Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons

Piranesi-Carceri d'invenzione (Imaginary Prisons)-1745-1761
Piranesi-Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons)-Title Plate-1745-1761

In the mid-eighteenth century, the would be Venetian architect, etcher of Roman views and manufacturer  of hybrid artefacts, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, produced a remarkable series of prints entitled Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons). The Imaginary Prisons can be classed as capricci, architectural fantasies, however these astounding visions would have an impact far beyond the narrow limits of this particular genre.

The first plate of fourteen prints was published between 1745-1750 and later revised with two additional etchings in 1761. It’s most obvious and immediate influence was upon the craze for the Gothic novel that swept throughout Europe in the late 18th Century. The Prisons would also exercise a considerable hold upon the imagination of the English Romantics. Not only do we find the two original gentleman junkies, Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Coleridge, discussing Piranesi at length in De Quincey’s classic autobiography and drug memoir, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, but De Quincey’s entire writing style can be seen as an attempt to replicate Piranesi within literature. Critics have found echoes of the Prisons in the works of Byron, Shelley and Victor Hugo.

In the 20th Century, the Surrealists saw in the Imaginary Prisons a visual metaphor of the mind and hailed them as an important precursor of their own explorations of the unconscious. Aldous Huxley linked Piranesi to Kafka and certainly such stories as In the Penal Colony seem to be set in the world of the Prisons.

In the visual arts Piranesi direct heir was M.C Escher, complete with paradoxical geometry and labyrinthine structures that offer a vertiginous glimpse of an infinity that may well also be infernal. For the most terrifying aspect of Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons, is the suggestion, re-enforced by the fact that we are only seeing a section of the whole and that the buildings are never fully enclosed, that the portrayed Prison is conterminous with the world, or indeed the universe.

Piranesi-Carceri II-The Man on the Rack 11745-1761
Piranesi-Carceri II-The Man on the Rack 11745-1761
Piranesi-Carceri III-The Round Tower
Piranesi-Carceri III-The Round Tower-Second Plate 1761
Piranesi_-Carceri IV-the Grand Piazza 1761
Piranesi_-Carceri IV-the Grand Piazza 1761
Piranesi-Carceri V-the Lion Bas Relief-1750
Piranesi-Carceri V-the Lion Bas Relief–First Plate-1745-1750
Piranesi-Carceri VI-The Smoking Fire-1761
Piranesi-Carceri VI-The Smoking Fire-1761
Piranesi-Carceri VII-The Drawbridge-1745-1750
Piranesi-Carceri VII-The Drawbridge-1745-1750
Piranesi-Carceri VIII-The Staircase with Trophies-1761
Piranesi-Carceri VIII-The Staircase with Trophies-1761
Piranesi-Carcerri IX-the Giant Wheel-1750
Piranesi-Carcerri IX-the Giant Wheel-1750
Piranesi-Carceri-X Prisoners_on_a_Projecting_Platform-1761
Piranesi-Carceri-X Prisoners-on-a-Projecting-Platform-1761
Piranesi-Carceri XI-The Arch With the Shell Casement
Piranesi-Carceri XI-The Arch With the Shell Casement
Piranesi-Carceri XII-The Sawhorse
Piranesi-Carceri XII-The Sawhorse
Piranesi-Carceri XIII-the Well
Piranesi-Carceri XIII-the Well
Piranesi-Carceri XIV-the Gothic Arch
Piranesi-Carceri XIV-the Gothic Arch
Piranesi- Carceri XV-the Pier with the Lamp
Piranesi- Carceri XV-the Pier with the Lamp
Piranesi- Carceri XVI-the Pier With Chains
Piranesi- Carceri XVI-the Pier With Chains

 

 

 

 

 

 

38 thoughts on “Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons

  1. Mr. Cake, Piranesi’s, “Imaginary Prisons” are amazing prints. They’re so dark and dense, having an underworld feel about them. Only seeing a section of the whole is unsettling, leading to the idea of the structures being enormous. Most of the prints give the illusion of a pit, the focus is looking up from the bottom. Where are the Orcs? Interesting, I can see the connection to M.C Escher. This would be an exquisite set of prints to own. Wonderful post, Mr. Cake. ~ Miss Cranes

