Stylistic groups of the Piranesi Drawings

Stylistic groups of the Piranesi Drawings

Georg Kabierske and Bénédicte Maronnie

Among the Karlsruhe drawings from Piranesi’s studio, the hands of various artists can be identified. However, when examining a complex cache of material, previous methods of attribution often reach their limits, as has been noted and discussed in the context of more larger and renowned workshops, for example, Rembrandt (1606–1669) or the English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale (c. 1718–1779). Trying to link each individual sheet to an artist’s name has proved impossible in many cases due to the complexity of this kind of material. Methodologically, it is more insightful to demonstrate connections between drawings in order to understand the material as an organic whole. Stefan Morét succeeded in making a first grouping in preparation for the International Piranesi Workshop held at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe from April 8 to 10, 2018. This was further differentiated in the process of the authors working together with Christoph Frank.

Since the Karlsruhe drawings are largely preliminary studies for motifs that feature in Piranesi’s printed works or in other projects, a chronological classification is possible in many cases. For example, the publication date of a print can indicate the terminus ante quem for a drawing that must obviously have been produced before the print (see the explanatory notes in the individual catalog entries). Further, a process of elimination can be utilized by determining which individuals were active in the studio or in contact with Piranesi at the time, and can therefore be considered as possible originators of the drawings. Although some names are known, a definitive attribution of the drawings is only possible to a limited extent. The groups of drawings presented here were determined on the basis of stylistic comparisons; the question of their attribution can thus far only be answered with hypotheses that require further research. For one thing, in many instances there are no unambiguous or signed drawings by the artists exist that could be used for reference; for another, in the studio context the practice existed of copying or transferring drawings and in this way imitating a particular style. In addition, there are drawings in different hands that were worked on by several people at different stages of their production. Further, it is safe to assume that Piranesi’s children — Laura, Francesco, Angelo, and Pietro — and other people involved in the studio were trained on the drawing material that was available. In the case of his sons and daughter, the speculative question arises as to at what age they were capable of executing drawings of adequate quality. It should also be considered that a draughtsman’s hand evolves over time, and this makes it difficult to assign a personal, consistent style to a particular artist. Drawing style can also vary according to the technique, typology (figures, ornamentation, architecture), and function of a drawing, for example, the considerable differences between a cursory sketch and a final drawing.

It is quite possible that the two Karlsruhe albums contain both drawings executed in Piranesi’s studio as well as others drawn by external artists and subsequently added to the studio’s collection of motifs. In fact, the majority of the Karlsruhe drawings were not executed by Piranesi himself, although some were revised by him in his own hand. In the analysis of the albums, two draughtsmen above all emerged: the French ornamental draughtsman Nicolas François Daniel Lhuillier (c. 1736–1793) and Giovanni Battista’s eldest son, Francesco Piranesi (1756?–1810). According to Piranesi’s biographer Jacques-Guillaume Legrand (1753–1807), the other artists active in the studio Vincenzo Dolcibene (c. 1746–1820) and Benedetto Mori (active from the 1760s to the early 1800s)[1] are difficult to research in Karlsruhe. Dolcibene’s known drawings found resonance only in a few cases, as comparisons show.[2] Since there are so far no known drawings by Mori, who according to Legrand was active as an architectural draughtsman for Piranesi, his name cannot be linked to any of the Karlsruhe drawings.[3] On the other hand, depending on the period, other draughtsmen could have worked for Piranesi whose names have not survived. One has to assume there was a small number of direct collaborators and of draughtsmen who were close to Piranesi or frequented his studio. One thinks here of Hubert Robert (1733–1808), Charles-Louis Clérisseau (1721–1820), and Jean-Laurent Legeay (c. 1710–after 1786), all of whom Legrand singles out for mention in his description of the artist’s life.

Throughout his life, Piranesi functioned as both a master draughtsman and a mastermind. As far as this can be verified, the entire graphic output of his studio is accredited to him alone, regardless of who the actual draughtsman may have been, and who likely had to execute the respective drawing according to Piranesi’s specifications — a practice that still prevails today in large and important architecture firms and is increasingly also found in the virtually industrially operated workshops of contemporary artists. In the context of the reattribution of the Karlsruhe albums, it is now possible for the first time to consider Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s drawing style in conjunction with his studio, a subject area that up to now researchers have only looked at in a few individual cases.[4] Piranesi’s drawings in his own hand could have been taken over by employees in the course of being elaborated by additional drawing work to make them more precise. Piranesi also corrected or inscribed numerous drawings by his collaborators in his own hand. This is not only documented in Karlsruhe, but also in connection with the Piranesi holdings of the Kunstbibliothek Berlin and the Morgan Library in New York. Although these problems of attribution are considerable, it is nonetheless possible to assemble different groups of drawings in the Karlsruhe albums on the basis of stylistic or content-related similarities. Instead of viewing a drawing as an independent work, viewing the group as a whole can open up new perspectives with regard to the drawing type, motifs, as well as their connections and wider dissemination. Moreover, should further drawings from the Piranesi studio come to light in future years, they could be related to the Karlsruhe material and the groups proposed there. Previously unknown drawings could complement the attempts at classification, they could facilitate attributions, or even revise them.

