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Yale Professor and Students Create Major Project for Architecture Biennale
Model created by Yale School of Architecture students for 2012 Architecture Biennale, Venice. Model manufactured by Materialise; gold leaf applied by Pasquale Bonfilio. Photo: Materialise.

VENICE.- This year's Venice Architecture Biennale includes a major project developed by architect and Yale School of Architecture Professor Peter Eisenman. Titled The Piranesi Variations, this multipart endeavor focuses on Giovanni Battista Piranesi's 1762 Campo Marzio dell'antica Roma, a folio of six etchings that depict his fantastical vision of what ancient Rome might have looked like, derived from years of archaeological and architectural research. Piranesi's images—precise, specific, yet impossible—have been a source of speculation, inspiration, research, and contention for architects, urban designers, and scholars since their publication 250 years ago.

Eisenman's The Piranesi Variations comprises three contemporary interpretations of the Campo Marzio drawings—by Eisenman Architects, in New York; architecture critic Jeffrey Kipnis, of The Ohio State University, Columbus; and architect Pier Vittorio Aureli, of DOGMA, in Belgium—and a historical and formal analysis by 12 Yale architecture students who were enrolled in a spring 2012 seminar on Piranesi taught by Mr. Eisenman and School of Architecture Critic Matt Roman (YSoA M.Arch '09). The project is on view in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini through November 25, 2012.

Piranesi and the Campo Marzio dell’antica Roma
Engraver, mapmaker, and architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), a native of Venice, spent much of his adult life in Rome, a city that captured his imagination and contributed to his most influential work. The etchings in the Campo Marzio dell’antica Roma—a time-bending, imaginary rendition of the ancient city—along with his additional studies of Roman ruins and remains, represent a landmark in the shift during the Enlightenment from a traditional antiquarian view of history to a scientific, archaeological one.

Indeed, for Piranesi, archaeological ruins were not part of history, but of a present that he could recombine and reconfigure, thereby turning the “truth” of mapmaking on its head. In the Campo Marzio etchings, for example, only the Pantheon remains at its original site, with other Roman landmarks relocated.

The Piranesi Variations
With access to a copy of Piranesi’s original folio, housed in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the students in Messrs. Eisenman and Roman’s seminar “reinvented” Piranesi’s Rome through three-dimensional digital modeling. Assisted by Yale School of Architecture Director of Exhibitions Brian Butterfield, and working with Materialise, a global leader in 3D printing and fabrication, and artist Pasquale Bonfilio, the students have created a highly detailed, gold-leafed, 3D-printed model at the scale of the original etching—the first of its kind. The students’ expansive study of Piranesi’s architectural inventions, titled “The Project of Campo Marzio,” will be displayed alongside the model.

The contemporary interpretations of the Campo Marzio created for this project also take the form of models, each of them 8 x 10 feet at its base—double the size of the folio. Each revisits Piranesi’s etchings, proposing answers to the inherent questions they raise about the relationship of architecture to ground, following the theme of “Common Ground,” established for the 2012 Biennale by its director, David Chipperfield.

For the model titled “A Field of Diagrams,” Eisenman Architects addressed the lack of diagrams in Piranesi’s drawings, producing a palimpsest of diagrams and, in so doing, creating a contemporary urban plan for Rome that covers the same territory as the Campo Marzio. Traces of Piranesi’s buildings are present in the model, like archaeological remnants, creating layers of time and embedded history.

Mr. Aureli’s model, “A Field of Walls,” derives from a reading of Piranesi’s Campo Marzio not as a group of horizontal, plan-based palimpsests, but rather of walls. The model includes 15 long, linear buildings, placed on a forty-five-degree angle to Piranesi’s orientation, following instead the orientation of the funerary complex that is the dominant figure in the original drawing.

Mr. Kipnis’ project, “A Field of Dreams,” is an allegory of architectural spectacle rather than a proposal for actual buildings. His model includes representations of heaven, earth, and hell. Fragments of Piranesi’s drawing, contemporary buildings, and even fog (made of acrylic straws) reanimate the etchings as a morality play for contemporary architecture.

Together, the four parts of The Piranesi Variations pose questions about the interpretations of Piranesi’s legacy, while also extending and enriching the debate over his eternally enigmatic portrayal of the Eternal City.

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