The Courtauld website Past in Present website

Piranesi, Death, and Paestum: The Revival of Greek Architecture


Paestum was particularly significant for Giovanni Battista Piranesi and for John Soane, two figures who were highly invested in classical architecture as a crucial source of inspiration for their eighteenth and nineteenth-century creative careers. Soane’s extensive art collection included Piranesi’s complex drawings of Paestum; Soane incorporated these pictures into his theatrical displays at his Lincoln’s Inn home and connected Piranesi’s own dramatic visions of Paestum with his revivalist architectural practice. Mortality, classicism, and theatre interlaced to create a framework within which Soane’s architecture reflected wider cultural concerns regarding death, antiquity, and the sources of new works of art and architecture.


Fig. 1. Giovanni Battista Piranesi  Paestum, Italy: Basilica and Temple of Neptune 47.5 x 69 cm Pencil, brown and grey washes, pen and ink Sir John Soane’s Museum SM P51 Fig. 2. Giovanni Battista Piranesi  Paestum, Italy: Interior of the Basilica, from the West 47.5 x 69 cm Pencil, brown and grey washes, pen and ink Sir John Soane’s Museum SM P54 Fig. 3. Giovanni Battista Piranesi  Paestum, Italy: Exterior of the Temple of Neptune from the North-East 47.5 x 69 cm Pencil, brown and grey washes, pen and ink Sir John Soane’s Museum SM P72 Fig. 4. Giovanni Battista Piranesi  Paestum, Italy: Interior of the Temple of Neptune from the North 47.5 x 69 cm Pencil, brown and grey washes, pen and ink Sir John Soane’s Museum SM P74 Fig. 5. Francesco Galli da Bibiena An Architectural Composition (Design for Theatrical Scenery) Pencil, brown and grey washes, pen and ink Sir John Soane’s Museum SM P57 Fig. 6. Annotated image of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Paestum, Italy: Interior of the Temple of Neptune from the North, SM P74, showing the artist’s use of multiple vanishing points. With grateful thanks to John Bridges, Sir John Soane’s Museum Fig. 7. Charles James Richardson (1806-71) Copy of Sir John Soane’s 1779 Design for a Dog Kennel Pencil, pen and ink with watercolour 707 x 1272mm Sir John Soane’s Museum SM 14/4/2 Fig. 8. Soane Office Copy of Sir John Soane’s 1779 Design for the James King Mausoleum, Perspective Pencil, pen and ink with watercolour Sir John Soane’s Museum SM P 98 Fig. 9. Soane Office Design for a Mausoleum to the Earl of Chatham, 1778, Elevation Grey washes and pen and ink  Sir John Soane’s Museum SM Vol. 66/34 Fig. 10. Soane Office Bourgeois Mausoleum, No 38 Charlotte Street, Interior perspective Dated 1807 Pencil, pen and ink with watercolour 650 x 645 mm Sir John Soane’s Museum SM 15/2/1 Fig. 11.  Joseph Michael Gandy (1771-1843) Sepulchral Church for William Praed, Tyringham, Interior perspective 1800/1801 Pencil, pen and ink with watercolour 710 x 660 mm Sir John Soane’s Museum SM 13/5/7 Fig. 12. Soane Office Interior Perspective of the Mausoleum, Dulwich Picture Gallery 1811 Pen and ink, and body colour 800 x 800 mm Sir John Soane’s Museum SM P252


Amongst the more significant works on paper held by Sir John Soane’s Museum are fifteen highly resolved preparatory drawings by Piranesi, produced for Différentes vues de Pesto…, published 1778, showing views of the three great Doric temples in the former Greek colony of Poseidonia, located dramatically on a plateau of travertine not far from the coast of the Gulf of Salerno. Better known by its Roman name of Paestum, the site was settled by Greek colonists in the late seventh century before becoming a Roman colony in the 6th century BC and finally being abandoned and forgotten in the 9th century AD. The Temples were first recorded in 1746 when a new road was built passing by the desolate site of the former city.[i] As the city had been abandoned due to the surrounding area becoming a malarial swamp, the three great temples, dedicated to Poseidon, Hera and Athena respectively, are well-preserved examples of early Greek Doric architecture. Following their discovery they became the object of study by many artists and architects – Giovanni Battista Piranesi being arguably the most prominent amongst them. Their discovery, and subsequent dissemination through drawings, prints, paintings and models, revolutionised artists’ and architects’ understanding of early Greek Classical architecture.

