Material and critical: Piranesi’s erasures

Teresa Stoppani

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For Giovanni Battista Piranesi one of the ‘more important’ things that the moderns invented is printing – and with it the reproducibility of drawings and architectural images. Etching offers a medium to record and divulge the knowledge of ancient and modern architecture, which will last, he argues, longer than the subjects of its representations. Etching opens also a new space for architectural creation, for a project of space that, while it remains untouched by use, change and life, will continue to communicate its ideas across time. Images produced by lines are the space in which Piranesi operates as an architect, and what speaks to us today through the medium of etching are not only his archaeological surveys and reconstructions, and his views of ancient and modern Rome, but also – most crucially – the spaces of his invention. Piranesi’s lines – meticulously drawn, precisely incised, lightly traced, nervously moving, smudged or erased – physically construct a space on the copper plate and then on paper. Lines of representation, they stand for something other than themselves – the shapes, contours and textures of an object and the effects of light – or are the record of a gesture, a passion, an emotion. But they also are, in and on the image that they produce: “material lines”, they have a physical presence, and possess specific spatial connotations that are linked to their medium. Piranesi’s more creative works exploit to the full the possibility of the “material line” of the etching: no longer a tool of representation, here the line becomes a tool of design. In the Capricci and in the Carceri the agility of his dynamic line blurs disciplinary and material divisions, questioning not only the validity of established and by then obsolete architectural languages, but the very nature of the “architectural”, producing unusual combinations of organic and inorganic, alive and dead, ephemeral and lasting, flesh and stone. The lines, always precise, always intentional, always part of a disegno (project) are used to blur distinctions between the properly and the improperly architectural, shifting the emphasis from a language of forms to the performance of architecture’s materials in a seamless space. Material, the line becomes also a critical instrument that questions and experiments on itself while operating as critical incisive instrument on the architectural.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMobility of the Line
EditorsIvana Wingham
Place of PublicationBasel
ISBN (Print)3034608241
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jun 2013


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