Romanticism, like neoclassicism, began as a reaction to the frivolity and insincerity of the rococo style. But
unlike neoclassicism, romanticism was wild, passionate, imaginative, and strange. It celebrated freedom
and individuality, not loyalty to a higher authority. Romanticism should not be confused with our more
common use of the word romantic. There are hardly any signs of sweetness, hearts, or flowers in romantic
paintings. When lovers are portrayed, they are swooning in passion or dying of heartbreak.
Even passionate love is not the most common emotion the romantics expressed; more often, the great
romantic painters expressed outrage at political events, awe in the face of uncontrollable natural forces, or
terror when confronting nightmares and insanity. Many works were inspired by literature, especially tales
about distant times or exotic places. There is a strong element of escapism in romanticism, which in itself
can be seen as a reaction to continuing disillusionment with politics and war and a response to the
industrialization that was transforming society in the early nineteenth century. Many romantic painters
used turbulent compositions, rapid brushwork, and brilliant colors to give form to their intense emotions.
One of the romantic era’s legacies that is still with us today is the stereotype of the artist as an eccentric
genius. Romantic artists were unconventional, and they valued feeling more than rationality. They believed
that the inspired artist need not be bound by any rules of society or the art of the past. Although these
ideas can be traced back to the time of Michelangelo and even earlier, it was the cult of genius, which
developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, that still shapes how we think of artists
Romanticism was an international phenomenon that sprang up wherever creative people asserted their
individuality and inner feelings as the most important subjects of art. Thus, the romantic works produced
in the eighteenth century show a variety of individual styles.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an Italian artist who
worked in the middle of the eighteenth century and
who showed how close romanticism could be to
neoclassicism. Piranesi thought of himself as an
architect, although his buildings only exist in his
etchings. Many of his prints depict Roman ruins, so
it may seem that he fits better in the neoclassicist
category. But Piranesi often emphasized the decay
of the ruins—weeds grow in the walls and
shepherds lead their flocks through the once-great
forums of ancient Rome. Other etchings are purely
imaginative. The most famous of these is his series of prisons, known by its Italian name, Carceri. The
prisons are dark, nightmarish places filled with chains, torture chambers, and bridges that seem to go
Take a look at this video that animates one of Piranesi’s Prisons. No information, but it gets across
the mood of the Carceri well.
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