Cover image for Piranesi's dream
Piranesi's dream
Köpf, Gerhard, 1948-
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Piranesis Traum. English
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : G. Braziller, [2000]

Physical Description:
240 pages ; 22 cm
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A fictional autobiography of the famed eighteenth-century Italian engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Piranesi's Dream draws from fact to imagine the embittered, eccentric, yet fantastically creative mind of this prolific artist. Piranesi, however, is not simply recreated in his time; instead, he travels throughout time and throughout the world, musing over art and aesthetics, attacking his enemies, and ruminating over his thwarted dream of becoming an architect. Appearing in contemporary Australia, in ancient Egypt, and even in Vancouver, Piranesi gives full reign to his dreams and his meditations. He envisions--posthumously--the construction of a great city in the Australian desert. He attacks his contemporary, the critic Johannes Winckelmann, with intense hatred, condemning his admiration of classical Greek architecture. Forced to work as an engraver--the medium in which he created the dungeon and prison scenes he is best known for today--Piranesi labors, embittered and frustrated, always yearning to fulfill himself as an architect. Piranesi's Dream is the story of an artist and of a visionary of ages past and present. In telling Piranesi's story, Kopf has written not only a fictional autobiography but a compelling psychological novel.

Author Notes

Gerhard Köpf is a German literary scholar and writer .

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

This work is a fictional autobiography of one of the world's greatest engravers: Giovanni Battista Piranesi. He was a gifted artist, but he led a life of frustration because his dream was to become an architect. To his dismay, his vision was never taken seriously by his contemporaries. Among Piranesi's most famous works are his "Carceri" series of dungeons and jail cells, which Kopf portrays as a reflection of the artist's imprisoned mind. The author reveals so much of the interior life of a self-imprisoned artist that the reader can never know whether to trust the reality of any of the exterior events. Intense and densely lyric, at times the work seems like an extended rant, yet it is shot-through with beautifully wrought passages. Although skillful, this book is unlikely to appeal to a wide audience, so it is recommended for larger libraries. --Eric Robbins

Publisher's Weekly Review

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, master engraver of the 18th century, is the subject of this fictionalized life by German novelist and university professor K”pf. Styled as a long soliloquy, the novel details Piranesi's tumultuous career. The artist's depictions of colossal Roman ruins set against scenes of the pointedly less-than-colossal modern world helped define the era's view of itself vis-…-vis antiquity. In addition, he did a famous series of copperplate engravings called Prisons, a dark and freely imaginative work that was out of step with the optimistic mood of the age. For K”pf, Piranesi embodies the underbelly of the European Enlightenment. In his personal life, Piranesi is a brooding and spiteful man who rants at turns of fate he believes have ruined his existence: his failure to become a working architect, the burden of his beautiful but faithless wife and, especially, the success of the vastly more influential historian of art and architecture, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whose grubby death (he is murdered by a homosexual pickup in Trieste) belies the ideal of "noble simplicity and serene grandeur" that he trumpeted professionally. Oddly independent of time and space, the elaborately styled novel allows Piranesi to narrate from the present day. The engraver even rattles on a good deal about modern Australia, where he imagines he might construct a great city. The narrative style of embittered monologue begs for a comparison with Thomas Bernhard but does not stand that comparison well. The professor in K”pf tends to overpower the artist, causing this ambitious work to be swamped by its intellectual baggage. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

