Ceremonial Gondola


Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Design for a ceremonial gondola, 1745–47
Pen and brown ink and wash, over black chalk
The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Junius S. Morgan and the Gift of Henry S. Morgan; 1966.11:10


For rare and special ceremonies such as the visit of a prince, Venetians produced designs for gondolas and other boats and barges that would be covered with elaborate temporary ornaments. There is no evidence, however, that such a ceremony occurred during Piranesi’s return to Venice in the mid-1740s. Instead, when Piranesi spent time in the studio of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, the leading Venetian artist of the day, he likely encountered drawings for earlier ceremonial watercraft and was thus inspired to make this exuberant study of his own. The proliferation of ornament is staggering: we see heroic nudes, shells, satyrs, an eagle, crowns, and medallions, with a dragon at the stern and a shining sun at the prow, all set amid complex rococo curls. It is difficult to imagine that such a boat could ever exist. Never one to let an imaginative drawing go to waste, however, Piranesi would find other opportunities to repurpose the inventions on this sheet. The decorative motifs would reappear in his later Grotteschi series of etchings, while the center of the gondola would be turned into an elegant coach in his etched view of the Vatican. Look for these, later in the exhibition.