Exhibition Review – Diverse Maniere: Piranesi, Fantasy and Excess, at the Soane Museum

22 March, 2014

I recently visited the quirky Soane Museum and their latest exhibition on the graphic art of Piranesi, with matching 3D printed and cast objets d’art. I was rewarded with a demonstration of 3D printing for manufacturing like I’ve never seen before.

Piranesi engravings

CAD Manufacturing In a Georgian Era House?

When I first heard about this exhibition, listed by many different 3D printing and CAD websites and newspaper reviews as “The manufacturing of impossible ancient objects through CAD/CAM and 3D printing“, I was a bit baffled. Why on earth show these things at a Georgian museum of antiquities?

For those of you who have never heard of the Soane Museum, the British architect and collector of antiquities Sir John Soane RA had filled all the floors of his house with a wonderful and mad collection of classical and neo-classical stone work, and was always keenly interested in education. During his lifetime, he would encourage students to visit and paint images of the work in his collection, (or even paint images of the walls of his house themselves stacked tall with ancient world artefacts). Shortly before he died, his house was turned into a museum, and what a strange little museum it is!

When I arrived, I didn’t expected a free museum to have as long a queue out the door as it had. Nor did I expect the airport-style security check at the front door. Evidently word has gotten out. Fortunately, neither of these lasted very long. Once we were inside, we were greeted by a classical Georgian house full to the brim with the quirky affluent eccentricities you would have expected to find in the house of one of the Georgian age’s creative heroes.

Inside there were walls and ceilings full of books in several languages, paintings, frescoes, a folding room of paintings and ink drawings, a room filled with cork models of famous Roman and Greek ruins, and a lower level crypt full of stonework from all over the ancient world.

And of course within the rooms were the many illustrations of one Giovanni Battista Piranesi. In fact, it is one of the largest collections of the Italian graphic artist’s work anywhere.


In the context of the rest of the collection, it makes sense to find so many of Piranesi’s images of ancient antiquities, as it seemed both he and Soane shared this common interest. Seeing the graphic images of ancient antiquities next to actual antiquities, the reason to place these particular 3D printed objects here also begins to make sense.


How This Exhibition Came To Be

For this particular exhibition, the Spanish 3D product design collective Factum Arte have taken several of Piranesi’s most fantastical drawings of antiquities and, with the help of Zbrush, the 3D printers of i.materialise, and a Spanish casting foundry, have made real replicas out of bronze, silver, wood resin, or plaster. Considering that so many of these designs were very much impossible to make via any other means (due to the limitations of the traditional sculpting and casting tools available at the time, and Piranesi’s own compulsive habit of “improving upon history” with countless little delicate elaborations), the results are nothing short of unearthly.


Having seen so many exhibitions showcasing 3D printing as “the tool of the future”, the choice of setting for these objects made for a wonderful disorienting change. Every object seemed perfectly at home here, seamlessly blended in with the ancient treasures stacked deep throughout all the little corners of the house.

All Too Hidden Treasures

Ironically, the objects blended just a bit too well into the background of the place. Even with placards near each 3D printed piece, and a detailed display showing how the manufacturing process worked for the pieces, many of the pieces were all too easy to miss. If I didn’t have the exhibition book with me, I likely would have missed half of the 3D printed objects being exhibited!

It wasn’t just a problem with the jumbled and heavily stacked nature of the place either. Even during the daytime, the weak lighting throughout the building made seeing details sometimes quite difficult (especially in the basement). The great atmosphere created by the natural lighting went some way towards making up for this, but perhaps they should consider handing out hand torches to those of us without great dark vision.


Overall, this makes for a refreshingly different type of 3D printing exhibition, and offers the first genuine demonstration I’ve seen in a long time of how CAD/CAM and silversmithing can work together well, in such a way that would be impossible via any other method of making.

I would definitely recommend this exhibition to anyone interested in CAD-based sculpture or silversmithing. Just buy the exhibition guide and bring it with you when you go through.

On until 31 May 2014, Free Admission. Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A  3BP. For more information visit www.soane.org.


Jack Meyer

Bespoke jewellery designer, and specialist in jewellery CAD/CAM and emergent technologies that affect jewellery.

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