German author Kpf (Papa's Suitcase, There Is No Borges) here fictionalizes the life of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78), who was an utter failure at what he wanted to do, which was to build. Piranesi dreams of designing architecture in the style of ancient Rome but is instead forced to work as an engraver, a medium he uses to design the Carceri ("prisons"). Scorned by the critics, cuckolded by his wife at every opportunity, and convinced that he is being undermined by his rival, Johannes Winckelmann, he descends into a nightmare. He eventually kills Winckelmann and is given poison to commit suicide. In a dream he has before his death, Piranesi finds himself in Australia, near a city named Roma, but he cannot build anything because the area is sacred to the Aborigines. While well written, this book is so self-abnegating and so permeated by hopelessness that it is ultimately a dispiriting read. A marginal purchase.DAnn Irvine, Montgomery Cty. P.L., Silver Spring, MD (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One And when they find me one day with my mouth full of dry, red sand, then in front of the grave that I dug with my last strength they will see the tombstone that I cut from a stone I found, modeled after the heads of Easter Island. Perhaps it will just begin to grow dark, and the shadows will brush over the distant mountains like waves until they become one with the fleeing clouds in the darkening night. They will be amazed at the wasted desolation of the place, and there will be disquiet in their eyes at the sight of the fallen walls, of this avalanche of martyred ashlars. The reflection of the sun's finale will succeed in laying a unique enchantment over the scene, a curiously beaming stage light. No bird will fly up and away, no smoke rise into the sky, nothing but quiet and solitude will be there. Only the wind will play its forlorn game with the thin clumps of grass and the brush on the edge of the desert. They will not be able to imagine that someone could have lived here surrounded by so much abandonment and forgetting. Who, except for me, could endure so much solitude and bitterness so completely alone for so many years? For a long while in the midst of the stillness they will look at this dilapidated house, these weathered ruins, this rank, completely ramshackle cottage. The dilapidation and the dusk will confound their eyes, but no one will think of breaking the unchanging quiet and call out my name. But this stubborn quiet will give them the certainty that they have finally found me. The groaning of a rusty bar, which will yield under the pressure of their hands, and the beam of a flashlight will deliver the last proofs to them. A penetrating pestilential odor of rottenness and decay will surround them, and from that moment on, everything will take place with indifferent inevitability. A beat of black wings will be around them when they find me at the back with my clothes on, lying in a corner on a bed, my face turned condescendingly toward them, with my eye sockets empty, the eyes devoured by birds. Someone will light a candle and set it on the little table next to the cot. With stony faces they will stand around me, their hands protectively over their genitals. As soon as night has finally fallen, sitting at the kitchen table among all my papers, copperplates, etching needles, drawings, and plans they will reminisce about me, and tell the story about the man who himself wants to build a house: Exemplum de quodam homine, qui volebat aedificare domum ...     Yes, that's how they'll find me and they'll say:     A man wants to build a house. He looks for a promising construction site, drafts a plan, and calculates the required capital of time and labor. But hardly has he begun with the excavation than it turns out that the ground thought to be solid is in truth marshy. This sad discovery presents the man with having to decide either to continue the construction in spite of the questionable soil and to leave its stability to a higher providence--or to spend a large part of his capital in shoring up the foundation, faced with the certainty that his building won't even get as far as the second floor.     A house of cards or a skeletal structure?     I always knew: I had to build!     There must be something or other in my brain that cannot quit thinking up structures that no one wants to build. But it's not the activity itself that so possesses me, rather it is the dream of it. In a corner of my heart sits something that has a similarity to religion. It is in thrall to an adoration that my imagination always supplies with new nourishment.     In this world one can experience only two kinds of great happiness: that of loving very much or that of building. But most unhappy is he who is crushed with desire between these two realms.     I knew that I had to build!     But they didn't let me.     I never did build, on the contrary was always merely lost in thought.     I am an inètto , one unfit in an unfit world.     It is unendurable not to make the most of one's dreams.     I doubted everything, I despaired about everything, but not about the art of building. A good master builder always thinks beyond his buildings. Outside of building there is no salvation and no redemption. The art of building is the physical expression of my being. In this mine I am at home; I bring ever new treasures to the surface. And the highest commandment is my own dissatisfaction. Whatever we do, we remain the victims of our passion. We are in a dream, lying halfway above and halfway below the earth, and our dreaming minds are impenetrable. With comical despair I, a spendthrift of my pains, have never surrendered my belief that I was chosen by destiny for something that lay beyond the timberline of other master builders. Such a belief cannot be acquired but grows like a tree whose crown strives skyward while the roots grow down into the past.     