Imaginary Prisons  

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"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.---Thomas De Quincey in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1820)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Prisons (Carceri d'invenzione or 'Imaginary Prisons'), is a series of 16 prints by Italian engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi first published in 1745.

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).

List of plates

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

Reception

Thomas De Quincey in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1820) wrote on the Carceri (above).

The 1949 English-language edition of the ‘Carceri’ comes with a 16-page essay by Aldous Huxley and a critical study by Jean Adhemar. It was first published in London by Trianon Press in 1949.

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.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Imaginary Prisons" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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