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: A Side Table by Piranesi: A Masterpiece of New-Classic Furniture


Francis J. B. Watson



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The late Henri Focillon, one of Piranesi's most perceptive critics, opened his chapter on the artist's style by declaring: "Piranesi n'est pas seulement l'évocateur de Rome ancienne, de ses ruines, de ses magnificences dévastées par le temps. Il est le créateur d'un décoratif qui continue et qui complète son oeuvre de résurrection."1 The point is an important one and all too often overlooked. Piranesi published a number of designs for furniture and decoration, almost all of them included in a series of prints, Diverse maniere d'adornare I cammini ed ogni altra parte degli edifici... which appeared in 1769.2 This book was prefaced by a Ragionamento Apologetico or commentary, in which the artist developed his views on the subject of interior decoration, and was dedicated to Cardinal Giovanni Battista Rezzonico,3 Papal Majordomo and nephew of Pope Clement XIII, both of whom coming like Piranesi from Venice had extended some patronage to the artist.The sixty-six plates of the Diverse maniere (excluding the engraved prefatory plates) contain sixty-one designs for chimneys and a considerably smaller number of designs for other types of furniture: commodes, chairs, clocks, coaches, picture-frames, sedan chairs, tables, and various types of lighting fixtures such as candelabra and wall-lights. In the preliminary discourse Piranesi admits that the ancients never used the chimney pieces of his title but adds that he has chosen them as a theme for his designs "in order to show how the use that a prudent architect can make of ancient monuments by adapting them with taste to the uses and manners of today." He goes on to complain of the decay of architectural design in Europe and in Italy, in particular, owing to a misunderstanding of the nature of architectural detail. "What I wanted to do [in these designs] is to link the Etruscan, or if you will the Roman, with the Greek, so that the pleasing and beautiful parts of each should assist in the execution of my designs."These views, of course, were in many ways the stock in trade of all neo-classic theorists, and since the Diverse maniere... was issued only in 1769, Piranesi cannot be regarded as a great innovator in this respect. In France, Neuforge's highly classical designs had been appearing since 1757 though interior decoration was not touched on until his third volume, issued in 1760; Delafosse's Nouvelle Iconologie..., a perfect mine of ultra-classical furniture in the neo-classic taste had been made in Paris almost twenty years before this. England was a little, but only a little, later than Paris in applying neo-classic ideas to furnishing and interior decoration. Robert Adam, a friend of Piranesi, had received his first major commission, for the furnishing and decoration of Kedleston, in 1759-1760 and "Athenian" Stuart had produced designs for neo-classic furniture for Spencer House even earlier. In Italy, however, the home of the baroque and the source of the rococo, things were very different; the response to neo-classic ideas was slower, and for a considerable time confined to Rome alone.What is new in Piranesi's ideas is his emphasis on the direct application of motives from Egyptian art or "Etruscan" vases to interior decoration with little or no modification. In France and England such classical features were in practice softened and combined with native idioms. An Adam interior is not an attempt to reproduce a Pompeian house or the interior of a Roman tomb exactly; La Live de Jully's furniture (amongst the earliest and the most celebrated attempts to apply neo-grec ides to furniture) is only Greek in its adoption of a few classical decorative motives-the fret, the wave-band, and the laurel swag which had been largely abandoned whilst the rocaille held sway.4 But the classical note in Piranesi's decorative designs is much more aggressive. His chimeras, Egyptian terms, "Etruscan" vases, or Roman Victory figures are clamped with the minimum of modification onto entirely non-classical forms such as chimney pieces, commodes, and sedan chairs.There is not the slightest attempt to create new forms appropriate to the classical decoration as was done for instance by Eberts when he created the athéneinne in 17735 or by Jacob when he provided David with the furnishings for his studio which appeared in several of his pre-Revolutionary paintings. On this account Piranesi cannot be regarded as exercising any great influence on the furniture design of his day. There are some traces of it in Belanger's Livre de Cheminées, but that work remains unpublished and the manuscript is still in the Bibliothèque Nationale. The full impact of the Diverse Maniere... is to be seen only with the appearance of Thomas Hope's Household Furniture and Interior Decoration in 1807 and especially in Fontaine's Recueil des Décorations Intérieurs issued in 1812. However, both these books were certainly issued some years after furniture had been made in the styles to which they aimed at gaining currency. Piranesi must, in fact, be regarded as a pioneer of Empire style, the last and most romantic phase of neo-classicism rather than as one of the innovators of the movement.Piranesi's approach to classical antiquities was essentially romantic. He was what Wyndham Lewis stigmatized in Ezra Pound. "a man in love with the past." he loads on his classical detail in an almost tropical luxuriance quite foreign to true