“I need to produce great ideas, and I believe that if I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would be mad enough to undertake it.”
—Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Mogliano Veneto 1720 – 1778 Rome)
Giovanni Battista Piranesi and the Carceri d’Invenzione
Giovanni Battista Piranesi arrived in Rome in 1740 at the age of twenty as a draftsman in the entourage of the Venetian ambassador to Pope Benedict XIV. Trained as an architect and with experience designing theatrical backdrops, we know from his own account that he was motivated by a desire to “learn from those august relics which still remain of ancient Roman majesty and magnificence, the most perfect there is of Architecture.” At the time, recent archaeological excavations in Italy were fueling a feverish interest in Rome’s antiquity, and the city was the primary destination of those travelling on the Grand Tour. Like other visitors, Piranesi was thoroughly seduced by his environment and became a lifelong champion of Rome’s art and architecture.
Upon his arrival, Piranesi focused his attention on the printmaking business in the hopes of finding employment. After a brief and unhappy internship with Rome’s then-preeminent etcher, Giuseppe Vasi (1710 – 82), Piranesi began producing his own views of the city, or vedute, which were popular with tourists wishing to return home with a souvenir of Rome’s antiquity. Piranesi developed the veduta as an interpretive instrument in his archaeological study of Rome’s ruins, ultimately producing more than one thousand distinct etchings.
While today, Piranesi is remembered as a graphic artist, it should not be forgotten that he was, as well, an architect, furniture designer, dealer in classical antiquities, historian, and importantly, among the very first architectural preservationists. Without Piranesi, and the eloquent argument of his etchings testifying to the importance of the city’s ancient ruins, Rome would now be a very different, much diminished place.
In 1749–50, Piranesi produced a series of fourteen etchings that focused exclusively on the enclosed interiors of prisons. Unlike many of his later vedute produced with specific appeal to the Grand Tourist, these dark and foreboding scenes are the fullest expressions of Piranesi’s vivid and macabre imagination. The fantastic perspectives bear no resemblance to the cramped spaces of Rome’s prisons at that time. Perhaps owing to his training in theatrical design, these views appear more as grand and menacing stage sets. Vast and cavernous, with lofty arches rising to imperceptible heights, they simultaneously evoke limitless space and claustrophobic oppression. Piranesi returned to this series again and again, reworking the existing plates and adding two more to produce a second edition of sixteen darker and more detailed etchings in 1760, retitled Carceri d’Invenzione—imaginary prisons. They feature additional bridges, platforms, and a variety of elements—ropes, wheels, spikes, and hooks—that make the prison look like one hellish mechanism.
Piranesi’s technique was highly original, relying on the rapid sketch rather than the finished drawing. His pictorial approach defied the conventional linear approach to the medium, earning the scorn of Vasi, who dismissed the newcomer as too much of a painter to ever become an etcher. But contemporaries admired the freshness of Piranesi’s compositions, praising his draftsmanship and his powers of improvisation on the plate itself. Piranesi’s hand-drawn effect resulted from first etching with a stylus on waxed copper plates, and then burnishing away sharper lines while the plate was set in an acid bath. This series displays the artist’s remarkable ability to convey light penetrating from above, with darkening shadows falling upon vaulted walls that recede in the distance.
Piranesi’s carceri reflect his fascination with and understanding of the subterranean world in and around his adopted city—the buried cisterns of Castel Gandolfo, the underground vaults of Hadrian’s Villa, and the catacombs along the Appian Way. While he unites and grounds his interiors with a real architectural vocabulary, he purposely employs disorientating invention. Piranesi freely rearranges planes to suit his compositions—cables from pulleys draw improbable lines (Plate VI: The Smoking Fire); a circular opening is inexplicably placed over a grilled doorway to an open space (Plate IX: The Giant Wheel); and beams intersect interior walls with no clear structural function (Plate XIV: The Gothic Arch). As with Piranesi’s exterior views of Rome’s ruins, the scale of his imagined interiors is exaggerated by diminutive figures occupying stairwells and platforms, apparently free to move about, but clearly trapped within an overbearing architecture.
These images resonated with successive generations of viewers and their impact is widespread and lasting. The unnerving terror and awe they convey inspired work by the Romanticists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including, quite directly, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1842). The dystopian vision of Piranesi’s vast interiors is evident in the underground city of filmmaker Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and echoes in the paintings of early 20th century Surrealists. And one can hardly imagine the trick perspectives rendered by M. C. Escher (1898–1972) without the precursor of Piranesi’s impossible arrangements of stairwells. Just as the artist’s vedute of Rome’s ancient architecture continue to inform our perspective of the Eternal City, so too do these prisons of his invention remain with us—an imagined universe that has become real in our collective subconscious.