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Miss Cranes, they are indeed amazing prints. Both vertiginous and oppressive with an expression of incomprehensible vastness. Poe was also a big fan as can be seen by The Pit and the Pendulum. They are certainly Kafkaesque as well. As to the orcs, well they would still be dwarfed by the masses of stone that renders the human figure so inconsequential. Would be fabulous to own. Thank you as always Miss Cranes.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. These are quite stunning – and thank you, as this is an artist with whom I was unfamiliar. I can certainly see the comparison with Escher, and appreciate the influence this work would gave had on the Romantic, Gothic and Surrealist movements.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad you approve Chris, they are, as you said, quite stunning. Apart for Goya’s capricci there is nothing like them in 18th Century art, which was too busy being optimistic and enlightened to be concerned with the darkness contained within the human mind, hence their importance to all the counter-enlightenment movements.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. These really are incredible. Imagining structures of that size.- especially a prison in which even if one might be able to free himself by some means, he would never find the way out. Though the plates are dark, light is used to great effect. In each of the images, whether bright or filtered, look at the light pouring in from somewhere above. Wonderful!

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      1. I am really glad you did. I find this sort of thing very compelling. I can see why other artists were influenced by Piranesi. There are hundreds of stories lurking within those massive walls

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I find it very amazing how Piranesi influenced and inspired so many artists, writers, thinkers. One can as well see where he got his inspirations from, I think about crooked parts of ancient cities with their intricate architecture that surely already existed at his time. Mankind will always take others ideas in and process it. It shall be slightly reminiscent to something we know because this is how we relate and work on it as well. Like a parabolic mirror, catching the essence of an idea over and over again. But at the same time every person is unique and so the output will be unique as well. Thanks for sharing as always. Really could write an artbook…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much Sue…yes the twists and turns that art can take when it is released into the world, people learn from it, absorb it and produce their own take which in turn other people absorb. Thank you for your excellent comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons are enchanting.

    I thought of them as being Borgesian (https://quiverquotes.com/2017/09/29/describing-the-ineffable/), but more interestingly, did you manage to nail the architectural paradoxes? Escher made it much easier to see “what’s wrong”. Concretely, do you see the impossibility in Plate XIV?

    If not, and you care to know what it is, Bruno Ernst has a lovely series on impossible geometrical figures, and Part 6 has the relevant brief, but lucid visualisation of what’s impossible in Plate XIV (you need to either scroll down the following page, or search the page for “Piranesi”):

    http://im-possible.info/english/articles/the-eye-beguiled/6-origins-and-history.html

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Quotes for the links provided which are very informative. You are quite right about Borges, and I am kicking myself for not mentioning it in my post. I was aware of the contradictory stairs but Ernst’s article explains it so much more lucidly than I ever could. Hope you enjoyed seeing the whole series in one place.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Glad to! (Made me feel good that I could “add” a detail to your article :P)

        Speaking of which: Fine article, as always!

        Plus, yes, the whole series is nice, though it’s hard to process them all at once. I like enlarging one (did this recently) and just staring at it for a while—visually and imaginatively…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I am trying to hunt down the Dover edition from 73 (I think) that contains both first and second prints. They are wonderful and it is good to lose yourself in these vast structures, plus they really lend themselves to flights of imagination. You certainly added great further information and detail, thanks again.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. How bit are the prints though? I believe the best I’d found at one point were on a Princeton website where you could enlarge them about as big as was useful, although of course that’s not entirely helpful since I’m limited by physical screen size…

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I haven’t seen it yet, however Dover editions in the seventies are excellent… I have Une Semaine Boite by Max Ernst and the proto-Dadaist novel What A Life in Dover editions and they are very good.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I haven’t as yet, I do take a rather scattershot approach but it all comes together and connects in a weird kind of way in the end (at least I hope it does).

        Like

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