RA Magazine Spring 2013
Issue Number: 118
Piranesi drawings on show at Sir John Soane’s Museum
Piranesi’s drawings of this famous doric temple influenced Soane’s architecture, writes Emma Crichton-Miller
Among the treasures of Sir John Soane’s Museum are 15 drawings by the visionary Italian architect, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78). They depict the remains of three Doric temples in the former Greek colony of Poseidonia, south of Naples, known by its Roman name, Paestum. Sir John Soane acquired the drawings in 1817 as a mark of respect for Piranesi. Now they have been reunited for the first time with two further drawings from the original series, lent from Paris and Amsterdam. This show offers a chance to re-evaluate their significant impact upon 18th-century ideas about Greek classical architecture.
Piranesi, 'Paestum: Exterior of the Temple of Neptune from the North-East', 1777-78. Courtesy of the trustees of John Soane Museum.
The dramatic, highly finished drawings were inspired by Piranesi’s visit to the site in 1777, the year before he died, and were published posthumously in 1778 as engraved plates. For Piranesi, misunderstanding the ruins’ Greek origins, their rugged simplicity was clear evidence for the superiority of Roman over Greek architecture, and he may even have encouraged the young John Soane to visit Paestum when they met in Rome in 1778.
Certainly Soane’s visit to Paestum in early 1779 marked a turning point in his imagination. According to the show’s curator, Dr Jerzy Kierkuć-Bieliński, Soane was shocked by ‘what he considered the relative primitivism of these very early Doric temples, with their massive columns and abstract, powerful forms.’ Even today, the monumental yet pared down classical harmony of these temples takes the breath away. Almost immediately after he saw them, the influence of the temples appeared in Soane’s work, laying the foundations for the later Greek revival architecture, as seen in the Doric vestibule of the Bank of England and the mausoleum of Dulwich Picture Gallery.
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