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Piranesi’s drawings of Paestum, Italy, on show in London, Berlin and New York

— April 2013

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G.B. Piranesi, Paestum: Exterior of the Temple of Neptune from the North-East. Courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane's Museum

An exhibition of Giovanni Battista Piranesi's last great graphic project, the highly finished Paestum drawings, currently on show at Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, is deepening understanding of the graphic artist whose work has influenced designers from Escher to the makers of the Harry Potter films.

For the very first time since Piranesi’s death, all 17 drawings will be shown together, uniting the 15 drawings from Sir John Soane’s Collection with those from the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, and Amsterdam’s Rijks Museum. This unique exhibition sheds new light on the considerable impact of Piranesi’s work on 18th-century architectural taste

The Paestum drawings were the preparatory work for Piranesi’s ‘Différentes Vues de Pesto’ finished by his son Francesco and published posthumously in 1778.  They depict views of the three great Doric temples in the former Greek colony of Poseidonia, colonized by the Romans and re-named Paestum.

Left abandoned, and later cut off by a malarial swamp, the ruins of the colony were rediscovered in 1746 during the construction of a new road. Its massive and well-preserved Doric temples dedicated to Poseidon, Hera and Athena sparked renewed interest among artists and architects, including the celebrated Giovanni Battista Piranesi, and inspired drawings, prints, paintings and models which revolutionized understanding of early Greek Classical architecture.

As well as exploring Piranesi’s complex perspectives, the ‘Master Drawings Uncovered’ exhibition examines Soane’s relationship with the artist, architect and antiquarian and the influence that visiting Paestum and experiencing Piranesi’s work had on his architecture and teaching.

Those wishing to explore Piranesi’s techniques for themselves will also be able to participate in an evening course and a range of Piranesi-inspired workshops, running alongside the exhibition.

The Paestum drawings are highly unusual in Piranesi’s portfolio.

Although the artist usually made preparatory drawings for his famous etchings, much of the composition was often worked directly on to the copper plate at the engraving stage.

These drawings contain a level of detail very close to the finished prints, and it is thought that perhaps, aware of his failing health, Piranesi included as much detail as possible for his son Francesco to finish the work he had begun. He used the full repertoire of his draughtsmanship to create images that both accurately describe the architecture of the Paestum temples and bring out their evocative, rustic setting.

Multi-layering of pencil, brown and grey washes and pen and ink, sometimes with the addition of red chalk or white chalk highlights, creates a layered effect that can be compared to the repeated ‘bitings’ in the resulting etchings.

The rough paper used by Piranesi is analogous with the travertine used to construct the temples – echoing its pitted and eroded texture.

He also uses the scena per angolo – a feature of Ferdinando Bibiena’s theatrical scenery designs –to give a unique perspective to the drawings; replacing the traditional, central vanishing point with diagonal axes to heighten the three-dimensionality of the temples and add to their dramatic impact.

The Paestum drawings in the Soane collection were purchased by Sir John Soane at auction in March 1817 for £14.5.0, as part of a sale by antiquarian Charles Lambert. It is not known how they came to be in his collection.

Dr Jerzy Kierkuć-Bieliński, curator of Master Drawings Uncovered, commented:

We’re delighted to be able to present a focused exhibition which celebrates the impeccable quality and influence of a small selection of drawings. Although six of the Soane drawings have been exhibited in the Die Graber von Paestum exhibition, 2007 – 2008 in Hamburg and Berlin, they have never been viewed by the public un-framed, and no exhibition has ever been devoted to their display as a discrete grouping.

The 15 drawings in Soane’s collection have been displayed in the Picture Room of No.13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, but their position, in Soane’s ingenious picture planes, has not allowed close scrutiny.

We hope that the conservation and academic research resulting from the exposure of the drawings will throw considerable light on their history and the architectural legacy left by Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

This exhibition has been made possible through the generous support of funding provided by the Gilbert & Ildiko Butler Family Foundation

 ‘Master Drawings Uncovered’ is at Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A

Now on until 18 May 2013.

The exhibition will be shown at the Tchoban Foundation, Museum for Architectural Drawing, Berlin, 1 June – 31 August 2013

New Yorkers have to wait for a while but it is coming to The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 23 January – 17 May 2015

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