classicism and indeed to the sparse manner adopted by the Empire and Regency decorators. He seems to have realized himself that there was something ironical in the charges of extravagant use of ornament he levels at his contemporaries, and somewhat weakly defends himself on the quite untenable grounds that chimney pieces are particularly suited to luxuriant decoration. The almost rococo profusion of detail which often appears in his decorative designs sometimes produces an unpleasantly spiky effect, particularly on such pieces as his wall-lights. This spikiness Focillon ingeniously suggests derived from the forms evolved by the glassmakers of Piranesi's native Venice.6 It is more likely, however, that it arises from Piranesi's hare-brained belief that the Etruscans derived the designs of their vases basically from shell-forms.It is difficult to know to what extent Piranesi's furniture (as distinct from his architectural) designs were actually carried out. Certainly three of the chimney pieces were executed. One, a handsome object of porphyry and statuary marble, is still at Burleigh House and was carved and sent to England for the Lord Exeter of the day. A second, commissioned by the Amsterdam banker Hope, is now in the Rijksmuseum (fig. 1).7 A third was ordered from Piranesi by Prince Rezzonico, A Roman senator and a near relation to the Cardinal-nephew to whom the Diverse maniere... was dedicated. A few others were perhaps made also. The Arundel correspondence mentions one as having been sent from Rome to Scotland, and at Gorhambury in Hertfordshire is a mantelpiece so like Piranesi's in style as to seem certainly authentic. This impression is reinforced by the fact that it supports a pair of marble vases actually taken from engravings in the Diverse maniere...Of Piranesi's other designs the Egyptian wall decorations for the English Coffee House in the Piazza di Spagna were actually in existence before they appeared in the book. They undoubtedly played a considerable role in the dissemination of the style Piranesi, for they must have fallen under the eye of almost every English milord visiting Rome on the Grand Tour. According to Hugh Honour they certainly provided the inspiration for the decoration of a room in the Egyptian taste at Cairness House, Scotland, built by James Playfair.8That Piranesi had an eye on foreign as much as native clients in issuing his decorative designs, is perfectly clear, for the preliminary discourse to the Diverse maniere... is printed in Italian, French, and English. there is further evidence, too, that he actually created such designs independently for foreigners. The fifth Earl of Carlisle writing to George Selwyn from Rome on 29th June 1768, just when the plates of the Diverse maniere... were about to appear, mentions one such design:
Do you think you shall come to Paris? I have just got the drawing for the coach with antique ornaments by Piranesi which I intend executing there if I can afford it.9Unfortunately Mr. George Howard tells me that neither drawing nor (more regrettably still) the coach survives at Castle Howard. Nor indeed do we know whether Lord Carlisle was able in the event to afford to have it built.Whether much of the smaller furniture which fills the last dozen plates of the Diverse maniere... was ever actually made is more problematic. Wooden furniture is more perishable than marble mantelpieces; sedan chairs and coaches rarely survive when they cease to be used for transport; even clocks and light-fittings of bronze are often thrown away as they become old-fashioned or their mechanism fails. We do know, however, that one group of pieces appearing in the Diverse maniere... was executed for Cardinal Rezzonico to whom the book was dedicated. Plate 54 (fig. 2) is inscribed: Questo tavolino ed alcuni altri ornamenti che sono sparsi in quest'opera, si vedono nell'appartamento di Sua Eccza. Monsigr Gio. Batt'a. Rezzonico... The apartments referred to were no doubt the rooms in the Quirinale which Piranesi had decorated for the Cardinal.By an extraordinary piece of good fortune the most prominent piece of furniture on this very plate, the console table at the bottom, survived forgotten and unidentified until recently in a Roman private collection (fig. 3). That it has now been acquired by the Institute is a matter for congratulation, for it is the only piece of wooden furniture by Piranesi known to exist. It corresponds to the engraved plate in almost every respect. The swags of husks and drapery tied with fluttering ribbon bows which depend between the goat-legs of the table have, however, been omitted, partly doubtless on account of the difficulty of carving them and also because, had they been executed, they would unquestionably have been broken off within a short time. In the etching Piranesi has offered two alternative motives for carving in the frieze above the legs: a palmette and a pine cone. The craftsman who carved the table has reflected the latter and substituted a leaf cup above the two forelegs, possibly at the request of his patron. Otherwise print and table correspond very exactly. There can hardly be a vestige of doubt that the piece now at Minneapolis is the very one made for Cardinal Rezzonico; it is highly improbable that two such pieces of precisely the same design should have been made.The material used is oak for the main carcase and limewood for the carving; nothing less workable would have allowed such elaborate and intricate detail without splitting. A detail (fig. 4) shows the masterly skill with which it is executed. The gilding is of matching quality