Piranesi’s Fireplace Engravings
January 5, 2011
The 20th century use of framed architectural plates from the 18th and 19th century for wall decoration has largely gone out of style. This is most likely due to the fact that they were overused and do not fit in the current dominate taste for modernism.
On a recent stop at the house of a client of great taste, I revisited a group of prints from this category that continues to look lively and engaging. These are the remarkable engravings of fireplaces (or camini) by Piranesi. I think part of what draws me to them is the strange, mysterious feel of the flames depicted in some of these mantel compositions. Of course, Piranesi is most famous for a sinister series, the “Capriccio di Carceri,” subtitled “Fanciful Images of Prisons.” These renderings, essentially of hell, are also filled with fire and smoke, and graphically reveal a dark side of Piranesi’s imagination. I suggest that part of the reason my client’s prints captivate me is they share some of the same qualities shown in the prison series. The fireplaces may be decorative in intent, but the smoke and fire recall the sense of motion and moodiness of the Capriccios--proving that even in the realm of traditional art that the mantels belong to, abstraction endures.
Images: The mantel engravings are from the folio “Divers Ways of Ornamenting Chimneypieces and all other parts of houses taken from Egyptian, Etruscan and Grecian architecture with apologia in defense of Egyptian and Tuscan architecture, the work of Cavaliere Giambattista Piranesi,” Rome 1769.