Amongst these early surveys was one undertaken in 1750 during the visit of Abel François Poisson, the Marquis de Marigny, (1727-81), Surintendent des Bâtiments designate and brother to Madame de Pompadour. The Marquis was accompanied by the engraver Charles Nicolas Cochin (1715-90), the architect Jacques-Gabriel Soufflot the Younger (1713-80) and his assistant Gabriel-Pierre-Martin Dumont (1720-91). Dumont’s publications of 1764 and 1769: Suite de plans, coupes, profils, elevations géometrales et perspectives de trois temples antiques, tells qu’ils exitoient en mil sept cinque, dans la bourgade de Paesto…mésurés et dessinés par JG Soufflot en 1750 and Les ruines de Paestum went some way to bolster the claim, championed in French academic and artistic circles, of the superior originality of Greek architecture as opposed to the derivative nature of Roman art and architecture. This argument was vociferously challenged by G B Piranesi most notably in his 1765 publication Parere su L’Archittura.

Piranesi visited the site in 1777 and produced the fifteen drawings that are in the Soane and two further drawings – one in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and one in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris (it is likely that twenty-one drawings were originally produced to match the twenty-one plates in Différentes vues de Pesto…) (Figs 1-4). The drawings are very close to the finished prints and are particularly accomplished examples of Piranesi’s topographical observation. They are unusual in this respect; although Piranesi produced preparatory drawings for his prints, much of the composition was often worked directly onto the copper plate when engraving. As he explained to the painter Hubert Robert: ‘…the drawing isn’t just what you see on the paper, I agree, but it is totally in my head and you will see it on the plate’. It is possible that Piranesi, conscious of his deteriorating health, wished to leave his son Francesco very detailed preparatory drawings to follow in order to complete the published Différentes vues de Pesto…, 1778 (published posthumously and finished by Francesco Piranesi).

This publication was not just intended to be a record survey of the extinct city with its three, early Greek Doric temples. Piranesi was entering into the broader intellectual argument with draughtsmen like Dumont and with the French Academy. He championed Paestum as a monument to Italic genius.[ii] In the frontispiece, he mentions that the Greeks called the city Possidonia but locates it geographically and historically firmly outside the Greek world: ‘Cette ville fut anciennement sous la domination des Lucaniens, et ensuite sous celle des Romains.’[iii] Similarly, it is architecturally outside the Greek cultural orbit – even superior to it: ‘Les voyagers connoisseurs assurent, que par rapport à l’architecture Greque des temples baits dans l’ordre Dorique, ceux de Pesto sont superieurs en beautè à ceux, qu’on voit en Sicile et dans las Grece…et qu’ enfin cette grande, et majestuese Architecture donne en son genre, l’idée la plus parfait de ce bel art.’[iv] In fact, the architectural order of the temples, as he stated in the annotation to plate XX, was also not Greek:‘…il semble plutôt appartenir à l’ordre Toscan qu’au Dorique’.[v] Tuscan temples then, in the domain of the Lucannians and, later, in that of the Romans.


Until recently, the provenance of the fifteen Soane drawings had not been established. Research has now shown that they were purchased, at auction from Christie’s, by Sir John Soane in March 1817 paying £14.5.0. They formed part of the Charles Lambert (1757-1811) Sale. Lambert was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and possessor of a considerable collection of prints and drawings. How Lambert acquired the fifteen Piranesi drawings is still to be ascertained.[vi]

Soane originally used the drawings to illustrate his series of lectures on architecture given at the Royal Academy in his capacity as Professor of Architecture and later at the Royal Institution. They were then displayed in his house-museum at No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, initially in his first Picture Room of 1819 and then finally, from 1824 onwards, in the current Picture Room where they were displayed alongside works by Turner, Watteau, Canaletto, Fuseli, Clérisseau and Royal Academy exhibition drawings by Joseph Michael Gandy of Soane’s architectural schemes. The position of Piranesi’s drawings in Soane’s incomparable Picture Room demonstrates the great value he accorded them as works of art.


The manner in which Sir John Soane ‘curated’ his display of fifteen drawings of Paestum by Piranesi was highly theatrical. They were hung on the external ‘movable planes’ of the room – walls which opened up to reveal further works of art and finally, seen through a proscenium-like opening, the Picture Room Recess. Soane’s interest in the theatre (he was an avid Bardolator) is not just attested by his architecture. Alongside the drawings of Paestum, Soane also displayed three drawings of theatrical stage designs by Francesco Galli da Bibiena (1659-1739) (Fig. 5).

