The effects of wind and precipitation were made apparent as well, and the man-made object would, in turn, return to nature.  Surfaces deteriorate and this was impressive detail he skillfully captured in his prints.

Piranesi’s artwork stood apart from his peers. He did not create compositions based on a central vanishing point as was traditional; the result was a much more dynamic composition with more depth. He also took advantage of contrast to further imply the illusion of depth, space and detail.

We may sink into melancholy when looking at ruins, some of us may just see them as a reminder of the past or even of our own mortality.  For others it may bring pleasure - as a place so far removed from our everyday lives.


  1. How interesting! I love looking at ruins - I always wonder who lived there and what they did. What a neat bio :)

  2. I was just noticing in the Coliseum print, the basement and its various passageways were covered up! It makes me wonder the state of the Coliseum on the grand tour, and how it was toured.

  3. Beautifully written post, Lauren. I have always loved the romance of ruins. All the regency novels I devoured in my early teens seemed to have a scene in which the gentry wound up prowling through the ruins of a priory or some such place, possibly taking provisions and servants for a lunch al fresco. Also frequently the sites of lover's trysts and sometimes hiding places for cut throats and smugglers along the Cotswolds. What is not to love about that?

  4. Thanks Paul!
    I agree with you, there is something very romantic about ruins- they just inspire imagination and remembrance. I love trying to consider all they may have witnessed: trysts, smugglers, etc!