I had heard of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an Italian architect-turned-etcher working in the mid-1700s, but had never considered that he might have been a founder of more contemporary historic preservation movements. This is one of several revelations to be found in a fascinating article by Rob Goodman, "Behind Historic Preservation, a Surreal History."
Piranesi is most famous for his series of images of the ruins of classical Rome. His etchings depict the rather dilapidated architectural sites of his time as the awe-inspiring monuments we now understand them to be. Goodman points out that both Piranesi's artistic skills as well as his business acumen "helped re-establish [the ruins'] power to overwhelm and overawe, and [Piranesi] argued that this power was worth conserving." I find it very fortunate that members of society agreed with this assessment then and continue to do so today.
|The Colosseum, 1757, etching|
|Carceri Plate VII - The Drawbridge|
Piranesi is also known for his series of fantastical prisons, and Goodman suggests these exceedingly strange and disturbing images helped inspire artists such as M.C. Escher and Edgar Allen Poe. Further, Goodman argues that "Just as his recovery of the ruins made Piranesi a father of neoclassicism, his prisons... ...made him a forerunner of the surrealists." Interestingly, Goodman goes on to compare the conservation of old buildings as somewhat surreal in that it allows us to encounter elevating architectural spaces among the many alienating (and perhaps nightmarish) strip malls and big box stores on our streets today.