The juxtaposition of works by G B Piranesi and by the Bibiena is more apposite than is discernible at first glance. Piranesi utilises the full repertoire of his draughtsmanship to create images of the three temples that are both accurate descriptions of their architecture and evocative of their rustic setting. The monumental, tectonic form and abstract geometries of the early Doric architecture are heightened by the artist’s distinctive use of a dramatic chiaroscuro. Piranesi initially drew the architecture using pencil. Over this he applied brown and grey washes. The composition was then reinforced carefully with pen and brown ink. In some of the drawings white chalk highlights and red chalk have also been used. Other elements, such as the staffage and foliage, are often drawn in a freer manner without underdrawing. The technique of repeatedly reworking the drawings using a number of media can be compared to the repeated bitings employed in the etchings made from the preparatory studies. The rough wove paper could indicate Piranesi’s need for a robust support whilst drawing (en plein air?). However, the roughness of the paper also acts as an analogy of the pitted and eroded texture of the travertine used in the construction of the three temples. To heighten the three-dimensionality of his depictions of the temples (and their drama) Piranesi has used a very specific, compositional device derived from the theatrical scenery devised by the Bibiena – the scena per angelo – where diagonal axes replace the traditional central vanishing point.[vii] This compositional device is evident in the three Bibiena drawings on display in the Picture Room alongside the Piranesis. Careful examination of several of the latter shows how Piranesi constructed these complex perspectives (Fig. 6). But Piranesi’s use of the scena per angelo (coupled with Sir John Soane’s theatrical display of the drawings) also points to another potential reading of these works, one which allows us to understand them as more subtle symbols of Piranesi’s final months. The cult of the dead and the origins of theatre, as Roland Barthes reminds us, are inextricably linked: ‘We know the original relation of the theatre and the cult of the Dead: the first actors separated themselves from the community by playing the role of the Dead…’[viii] And indeed, mortality seems to be played out over the surface of the fifteen drawings held in the collections of the Soane. Piranesi must have been aware of this when creating these exceptional studies for the posthumously published set of engravings. Death should be read in the carefully delineated annotations on the drawings that would serve as a guide to his son Francesco and to the viewer of the prints.


Barthes, was of course referring to photography when speaking of death and the theatre. However, the link between Paestum, Piranesi and mortality can be seen in the manner in which Piranesi’s work influenced the Greek revival in architecture at the start of the nineteenth century. In particular we can see this in the work of Sir John Soane. Soane visited Paestum twice whilst a young man during his two-year educational Grand Tour of Italy (26-27 January and 14-16 February 1779), drawing the plans and elevations of the temples. In the previous year, 1778, he had visited G B Piranesi and had been personally presented with four engravings by the architect and artist.[ix]

Soane’s later relationship to Piranesi’s work was not straightforward. He expressed his views about the architect and printmaker in his lectures delivered to the Royal Academy as Professor of Architecture and then later, in modified form, to the public at the Royal Institution. On the one hand, he stated: ‘Piranesi alone will afford a mine of information to the studious inquirer, and from his overflowing much may be gleaned…’[x] However, this Piranesian ‘overflowing’ was also subject to censure by Soane: ‘That men, unacquainted with the remains of Ancient Buildings, should indulge in licentious and whimsical combinations is not a matter of surprise, but that a man, who had passed all his life in the bosom of Classic Art, and in the contemplation of the majestic ruins of Ancient Rome, observing their sublime effects and grand combinations, a man who had given innumerable examples how truly he felt the value of the noble Simplicity of those buildings, that such man, with such examples before his eyes, should have mistaken Confusion for Intricacy, and undefined lines and forms for Classical variety, is scarcely to be believed; yet such was Piranesi.’[xi]

Soane’s impressions of the temples at Paestum were similarly mixed. He writes in a surviving sketch book dated 1779 and relating to his second visit to Paestum that: ‘The architecture of the three Temples is Doric but exceeding rude, the temples at the extremities in particular they have all the particulars of the Grecian Doric but not the elegance and taste; they seem all formed with the same materials, of stone formed by petrifaction…’[xii] His impressions of the temples are accompanied by drawings of the ground plans, elevations and details of the capitals. Despite his criticism of their ‘rude’ forms Soane begins to incorporate the Greek Doric order, as seen at Paestum, into early works such as the Canine Residence he designed for Frederick Hervey, the Earl Bishop of Derry, whilst still in Rome in 1779 (Fig. 7). Notably, the Greek Doric order appeared in Soane’s greatest masterpiece – the Bank of England – where Soane incorporated the lessons learnt at Paestum in the Bank’s Doric Vestibule (completed 1804).

