Creativity · Self · Spirituality · Writing

#ThrowbackSunday: Art History, Piranesi & Isabey

Giovanni Baptiste Piranesi

This paper was written and submitted for an art history course I took in 2001, during the fall semester of my senior year of college. The focus of the paper are two artists’ renderings of an exterior and an interior of two different sacred spaces. The artists are Giovanni Battista Piranesi’and Jean-Baptiste Isabey, the latter’s work I could not find on the internet. (Slide libraries are still vital resources for this reason!)

I wish I could tell you I remember writing this paper, but I do not. I do remember my days at Holy Cross being filled with lots of contemplative looking at art, architecture, and literature. Clearly, this paper reveals the beginning of what art means to me. I recognize, below, how time and human kind is ephemeral, too. To be humbled is the very goal of contemplative viewing of art. This act of viewing is the most significant way in which I choose to grow closer to God, and stronger in my spirituality. A spirituality that is the heartbeat of my soul. 

I hope to really, truly be humbled in a week when I travel overseas for the first time. There, I will see some of the greatest works of art ever created. Perhaps, I will even see those which I write about in this short essay.

I wonder what I will feel, what will change in me, about me, once I have seen such works of artistic historical value. Will it completely change my  life course? Will I be called to a higher office, or different vocation? Will the notion that my life, my thoughts that burden me so much each and every day, will be seen for what they are? Negative distractions…diversions…taking me away from what is truly important: A life filled with purpose, driven by creativity and endless forms of expression in which to indulge? Yes, I have to sustain a life for myself with money made at work. But is there a way to balance art and life…on life’s terms? 

As I continue to seek, I can only hope there is balance to be found. I hope this trip is the tipping point. 

Happy reading! And again my apologies for any formatting issues.


Both Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Remains of the Villa of Maecenas of Tivoli and Jean-Baptiste Isabey’s Interior of the Church at Graville from Voyages Pittoresques show the viewer a sense of strength that the art world had last seen in classical art. The subjects of the etching and lithograph are fitting since it depicts classical architecture and the medieval Gothic arch which is the quintessence of balance and symmetry.

The Roman arch is present in the Piranesi etching and from this construct the viewer slowly sees the size of the arches diminish into the right side of the painting. The eye is drawn immediately to the right due to this progressing diminution of the colossal structure. One knows it is larger than life and strong enough to last for the centuries it has because it is juxtaposed with the fragility of man’s life through the dwarfed dot-sized figure at the center of the etching. The viewer is busy contemplating the age and the endlessness of the Temple and passes right over the figure of the man, who could very likely be any man and “Everyman”, and in a sense Piranesi says that we can never hope to outlive these great, timeless structures. From the viewer’s point of view, the villa could go on for miles, reaching its vanishing point hundreds of miles from from where the viewer stands. The length and size of the structure also makes it evident that the viewer must be many city blocks from where the figure stands. The portion of the villa closest to the left side of the etching is far sharper and has a three-dimensionality that the portion of the etching of the right does not have. The right side is far more two-dimensional and much lighter in color. The value lessens gradually from dark greys and blacks to a light granite color and off whites that on the left side can only be found on the marker near the small coniferous tree.

The strength and grandeur in Isabey’s lithograph lie in the gothic arch and the stone that the arch was constructed by. The arch flexes its muscles, while the comparatively small figure of the workman sits hunched over, in a quasi fetal position, with a rounded back. He has a soft, robust appearance among the sharp lines and rough, aged stone. The eye is directly drawn to those lit portions of the lithograph. Parts of the columns are highlighted showing the length of the sides of the church. Then the eye quickly must move off the foreground and retreat to the background, revealing the hint of light illuminating a fraction of the stained glass window. In noticing, the stained glass window we see how off center and unbalanced the arches are. The neoclassical artists revived the architecture from the classical period because of the many archeological discoveries being made during the 18th century. However, the neoclassical artists did not want to merely imitate the classical artists so they added their own contemporary influences to this revived history. The arches are off balanced because Isabey had something to say about time and eternity that went beyond the ideals of classicism. 

Isabey’s lithograph speaks volumes about time and eternity. The viewer stands at the edge of the painting as if he is looking back into the past from eternity. He sees at the center of the lithograph, in the dark, a holy figure, welcoming those who enter the church and offering them eternal life if they believe in God. The stone arches strength this image of eternal life, proving to the person entering the church that they are safe within these arches. The arches have surely been there for thousands of years, however, the feeling of eternity the viewer and the person entering the church feel disappear at the sight of the workman sitting at the entrance. The light illuminates the figure which appears to be hunched over weakened by the strong arches that will undoubtedly outlive him. The viewer is then reminded that life is not eternal, but ephemeral. The light too is ephemeral, for it will change its position soon and illuminate some other part of the interior of the church, leaving behind in the darkness the workman. The light is life, the dark is death and the man has little time before his light is extinguished and he is dead. However, the everlasting marble or stone can outlive the light and the lives of the millions of people who have crossed over this church’s threshold because of its careful symmetrical construction. The juxtaposition of these two ideas of the eternal and the ephemeral make the human heart ache.

The theme of eternity is evident in the Piranesi etching. This time the viewer is standing with all of eternity before them for the viewer to capture. It seems this Villa could go on forever, because of Piranesi’s use of linear perspective with a specific vanishing point focused on a tower or steeple on the far right side of the etching. The eternity seems forever elusive, one could run through the vanishing point and still not have found it. The structure of the villa is a representation of eternity in that it will be there, in spite of war, famine, death, natural disasters and the birth of life, proven by the vegetation that is growing up, over and around the ruins. Piranesi further eternalizes this ruin by depicting it in an etching that can be recreated many times, even after he has past away. Piranesi has left his mark on the world forever through this piece. He seems to challenge the viewer to do the same, for man cannot live forever, but must create something that will, as the Romans have through this Temple.

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