With my unconditional belief in architecture I was an audacious man even to my contemporaries. All my life the rumor went around that because my failures turned into fury I had tried to murder my teacher, Guiseppe Vasi, because he had supposedly withheld from me the mysteries of the art of etching.     What wild nonsense, since no one knows those mysteries better than I.     The things they said about me:     Un homme d'un autre siècle, a génie visionaire.     There was talk of extraordinary talent, of unintelligibility and a demonic spirit. Just recently a so-called expert went so far as make the following judgment: He was a strange and neurotic genius and difficult to handle, but he was a brilliant draughtsman and one of the greatest masters of the art of etching.     Wrong, all wrong, for most statements about art come from people who are themselves not artists: thus the distorted notions! In any case, I have never been honored in a way that corresponds to my merits. To this very day I am branded with the mark of Cain as an artistic person running amok who stood outside his age, misunderstood, eccentric, and pathological:     He reveled in what was ugly and distorted.     He had a passionate, even a demonic nature.     The mystery of the sublime is his field.     That sort of nonsense is particularly the result of my depictions of prisons and especially the echo of Romantic poets. On closer examination such ridiculous judgments, however, prove to be evidence of sweeping perplexity.     I am the consequence of my history. But this history by no means satisfies me. A history is made only to be forgotten. I know, and I feel, that I have deserved better and do not want to forgo my claim. I base my value worth precisely on the fact that my ego, as a product of history, does not satisfy me. But that means that my history becomes the history of my distortion and I turn against it--so I gain freedom in the face of my history.     The most important men of my age knew about me. They all were delighted with my plans, and my teacher released me with the words: "If you stay longer with me, you will become my imitator. So move on, find your own way, and you will immortalize your name without any effort on my part."     I obeyed, but my misfortune began with my respect for authority. Money became scarce. I could find work nowhere. More and more often I withdrew to my drunkard's bed, believing the solution to my problems lay hidden in a bottle. I crouched in the blanket of my melancholy and felt life sliding away from me.     In vain I presented my sketches to the Roman emperor, to the king of France, to the popes, cardinals, princes, and potentates. All gave me audience, all were enthusiastic, all approved of what I was doing. They esteemed me as a man who had the power and the ability to affix obscure names to famous monuments.     But when it came to the construction itself, they postponed it from year to year: "Yes, when the financial situation improves ..."     Thinking that I would not live long enough to complete a construction, even if someone should entrust me with a project of some magnitude, I decided very early on to have my designs printed, something disgraceful to my contemporaries. All of my etchings, the underwater paintings of someone submerged all his life, are no more than a reproach. I cast them down in front of my contemporaries as one casts down a piece of meat before a predator. Of course, I knew it was a folly that would be used against me sooner or later, for it is a crime to reveal your own dreams and visions. But I did not hesitate to commit that crime.     Zealously I set to work, sat day and night over my etchings. My designs went forth into the world and aroused laughter here, astonishment there. All the things that were said about me! Exaggerated sense of mission, hubris, megalomania, eccentric way of life, abrupt outbursts of passion, finally even a pact with the Devil.     Everything sheer calumny!     Everything pure nonsense!     People never understood how to read my works, for my scenes and etchings, designs and plans should not only be looked at but be read conscientiously.     But who can still read conscientiously today?     And something else was happening to me. Through bitter experience I had learned that with every work that springs from the mind of an artist a tormenting spirit is born, and every picture, every line that is drawn by chance on paper serves such a spirit as an abode. Those are evil spirits. They enjoy life, multiply incessantly, and torment their creators because of the too-cramped dwelling he offers them.     Hardly had I started to close my eyes than specters in the shapes of stately homes, palaces, buildings, castles, ruins, vaults, and columns surrounded me. All together they pressed upon me with their mighty masses and with horrible laughter asked me to give them life.     Life!     From that moment on I have known no peace. The specters created by me persecute me. There an enormous vault embraces me, here towers chase along behind me with mile-long strides, and now a window rattles before me in its gigantic frame. At times they lock me in my own dungeons, lower me down into bottomless wells, shackle me in my own chains, let the cold mildew of half-destroyed vaults rain down upon me--they make me endure all the torments I have invented. They toss me from the funeral pyre onto the rack and from the rack onto the spit. And all the while these horrors dance laughing around me, will not let me die, and try ever anew to find out why I have condemned them to an incomplete life. And finally, weak and enfeebled as I am, they push me back again and whip me at my own drawing table.     