However, the link between mortality and the Doric order of the Temples at Paestum is given concrete form in a series of mausolea designed by Soane.[xiii] The earliest expression of this is seen in a variation of a mausoleum Soane designed for his drowned friend James King in 1779 (Fig. 8). The use of the Greek Doric is repeated in a design, dated 2 February 1805, for a mausoleum for the Earl of Chatham (d. 1778). These two designs remained unexecuted (Fig. 9).[xiv] However, two projects, ornamented with the characteristic forms of the ‘primitive’ columns and capitals of the temples at Paestum, were executed. I refer to the mausolea designed to contain the remains of Noel Desenfans (1745-1807) and Sir Francis Bourgeois RA (1756-1811).

The first Bourgeois-Desenfans mausoleum was built in 1807 at the back of the two friends’ house on Charlotte (now Hallam) Street, London (Fig. 10). In its small interior it incorporated a circular vestibule with an interior peristyle of six Greek Doric columns. This mausoleum was duplicated by Soane when the bodies of Desenfans and Bourgeois were moved to the extant and well-known mausoleum attached to Dulwich Picture Gallery, completed in 1814. In both buildings Soane manipulated both light and space to achieve highly dramatic and evocative effects despite their small scale. The sarcophagi were almost ‘staged’, lit from above and separated by a raised area from the Greek Doric vestibules and seen through a proscenium-like opening in these peristyles in both instances. A reading of Soane’s mausoleum interiors in terms of the theatre is made even more persuasive when contemplating a drawing produced for an unexecuted project of 1800-1 for a Sepulchural Church for William Praed, at Tyringham. Here, the draughtsman has shown the Praed family sitting in a darkened, private pew, which appears more like a theatre box, looking out through a distinctly proscenium-like opening to the brilliantly illuminated ‘stage’ where a sermon is taking place (Fig. 11).

As at Charlotte St the interior peristyle of Doric columns à la Paestum duplicated at Dulwich formed an important accent of the mausoleum. Soane’s manipulation of light in this small space is equally as theatrical as that shown in the proposed but unexecuted Praed Sepulchral Church. Here too, as at Charlotte Street, the sarcophagi are ‘staged’. A drawing from the Soane Office shows the view into the interior of the mausoleum as looking from the central tribune of the Gallery (Fig. 12). It demonstrates how, in the executed design, the screen of the interior of the Doric peristyle is interrupted by the proscenium-like arched opening through which the centrally (and incorrectly) placed sarcophagus of Noel Desenfans can be seen.[xv] However, the Greek revival is not the only architectural style that is cited in this small space. The Doric columns à la Paestum support a coffered dome of distinctly Roman provenance. And the proscenium-like opening is taken from Roman arcuated architecture. Through the architectural device of this proscenium-like opening and the ‘staging’ of the mausoleum, Soane separates out the sarcophagi containing the remains of Sir Francis Bourgeois, Noel Desenfans and his wife Margaret from the public visiting the Gallery. The Dead become separated from the community of the living.

Soane’s encounter with Piranesi and Paestum in 1778 resulted in some of the earliest examples of the Greek revival in architecture in Britain – particularly in his use of the Greek Doric order à la Paestum. His precocious use of this order was a precursor for such monumental (and archaeologically ‘correct’) structures as the Euston Arch by Philip Hardwick coincidently constructed in 1837 – the year of Soane’s death. Soane’s association of the order with funerary monuments was also taken up by architects in the 1840s: two monuments in Kensal Green Cemetery, London, (one raised for John Gordon d. 1840 and one erected for John Collet) use derivations on a ‘primitive’ or Greek Doric order.[xvi] In these works, though, the invention and ‘theatricality’ that Soane’s architecture took from Piranesi’s designs is largely absent.

As with the scena per angelo, the relationship between the architecture of G B Piranesi and Sir John Soane be seen through a number of perspectives. In his lectures, Soane rejected Piranesi’s wilfulness whilst himself combining Roman architectural forms with Greek ones. He also questioned Piranesi’s rejection of the superiority of Roman originality over that of the Greeks. Yet, as many architectural historians have rightly pointed out, it is that very same wilfulness which allowed Soane to stage his highly inventive, idiosyncratic and theatrical architectural compositions including the way in which his collections of art are displayed at No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields as much as his buildings both realised and unrealised.[xvii] The fifteen drawings of the Doric temples at Paestum act as Piranesi’s last graphic monument. By displaying them in his Picture Room, Sir John Soane – the architect of the Bourgeois-Desenfans Mausoleum at Dulwich – has created, or rather ‘curated’ a ‘Mausoleum’ to the Italian architect and printmaker. However, it is not the body of Piranesi that has been interred within this space, rather it is a monument to Piranesi’s invention that has been staged.


