DURING the 18th century, a visit to Rome was considered essential for the education of any serious artist. Not only was that where many of the greatest ancient architectural and sculptural masterpieces could be found; it was where the art of the Renaissance and Baroque could best be studied in all its glory. And the city and its environs provided painters with spectacular scenery, often enlivened by picturesque ruins and crumbling statuary. Artists from all over Europe descended on Rome to study and record their impressions. Outstanding among them were the English neoclassical painter Robert Adam, France's Jean-Honor'e Fragonard, Hubert Robert, and Louis-Jean Desprez, and the Italians Giovanni Paolo Panini and Giovanni Battista Piranesi.
Piranesi (1720-78), a Venetian who moved permanently to Rome in 1745, made that city the heart and soul of his art. He translated his passion for the city's ruins and fanciful re-creations of ancient architecture into a succession of prints that flooded Europe like travel posters. Criticized by some for his ``poetic'' transformations of Roman views, he replied, ``These speaking ruins have filled my spirit with images that accurate drawings ... could never have succeeded in conveying.''
As a tribute to Rome's importance to 18th-century artists and to Piranesi, the Pierpont Morgan Library here has assembled a stunning display of their drawings and prints. ``Exploring Rome: Piranesi and His Contemporaries,'' includes 30 works on paper by Piranesi. Several volumes of his prints are also on display - unfortunately behind glass in locked cases. The show also includes exceptional works by Fragonard, Panini, Robert, Deprez, Adam, and a few others.
The first thing that strikes one looking at Piranesi's work is that he achieved total mastery of both linear and aerial perspective. Nothing could be more packed with energy and detail than his ``Architectural Fantasy,'' and yet everything is in its place and makes its appropriate contribution to the whole. Scale is even more impressive in the series of etchings many consider his greatest work. Known collectively as ``The Prisons,'' these large imaginary prison interiors present a fantastic and menacing world of murky shadows and cavernous spaces, dizzying stairs and ramps. They project such a sense of desolation and alienation that one can understand why this century's Surrealists practically adopted Piranesi as one of their own.
Much of the effectiveness of his prints derives from his extraordinary control of black and white. That is particularly apparent in the double-page impressions of Roman scenes and the title page of his ``Prisons'' series. Such deep, velvety blacks, crisp whites, and sensitively orchestrated grays (made up of thousands of tiny dots and lines) are seldom seen in even the greatest prints. For that alone, his etchings are a joy to study.
Just as important, he was a virtuoso with ink and wash. Several of his dazzling displays of draftsmanship in this medium are also on view here. Together with the more solidly rendered prints and drawings by Piranesi and his contemporaries, they make about as fascinating a black-and-white show as one is apt to find these days.
At the Pierpont Morgan Library, 29 East 36th Street, through Nov. 6.