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  Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Vedute di Roma
1- 2 - 3 - 4

The Prisons
5 - 6
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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The Prisons (Carceri)
 
 
 

The Prisons (Carceri)

The Prisons (Carceri d'invenzione or 'Imaginary Prisons'), is a series of 16 prints produced in first and second states that show enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and mighty machines.
These in turn influenced 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, what from our perspective could be called a Kafkaesque, Escher-like distortion, seemingly erecting fantastic labyrinthian structures, epic in volume. They are capricci, whimsical aggregates of monumental architecture and ruin.
The series was started in 1745. The first state prints were published in 1750 and consisted of 14 etchings, untitled and unnumbered, with a sketch-like look. 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). Though untitled, their conventional 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

Thomas De Quincey in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1820) wrote the following:

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.

An in-depth analysis of Piranesi's Carceri was written by Marguerite Yourcenar in her Dark Brain of Piranesi: and Other Essays (1984). 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.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
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