[i] I am indebted to John Wilton-Ely’s revised publication Piranesi, Paestum and Soane, due to be published February 2013. For a discussion of the rediscovery of Paestum see: Wilton-Ely, J. and  Dorey, H, ed., Piranesi, Paestum and Soane, Sir John Soane’s Museum: London, 2013, unpaginated

[ii] In this respect he echoes Mario Gioffredo (1718-1785) who, on page 7 of in his work Dell’architettura di Mario Giofreddo architetto napoletano…, published in 1768, claims to have discovered the Temples in 1746 and writes about their stylistic affinities: ‘dovremmo quì pore u’idea della prim Architettura Etrusca e Dorica ne’ tre tempj di Pesti, che sevirebbe a giovani vaghi di vedere I primi prodotti dell’ arte: ma laciamo volentieri questa, come ci ritrarda, o ci allontana dallo scopo propostoci. Nel 1746. Passando per Pesti, vidi quelle ruine, che in appersso si sono ammirate da stranieri piacchè da nostril Letterati, come i più celebri monumenti dell’ antichità…’

[iii] Piranesi G B and Piranesi F, Différentes vues de Pesto…, Rome, 1778, Plate I

[iv] Ibid., Frontispiece

[v] Ibid., Plate XX

[vi]  Discovery by Robin Middleton with further research by Eileen Harris. See endnote 47 Wilton-Ely, J. and  Dorey, H, ed, 2013, op. cit.

[vii] Ibid., unpaginated

[viii] Barthes, R., Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography , Howard, R., trans., Flamingo: London, 1984, p. 31

[ix] However, details of this encounter are sketchy

[x] Sir John Soane, Royal Academy Lecture III, reprinted in: Sir John Soane: The Royal Academy Lectures, Watkin, D., ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000,  p. 86

[xi] Sir John Soane, Royal Academy Lecture VIII, reprinted in: Ibid., p. 191. With regard to Piranesi’s supposed lack of understanding of Greek architecture, Soane does not seem to acknowledge that Piranesi visited Paestum in person. He states, in Lecture XI of his series given at the Royal Academy, that: ‘It should be remembered , however, in extenuation of the architectural blasphemy of Piranesi, that he quotes not from the accurate and laborious representations of Stuart and Revet t, who measured those proud remains of ancient glory to the thousandth part of an inch, but chiefly from the loose and imperfect representations of Le Roi [sic], who visited Greece more as an historian, than as an architect.’ Lecture XI was given in 1815 and the drawings of Paestum enter the collection only in 1817. It is not known when Soane acquired his own copy of Différentes vues de Pesto…. However, it seems unlikely that, visiting Piranesi at some point in 1778, he was not made aware of the older architect and engraver’s latest (and as it turned out last) project. Soane’s first visit to Paestum occurred some three months after Piranesi’s death on 9 November 1778

[xii] John Soan (later Sir John Soane), Italian Sketches 1779, SM Vol. 39, 31 recto, Sir John Soane’s Museum

[xiii] The most notable example of Soane’s use of the Greek Doric order can be seen in his executed Barn à la Paestum, Malvern Hall, Warwickshire, 1798, where the distinctive form of the columns of the temples are replicated in brick

[xiv] For a discussion of the relationship between death and Soane’s architecture see: Summerson, J., ‘Sir John Soane and the Furniture of Death,’ in Summerson, J., The Unromantic Castle and other Essays, Thames and Hudson: London, 1990, pp. 121-42, and: Soane and Death: The Tombs and Monuments of Sir John Soane, exh. Cat., Waterfield, G., ed., Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, 1996

[xv] The sarcophagus of Sir Francis Bourgeois occupies the central position, flanked by the sarcophagi of Desenfans and his wife Margaret

[xvi] See: Waterfield, G., 1996, op. cit., p. 43

[xvii] Wilton-Ely, J., 2013, op. cit., unpaginated

Curator Bio

Dr Jerzy J Kierkuc-Bielinski studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art from 1996-2005 completing his BA, MA and PhD there. He has worked at The Holburne Museum of Art, Bath, where he was Acting Curator,  the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum and, since 2007, he is the Exhibitions Curator at Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. His publications include:

The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock, 2008 (with Stephen Coppel)
George Scharf: From the Regency Street to the Modern Metropolis, 2009
Stadia: Sport and Vision in Architecture, 2012

He is currently working on an exhibition of Piranesi’s last drawings entitled Piranesi’s Paestum: Master Drawings Uncovered which, after opening at the Soane in 2013 will travel to the Museum für Architekturzeichnung, Berlin and the Morgan Library and Museum, New York.