From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The engravings show enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and mighty machines which have been influential in Romanticism and Surrealism. While the Vedutisti (or "view makers") such as Canaletto and Bellotto, more often reveled in the beauty of the sunlit place, in Piranesi this vision takes on a Kafkaesque, Escher-like distortion, seemingly erecting fantastic labyrinthian structures, epic in volume, but empty of purpose. They are cappricci -whimsical aggregates of monumental architecture and ruin.
The first state prints were published in 1745 and consisted of 14 etchings. The original prints were 16” x 21”. For the second publishing in 1761, all the etchings were reworked and numbered I - XVI (1-16). Numbers II and V were new etchings to the series. Numbers I through IX were all done in portrait format (taller than they are wide), while X to XVI were landscape (wider than they are high).
The titles are:
- I - Title Plate
- II - The Man on the Rack
- III - The Round Tower
- IV - The Grand Piazza
- V - The Lion Bas-Reliefs
- VI - The Smoking Fire
- VII - The Drawbridge
- VIII - The Staircase with Trophies
- IX - The Giant Wheel
- X - Prisoners on a Projecting Platform
- XI - The Arch with a Shell Ornament
- XII - The Sawhorse
- XIII - The Well
- XIV - The Gothic Arch
- XV - The Pier with a Lamp
- XVI - The Pier with Chains
- "Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi's Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist ... which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever: some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr. Coleridge's account) representing vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, etc., etc., expressive of enormous power put forth, and resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls, you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further, and you perceive it come to a sudden abrupt termination, without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who had reached the extremity, except into the depths below. ... But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher: on which again Piranesi is perceived, but this time standing on the very brink of the abyss. Again elevate your eye, and a still more aerial flight of stairs is beheld: and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labors: and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall. ...
An in-depth analysis of Piranesi's "Carceri" was written by Marguerite Yourcenar in her Dark Brain of Piranesi (1979). Further discussion of Piranesi and the "Carceri" can be found in The Mind and Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi by John Wilton-Ely (1978). The style of Piranesi was imitated by 20th-century forger Eric Hebborn.