Architectural drawings, cartoons and maps can make me go weak at the knees, even consume me with a deeply unhealthy desire to make the object my very own. Of the seven deadly sins the one that least plagues me is avarice, but put me in front of a Piranesi and I’ve probably got the complete set. Take me down and burn me now.
I first came across Piranesi on a teenage trip to Venice when I was an impoverished student; a guest of some inordinately rich and generous friends. ‘How lovely,’ I said when invited, ‘but I’m afraid I couldn’t possibly afford to take a holiday in Venice.’ ‘Father will pay,’ my friend said. And so we went. We stayed in reassuring luxury at The Gritti Palace Hotel and ‘Father’ took us to dinner at night, always to one of the great hotels and restaurants. There were never less than twenty to dinner. Mother, Father, four boys, each with a friend (moi) and other friends that we might have bumped into during the day or had arranged to meet in Venice. As you do. We dined at Da Ivo, Harry’s Bar and the Cipriani, culinary names to conjure with, and the rest. It was heavenly.
During the day we took ourselves off to do whatever took our fancy. My few undergraduate lira bought me a slice of pizza at lunchtime if not quite stretching to the gelati that I would have liked. Never mind, I’d think, just make it through to cocktails and all will be well. And it always was. We admired Canaletto by day and paid homage to Bellini at night. I rather liked Venice.
I feasted on Titian and Tintoretto, wondered at San Marco and the Piazza, imagined dark corners where Daphne du Maurier was inspired and paid my respects to the resting places of Ezra Pound and Stravinsky on the Isola di San Michele. Every day riches for the senses; every night riches for the palate.
But what made my heart stop one day was an ill-displayed piece in a small artisanal gallery. It wasn’t grand or baroque. It had no ornate gilt frame. It was a print. An architectural print. And it was for sale. By some fellow called Piranesi. I could have a bit of Venice of my own! In theory. Even if the scene was Roman – a small technicality to a foreigner – I was smitten.
And I still am. I love this print from the collection. I love it because it is of the Colosseum, because it’s by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, a man with an impossibly romantic number of vowels in his name and because I still can’t afford one of my own. But mostly cos it’s in black and white. I can’t explain it either.
When I checked out of the Gritti they gave me the bill. I explained, with a small confidential laugh, that my host was picking up the tab. ‘Father’ was called. Hushed, increasingly exasperated, conversations took place between the concierge, my friend and ‘Father’. Father was noticeably red in the face. I got the distinct impression that he and I had embarked on our holiday together with different assumptions. He paid the bill, in between flashing evil glances in my direction. I wanted to die.
I didn’t see the family again for some years. But it got worse when I did. Ask me to tell you when next we meet. I lost a delicious friendship. But gained another love.
Philip Aldridge is an actor and chief executive of the Court Theatre. He is chairman of BNZ in Canterbury and was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2012.