The Dark Brain of Piranesi, and Other Essays Essay - Critical Essays

Marguerite Yourcenar

The Dark Brain of Piranesi, and Other Essays

The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays is an English translation of a collection of seven essays issued in France in 1962 and reprinted in 1978 under the rather enigmatic title Sous Bénéfice d’Inventaire. This newest edition is presumably intended both to acknowledge and enhance further the international reputation of the scholar and novelist who in 1980 became the first woman elected to the Académie Française. Yourcenar has held dual American and French citizenship since 1947 and has resided in the United States for many years. As a result, she has become quite well known here. American readers unfamiliar with her work, however, may find this volume a puzzle. No preface or introductory remarks are offered to a new generation of readers, a new national audience; no organizing or selection principle is delineated, and no common thread appears to bind the essays. The subject matter spans seventeen hundred years, ranges across nations from Greece to Sweden, and unites history, art, and literature. If there is any single force which holds this diverse collection together, it is the force of Yourcenar’s impressive interdisciplinary scholarship and her eclectic synthesizing style. The reader must respond sympathetically to her personal style if this volume is to be of value.

Perhaps the essay “The Dark Brain of Piranesi” was made the title piece of the English edition because Piranesi’s style resembles Yourcenar’s. Both styles are characterized by complex and multiple perspectives, fervid interest in history and art, and fascination with the searching mind. Or more simply perhaps, the essay on Piranesi was made the title piece because it is the most provocative of all the essays and of greatest interest to English readers in its intimations of the influence of Piranesi’s art on English Gothic and Romantic movements. For whatever reason, this essay is both title piece and centerpiece of the collection, and it does indeed represent Yourcenar at her interdisciplinary, international, scholarly, and stimulating best. More a generalist than a specialist, more a reconstructionist than a critic, Yourcenar presents her observations in a style aimed not at ending argument but at spurring further discussion.

In “The Dark Brain of Piranesi,” a phrase taken from Victor Hugo, Yourcenar crystalizes her major critical concerns: art, history, and man’s creation of and relation to each. Giambattista Piranesi, classically trained, eighteenth-century Italian architect commissioned to design only one building in his life, of necessity worked lifelong as an engraver. He is best known for two series of engravings, Le Antichità romane and Carceri d’invenzione. Yourcenar touches upon how English architects Robert Adam and George Dance and writers Horace Walpole, William Beckford, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley found in Piranesi resonances of their own fascinations with the past and the mind, their forms and transformations. In his etchings of Rome, Piranesi at once records the deaths of monuments and makes them immortal. Collapsing, broken, sliding into ruin as if actively being reclaimed by nature, enormous edifices reveal themselves in strangely intimate ways, their interiors made exterior by the violence of time and man. Tiny images of man dot the scenes, indifferent, gnomic, seemingly insignificant when juxtaposed to these mammoth constructions. Piranesi’s ruins are visual contemplations of man’s relation to the grandeur and fleetingness of his own history. In contrast, the subjective architecture of Piranesi’s imaginary prisons is a visual metaphor of mind. The few figures suggest pinpoints of consciousness confronting vast chambers of awareness, each varying in design, locked together in a single, shadowy interior. Glimpses of exteriors, some seemingly inaccessible, imaginatively marry inner and outer experience. It is little wonder that Romantics were powerfully drawn to his work. Piranesi may have had most direct influence on the work of an artist not mentioned by Yourcenar. Dutch artist M. C. Escher studied Piranesi while training as an architect. Like Piranesi, Escher moved into the graphic arts, and like Piranesi, he devoted himself to the exploration of the structure of space, to discovery of simultaneous and contradictory perspectives, and to imaginative expansion of one’s perceptions of one’s place in the world. His men, too, are enigmatic accessories to labyrinthine monuments, moving but going nowhere, captive to edifices of their own construction. The nature of Piranesi’s work and influence has not yet been fully plumbed. Yourcenar’s essay should spark fuller examination of the intricate networks of response surrounding his work.

Three essays of literary criticism more conventional in style follow the...

(The entire section is 1988 words.)