Giovanni Battista Piraensi: Diverse maniere d'adornare i cammoni


Giovanni Battista Piraensi: Diverse maniere d'adornare i cammoni  [ edit ]

The elaborate interior designs of Giovanni Battista Piranesi epitomize the pre-Napoleonic Egyptian revival in eighteenth century Europe. Through his publications, writings, and the construction of the Caffè degli Inglesi (English Coffee House) at the Piazza di Spagna, Rome, Piranesi promoted the incorporation of Egyptian styles and motifs in architecture and interior design. Piraensi, like Fischer von Erlach before him, argued that Egyptian architectural forms were the origin, via the Etruscans, of Roman architecture. While Piranesi’s efforts to resurrect Egyptian motifs were not universally admired, Horace Walpole encouraged his colleagues to “study the sublime dreams of Piranesi ... he has imagined scenes that would startle geometry, and exhaust the Indies to realize” (Anecdotes of Painting in England, 3rd ed., vol. 4, 1786, p. vi ). Indeed the Italian designer would influence several English architects and raise the profile of Egyptianizing decor, and Walpole’s recognition of the “sublime” in Piranesi’s work would be echoed in similar arguments employed during later cycles of Egyptian revival.

The most innovative aspect of Piranesi’s designs is their expression of an early manifestation of the “archaeological gaze,” an approach that Piranesi explicitly describes in the multi-lingual essay that introduces his 1769 work Diverse maniere d’adornare i Camini (Diverse Manners of Ornamenting Fireplaces). Entitled “Apologetic Essay in Defence of the Egyptian and Tuscan Architecture,” this essay begins not with Piranesi’s aesthetic goals, but a discussion of whether his fireplace designs reflect objects that could have existed in antiquity; he concludes that the absence of archaeological evidence implies that the ancients did not possess such interior decorations (although Piranesi suggests that on-going excavations at Herculaneum might yet uncover new material). Piranesi then states the purpose of his elaborate fireplace designs: “to show what use an able architect may make of the ancient monuments by properly adapting them to our own manners and customs,” and claims that only through archaeological research has his work been made possible: “the great and serious study, I have made upon all the happy remains of ancient monuments, has enabled me to execute this useful, and if I may be allowed to say it, even necessary project” (Diverse maniere d’adornare i Camini, p. 2). In thirteen fireplace designs and two walls from the Caffè degli Inglesi included in the Diverse maniere, Piranesi incorporates a surprisingly diverse range of Egyptian objects, going far beyond the obelisks, pyramids, and sphinxes of his predecessors.

To a modern eye, Piranesi’s designs appear bizarre and fantastical, but this should not blind us to the precision with which Piranesi renders some of the ancient Egyptian objects he could have seen in early European collections. The design for the short wall of the Caffè degli Inglesi, included within the plates of Diverse maniere demonstrates Piranesi’s keen observation of Egyptian monuments, ranging from statues and relief to small gems and amulets. Beginning at the top of the plate, the curved lunette of the wall contains an image of the god Osiris, wearing an atef-crown, flanked by two sphinxes; the Osiride figure could be based on a stone statue or one of the ubiquitous small bronzes of the god, while the sphinxes with their nemes headdresses resemble those of Neferities I and Hakoris that Piranesi could have seen in the gardens of the Villa Borghese (Ziegler, in Humbert, Pantazzi, and Ziegler, eds., Egyptomania, pp. 87-91). At either end of the lunette is a haloed creature—to the left a phoenix and to the right a lion-headed serpent; these two images are detailed elaborations on the decoration of small “magical gems,” another type of artifact frequently found in early European collections of antiquities. The central lunette thus combined monumental statuary (e.g. sphinxes), with smaller three-dimensional images (e.g. Osiris), and images from tiny portable objects (e.g. magical gems), all demonstrating Piraensi’s attempt to recreate the lost ornament of ancient Egypt.

Below the lunette is an imagined structure with three “windows” looking out onto an Egyptian landscape, complete with pyramids, obelisks, and sphinxes. The structure is adorned with hieroglyphs, relief decoration, and multiple statues. Piranesi again mixes different types of ancient Egyptian objects to create a richly ornamented design. Within the central lintel is an aegis of Bastet, a faithful copy of a type of metal object that was also common in early collections. The main architectural feature of the central window consists of kneeling figures; here Piranesi has adapted a common motif in two- and three-dimensional Egyptian art by making the square profile of the ancient figures more vertical and thus more suited to Piranesi’s architectural setting.



Artist or Author

Giovanni Battista Piranesi




Yale British Art Center

Accession Number

L 46.7 (Folio A)

J.S. Curl, The Egyptian Revival, Ancient Egypt as the Inspiration for Design Motifs in the West, 3rd ed. (London, 2005), pp. 155-170.

M. Pantazzi, in J.-M. Humbert, M. Pantazzi, and C. Ziegler, Egyptomania: Egypt in Western Art, 1730-1930 (Ottawa, 1994), pp. 66-74.

J. Wilton-Ely, Piranesi as Architect and Designer (New York, 1993), pp. 143-148.

J. Wilton-Ely, The Mind and Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (London, 1978), pp. 107-109.

R. Wittkower, Studies in the Italian Baroque (London, 1975), pp. 259-273.