Our long affair with Giambattista Piranesi began when I gave John a book with etchings of Rome. I wasn’t at all sure whether I should have done this. The collection had been given to me by a former boyfriend, but it was to change his life – and mine. Many hours were spent in Rome looking at where this unconventional Venetian artist had designed the first Egyptian-inspired interior for a coffee house near the Spanish Steps. A stone’s throw away, in via Condotti which heads straight up to the Steps, are the World Headquarters of the Knights of Malta. Long before the tourists – especially now the Japanese – flocked to peer at Michelangelo’s dome of Saint Peter’s through the keyhole of the main doors of the Knights’ Priory, high up on the Aventine Hill, we spent hours deciphering the meaning of the strange pieces of sculpture Piranesi had inserted into the perimeter walls of the forecourt: his idiosyncratic version of the Ancient Roman ‘triumphs’ or arrangements of war trophies erected after their successful campaigns.
Back we went to via Condotti, and sought special permission to enter the Priory buildings with their beautiful gardens. This was swiftly granted. There, high above the Tiber, stands the only building Piranesi ever created – the reconstructed church commissioned by the Grand Prior, a monsignore from the Venetian Rezzonico family.
Giambattista Piranesi , best known for his superb etchings of Roman palaces and ruined monuments avidly collected by the British Grand Tourists in the 18th century, was born in Venice in 1720. A stonemason’s son in a city without any Roman remains, he was trained as an architect through an uncle who was responsible for the harbour buildings. He was certainly influenced by the daring stage designs of the Bibbiena brothers in a city packed with theatres and itself a theatrical experience. When Piranesi followed his Rezzonico patron to Rome, the great period of Baroque building was reaching a climax in the 1740s with the completion of the famous Fontana di Trevi. However, patrons were beginning to run out of money. Instead, he channelled his passion for architecture into evocative etchings of the great buildings and ruins of Rome, until the nephew of the new Rezzonico pope, Grand Prior of the Order of Malta, commissioned him to reconstruct their ruined church, Santa Maria del Priorato.
This lies at the far end of the garden on a spur overlooking the Tiber. The strange stucco sculpture on Piranesi’s new façade contains obscure references to the Knights’ defence of Christendom in the Middle Ages. Inside are impressive tombs and ceremonial banners, but the eye is immediately drawn to the highly theatrical altarpiece with a globe supported by angels and cherubs bearing Saint Basil, the church’s patron saint, together with a medallion of the Madonna and Jesus, illuminated by light projected from an oculus above and a hidden window behind. Though small, the church feels remarkably spacious. Piranesi himself is buried under the second bay on the right facing the altar. Originally he wanted as his monument a strange candelabrum composed of marble antique fragments to his design, but his children objected and a rather anodyne statue of him in a Roman toga stands there instead. As it happened, his preferred monument is now hidden on a flight of stairs in the Louvre, probably because his children fled to Paris during the political upheavals in Rome at the end of the 18th century.
The choice of stucco ornaments for the façade was an unfortunate one for such an exposed position. Today, they are crumbling and badly in need of restoration, as is the off-white interior. However, we have just admired a start to the whole process by the highly successful cleaning of the altar, standing resplendent in the dark interior as you enter from the sunshine outside. Now John has been asked to advise on the whole business of further restoration – the latest of his many Piranesi projects.