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  • Writer's pictureBen Samuel

Imaginary Prisons by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Le Carceri d'Invenzione)

Updated: Apr 10, 2022

An influential series of prints started in 1745 created by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 - 1778). 16 imaginary subterranean prisons with winding stairs strange architecture, partial ruins and esoteric machines and impossible geometries..

“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

Images here are from the revised Second Editions (1761)

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

"That night I couldn’t sleep. Toward sunrise I dreamed of an engraving in the style of Piranesi, one I’d never seen before or perhaps seen and forgotten—an engraving of a kind of labyrinth. It was a stone amphitheater with a border of cypresses but its walls stood taller than the tops of the trees. There were no doors or windows, but it was pierced by an infinite series of narrow vertical slits. I was using a magnifying glass to try to find the Minotaur. It was the monster of a monster; it looked less like a bull than like a buffalo, and its human body was lying on the ground. It seemed to be asleep, and dreaming—but dreaming of what, or of whom?" — There Are More Things by Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1986)

"In Piranesi's rarer prints, Interiors measurelessly strange, Where the distrustful thought may range Misgiving still--what mean the hints? Stairs upon stairs which dim ascend ⁠ In series from plunged Bastiles drear-- Pit under pit; long tier on tier Of shadowed galleries which impend Over cloisters, cloisters without end; The hight, the depth--the far, the near; ⁠ Ring-bolts to pillars in vaulted lanes, And dragging Rhadamanthine chains; These less of wizard influence lend Than some allusive chambers closed. Those wards of hush are not disposed In gibe of goblin fantasy-- Grimace unclean diablery: Thy wings, Imagination, span Ideal truth in fable's seat: The thing implied is one with man, His penetralia of retreat-- The heart, with labyrinths replete: In freaks of intimation see Paul's "mystery of iniquity:" Involved indeed, a blur of dream; As, awed by scruple and restricted In first design, or interdicted By fate and warnings as might seem; The inventor miraged all the maze, Obscured it with prudential haze; Nor less, if subject unto question, The egg left, egg of the suggestion. Dwell on those etchings in the night, Those touches bitten in the steel By aqua-fortis, till ye feel The Pauline text in gray of light; Turn hither then and read aright." - Clarel (1876) by Herman Melville (1819 – 1891)

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