and appears to date from rather later in the eighteenth century than the table itself; the original gilding shows through one or two very slight damages, but it would be too risky to try to remove the upper layer of gilding in an attempt to restore it exactly to its original appearance.In addition to the published etchings a considerable number of drawings by Piranesi for furniture and decorative objects is known. The largest group consists of one-hundred-and-thirty-three drawings and is in the Pierpont Morgan Library. A number of these relate to the Diverse maniere... One of them indeed seems to contain the germ idea of the Rezzonico table (fig. 6). In it the monopod winged chimeras which form the legs of Cardinal Rezzonico's table are replaced by Victories with outstretched wings, but there can be little question that the two designs are closely related.10 The opportunity is taken to reproduce here another drawing by Piranesi for a table (fig. 5) which has not hitherto been illustrated but which was recently acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum.11 It is not, of course, related in any direct sense to the table now in The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, but its rococo character is interesting as illustrating how far Piranesi's fertile imagination could wander from the classical ideals at which he aimed. It emphasizes again the fact that his art should be regarded as proto-romantic rather than neo-classic.Although Piranesi was responsible for the designs of the console table made for Cardinal Rezzonico he did not, of course, make it himself. He was a graphic artist, not a craftsman. The unhappy thing is that the Italians care so little for their native furniture that it has never been seriously studied at all, and hardly anything is known about the craftsmen who executed any of it apart from a few pieces made for the Casa Savoia at Turin in the latter part of the eighteenth century.12 It does not seem impossible that if some student were to delve into the Rezzonico archives he might bring to light the name of the consummate craftsman responsible for creating this table. It is indeed not beyond the bounds of possibility that more of Cardinal Rezzonico's pieces may turn up in Italy.13Francis John Bagott Watson, C.V.O., B.A., F.S.A., is Director of the Wallace Collection, London, and Surveyor of the Queen's Works of Art. his publications include the following: Wallace Collection Catalogue of Furniture (1956); Louis XVI Furniture (1959), (Revised French Edition, 1963); The Choiseul Gold Box (1963); Southill, A Regency house (co-author, 1951); Canaletto (1949), (Revised Edition, 1954); Tiepolo (1965). He is currently working on the Catalogue of the Charles B. Wrightsman Collection of Furniture, the first and second volumes of which will appear in 1966.Endnotes
  1. Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Paris, 1928), p. 34.
  2. Loc. cit., Cat. Nos. 854-926; Hind, p. 86.
  3. A brief biography of the Cardinal by Mr. Anthony Clark immediately follows this article.
  4. See Svend Eriksen, "La Live de Jully's Furniture 'à la grecque,'" The Burlington Magazine, CIII (August, 1961), 340-347.
  5. Svend Eriksen and F. B. J. Watson, "The 'Athénienne' and the Revival of the Classical Tripod," The Burlington Magazine, CVII (Feb., 1965), 108-112.
  6. Focillon, loc., cit., p. 283.
  7. I am indebted to Dr. A. L. den Blaauwen for a photograph of this and for permission to reproduce it here.
  8. The Connoisseur, May, 1955, p. 243.
  9. George Selwyn and his Contemporaries, ed. J. H. Jesse (London, 1882), p. 312.
  10. Felice Stampfele, Giovanni Battista Piranesi: An Exhibition of Drawings (Pierpont Morgan Library, 1949), no. 60. Lower down the page is a fragmentary sketch which likewise seems to include an embryonic idea of the palmette motives of the Rezzonico table and conceivably of the head of one of the chimeras below the inscription fronde o teste. I am grateful to Miss Stampfele for obtaining a photograph of this drawing for me.
  11. Accession no. E. 1092-1963.
  12. Notably in Vittorio Viale's contribution to the section Mobili e Intagli in the third volume of the catalogue of the Mostra del Barocco Piedmontese, 1963 (published 1964).
  13. This short article is slightly expanded from a note I wrote on the table in The Burlington Magazine, CVII (Feb., 1965), 99-102.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Giovanni Battista Piranesi
    Italian, 1720-1778
    Chimney piece (After a design by the artist; executed in statuary marble for Thomas Hope),
    135 cms. x 193 cms. x 24 cms.
    Collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
  2. Plate 54 of the Diverse maniere... by Giovanni Battista Piranesi,
    38.5 cms. x 25 cms.
  3. Giovanni Battista Piranesi
    Console, c. 1769 (Made by an unknown Italian craftsman, after a design by the artist)
    Oak and limewood, carved and gilt, with marble top,
    89.5 cms. x 148.50 cms. x 72 cms.
    Collection of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts,
    The Ethel M. Van Derlip Fund, 64.70.
  4. Detail of fig. 3.
  5. Giovanni Battista Piranesi
    Drawing for a side-table
    Pen and brown ink over traces of red chalk,
    16.5 cms. x 11 cms.
    Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Crown Copyright.
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Source: Francis J. B. Watson, "A Side Table by Piranesi: A Masterpiece of New-Classic Furniture," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 54 (1965): 19-29.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009