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.