It should be remembered that the Karlsruhe drawings are very closely related to other known sheets from the Piranesi studio. These include the drawings in the Morgan Library in New York, the sketchbooks in the Biblioteca Estense in Modena,[5] and part of the Vogel-Escher album[6] in the Zentralbibliothek in Zurich, as well as individual sheets primarily in the Kunstbibliothek Berlin, the Kunsthalle Hamburg, and the British Museum in London. A holistic examination of the entire material from the studio known thus far is still pending. With regard to individual Karlsruhe catalog entries, this cross-collection classification has now begun. This new examination of drawing material from Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s studio also sheds new light on the drawing practices of other architects and artists in Rome and their interconnections.

In the course of several years of review and discussion in the research group, fifteen stylistic or typological groups were defined, although several might also be from the same hand. The designations were formulated as openly as possible in order to give space to the various attribution hypotheses and to enable adequate discussion. Because of the many possible connections between the drawings, there is often overlap between the groups. For those sheets that could not yet be assigned, four special groups were defined.


1. See Gilbert Erouart and Monique Mosser, “À propos de la ‘Notice historique sur la vie et les ouvrages de J.- B. Piranesi’: origine et fortune d’une biographie”, in Piranèse et les français, colloquium, Rome, Villa Medici, May 12–14, 1976, (Rome: Edizioni dell’Elefante, 1978), 213–252, here 230: “Dolcibene qui dessina pour Piranesi pendant 7 à 8 ans des figures, bas-reliefs et autres accessoires de l’achitecture” and 251: “Fr. Piranesi continua donc ses travaux [...] en s’adjoignant toujours le fidèle compagnon de son père et le sien l’architecte Benedetto Mori graveur habile et aussi laborieux qu’instruit dans toutes les parties de l’architecture civile.”

2. The selection of drawings by Dolcibene here are from the collection of Charles Townley in the British Museum, London. On Dolcibene and his activity as draughtsman for Charles Townley, see Ilaria Bignamini and Clare Sekul Hornsby, Digging and Dealing in Eighteenth-Century Rome (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 178, 179, 181, 190; Viccy Coltman, “Designs on Eighteenth-century Sculpture”, The Sculpture Journal 13, 1 (2005): 89–102.

3. Not much is known about the artistic oeuvre of Benedetto Mori. Based on Legrand, Bevilaqua assumes that Mori contributed to the execution of floor plans and technical drawings during Piranesi’s trips to Paestum and Pompeii; see, among others, Mario Bevilacqua, “Piranesi 1778: Ricerche interrotte, opere perdute”, in Vincenzo Cazzato, Sebastiano Roberto, and Mario Bevilacqua, eds., La festa delle arti: Scritti in onore di Marcello Fagiolo per cinquant’anni di studi, 2 vols. (Rome: Gangemi Editore, 2014), vol. 2, 792–797, here 792, 795. In addition, Mori is believed to have contributed to the topographical survey of Villa Adriana and Campo Marzio, cf. Rossana Caira Lumetti, La cultura dei lumi tra Italia e Svezia: Il ruolo di Francesco Piranesi (Rome: Bonacci Editore, 1990), 133; William Lloyd MacDonald and John A. Pinto, Hadrian’s Villa and Its Legacy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 247. Between 1780 and 1808 Mori provided the architectural drawings for Jean Baptiste Séroux d’Agincourt’s Histoire de l’art par les monuments (1823). Benedetto, his brother Vincenzo, as well as Francesco Piranesi were involved in the Armfelt Conspiracy (1793–1794); for details see Rossana Caira Lumetti 1990 (see above reference), 127–170. A letter to D. Giovanni Acton (December 1794) mentions that Mori worked for Piranesi for 12 years; see Rossana Caira Lumetti, ed., Vincenzo Monti: Lettera di Francesco Piranesi al Signor Generale D. Giovanni Acton (Palermo: Sellerio Editore, 1991), 69–71.

4. See Sarah Vowles, Piranesi Drawings: Visions of Antiquity, exh. cat., British Museum, London (London: Thames & Hudson, 2020), 6–9.

5. Biblioteca Estense Universitaria di Modena, MS. Campori 1522 (γ 6, 32) and MS. Campori 1523 (γ 6, 23).

6. Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Vogel-Escher Album, FA Escher vG.188.6.

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