My outrageous power of imagination, all the wriggling thoughts everywhere in my mind have encircled me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship. They have placed me in darkness and walled me in. In this darkness I make my rounds along the walls of my imagination and feel how something is happening beyond the inclines. Befogged by my task, I sneak into the walls, fit myself to them spinelessly with a naked, surrendered face. On the nape of my neck I feel that I'm being observed. It stiffens and I duck as though I were expecting the lethal bite of a predatory cat that takes measure of what was promised it and eagerly devours what it desires.     I, however, live recklessly. I live contrarily. My days are eaten up by the burning hunger of that cat. With every year my gaze is directed more exclusively into the distance. Only in this darkness am I moored totally within myself and feel even peaceful and safe for deceptive moments. So I am completely at home when the blackness warms me, as only animals can be completely at home with themselves. Then on the edge of my exhausted years the wilderness in my imagination becomes rampant through the tricks of my enemies, while outside of me roaring centuries pass by in which I hear nothing but the gnawing of my tormenting spirits, the clinking of their chains, their scraping and scratching on walls and ashlars that I was not allowed to build.     I was present already when that Great Wall was built that can be seen even from the moon. In the year 33 the Xiongnu were beaten back in the northwest. From Yu Yong on, along the Huang Ho and on to the east and connecting with Yin Shan they built border fortifications. The emperor further commanded Meng Tian to cross the Huang Ho and take possession of Kao'kue, of the To Mountains, and of the middle part of the northern valley. There he built fortifications and watchtowers in defense against the Qiang. Convicts then populated the regions. In the year 34 the emperor cast out to work on the Long Wall judges who had handed down unjust sentences. The Great Wall was the ruin of one generation and the salvation of many, the Chinese say. But it was above all a mistake, for not the enemies from the north but the emperor's son destroyed the empire.     So I wander in vain from land to land, and each one becomes my galley. In vain I keep watch to see whether perhaps some splendid building erected by my rivals to ridicule me has collapsed. I knock on Michelangelo's dome in Rome in vain, in vain I hang with both arms in Pisa on Buschetto's useless tower. Sometimes I dream of moving, secretly at night, the Tower of Pisa to Venice and the Campanile of Venice to Pisa, the Eiffel Tower to London and the Tower of London to Paris, yes, all the towers of the world back and forth in accordance with the royal game, for chess is the only game that you can also play against yourself without destroying its meaning.     Towers, nothing but towers.     They fascinated me even in my childhood, and what child doesn't put block on block to build a tower, though it will never be clear whether a child is enthused more by the building or by the destruction of those towers. Towers have always attracted me magically, and on all my journeys I have never missed climbing the most famous towers. And even as a child I liked best to listen to the stories of collapsing towers that were felled by lightning, conflagration, or earthquake. At the same time always thinking--there are no boundaries upward.     So I knew I had to build.     Instead of executing a construction contract, I sat for days, weeks, months, years over my etchings. I constantly tried in vain to find out the causes for my frustrated life, and still got no further. I brooded about what I might have done differently, better, or possibly not at all. But it led to nothing. Catastrophe is inevitable, I told myself, and I had peace for a short time. Then I started all over again to ask myself all kinds of penetrating questions.     Restlessly I strode back and forth and up and down in my more and more wretched quarters. With my temples pressed against floors and walls I watched the turning of millions of light years, and rare orb-shaped heavenly bodies danced before my eyes. I had driven my life so far into isolation that there was no return from it. More and more I lapsed into senseless activities to distract me from my plans. Sometimes I locked my etchings and copperplates away in order not to come into contact with them, for new ideas came to me only when it was gloomy. But the very thought of them depressed me even further. The lack of contact developed into a catastrophe, just as it had previously been necessity and even happiness. The recognition of being able to build absolutely nothing, nothing, made my predicament even more hopeless.     I always knew--I had to build!     But a satanic God, who, with furiously clenched teeth, sits sullenly over His Creation, cast on my dream path just short of my destination a giant red stumbling block called Ayers Rock, with which especially the setting sun wreaks terrible things. Presumably He hurled it against me with all the furious malice of which a god is at all capable--because He could not help fearing that He had met His master in me. At the same time I had finally found the ideal construction site in the Australian desert and with it that place where I could have made my visions reality. All my life I have looked for this endless flat wilderness and believed that Nature was finally on my side. For Nature has no respect for life. But in the worst possible way I nevertheless had to recognize how the elements, which I had set out to challenge and to harness, had become allied against me behind my back.     And it had to come this far, and maybe it had long been preordained, since that long-ago day when human beings first felt the desire to want to live a life different from their own wretched life in order to make up for all their missed opportunities. And from that point on, I was lost, for in that moment the wind of disaster began to blow. From that point on there remained for me only the possibility of telling my story. Copyright (c) 1992 Gerhard Köpf.