The Digital Piranesi

Carceri d'Invenzione

Piranesi's Imaginary Prisons have fascinated, intrigued, and puzzled viewers for centuries. The series was first published between 1749-50 as Invenzione Capric[ciose] di Carceri as fourteen etchings measuring on average 550 x 410 mm (21.65 x 16.15 inches). Curiously, approximately ten years after its publication, Piranesi reworked the fourteen plates, added two completely new ones, and republished the work in 1761 as Carceri d'Invenzione. In Piranesi's Opere, the publisher Firmin Didot arranged the set of sixteen etchings in Volume 8, together with the work Archittetura e Prospettive.
Carceri d'Invenzione, with its intricate juxtaposition of planes, strongly appeal to our sensory and intellectual capacities through inventive spatial experimentations and bleak atmosphere. Piranesi created an immersive experience for two reasons: first, to evoke transformative feelings like fear, hopelessness, and desperation, and, second, to engage himself and his audience in a mainstream debate in the eighteenth century - taste. In a time when the cultural legacy from the classical past, especially from ancient Greeks and Romans, was profusely coming into light through excavations in sites like Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Paestum, just to name a few, a battle emerged between those who defended either Rome or Greece as a superior civilization. While philhellenes like Allan Ramsay (1682 - 1731), Julien-David Le Roy (1724 - 1803), and Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717 - 1768) were degrading ancient Rome's legacy and promoting Greece as the model to be emulated, Piranesi was a robust, not to say stubborn, defender of Rome as the pinnacle of Western civilization. In the Prisons, he wanted to prove not only that Rome was superior, but also that it had reached its peak in arts, architecture, engineering, literature, and law before any influence from Greece. The argument that, in its heyday, Rome was completely free from Greek influence and that, in fact, Greece had caused Rome's moral, artistic, and cultural degeneration is present throughout the sixteen plates.

Piranesi presents a narrative that begins with the emperors of the Julio Claudian dynasty in plate II and goes seven centuries back to the regal period in plate XVI. Using the history of ancient Rome to anchor his ideas, Piranesi also proposes an analogy between the historical facts he alludes to and political and cultural phenomena of his own time. The prisons are visual commentaries on Piranesi's contemporary architectural scene, patronage system, literary reforms, and even pivotal judicial developments promoted by figures as prominent as Cesare Beccaria (1738 - 1794). In the epicenter of these debates, Piranesi participated forcefully in all of them, fiercely rejecting the late Baroque still in force and the political regime that, according to Piranesi, this artistic style best represented,  Absolutism. As an alternative to the surviving barocchetto and the political and moral underpinnings associated with it, Piranesi advocated  for intellectual inventiveness grounded on the great example of ancient Rome. 

The plastic results that Piranesi achieved in these illustrations are a breathtaking example of his technical virtuosity. As an ambitious artist, Piranesi wanted his work - and ideas - spread out to the four corners of the world. He chose and excelled at the highly reproduceable medium of intaglio printing to reach his goals. No only can the plates be copied several times with the printmaking technique, but they can also be reworked, creating a new state. Being printed along numerous decades, the Imaginary Prisons can be found in many different states in collections around the world. Nonetheless, the two main states, showing the most dramatic changes, coincide with the editions of 1749 - 50 and 1761. Even though aquatint and etching, the two techniques Piranesi combined to create the illustrations, are multistep processes, the artist managed to produce the illustrations to look like quick and spontaneous drawings on a piece of paper. 

His linework is even looser in the second edition, reinforcing the sense of immediacy that Piranesi already had reached in the first states. But the most significant alterations from the first to the second edition are the inclusion of new references to ancient Roman history and the drastic change of the light effects, accentuating the chiaroscuro by darkening the tone of the shadows.

The sketchy linework of the Imaginary Prisons prompted a nineteenth-century interpretation of the illustrations as a manifestation of Piranesi's disturbed psyche. The Carceri were hugely influential for the Romantic movement and many scholars even categorized Piranesi, based particularly on this series, as a forerunner of Romanticism. A dominant Romantic interpretation read the illustrations as an expression of the artist's internal conflicts, a liberation of his unconscious in an explosion of furious creativity. This interpretation is as fascinatingly alluring as a good novel and became very popular after a reference to the Imaginary Prisons in Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater. The Carceri deeply impacted authors such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832), Victor Hugo (1802 - 1885), and Charles Baudelaire (1821 - 1867), just to name a few. 

Nonetheless, as the essays and annotations in the following pages will seek to prove, the Prisons are legible images in tandem with other works by Piranesi. The historical references and the iconographic features the artist depicts provide us with clues that, combined with his writings in the more traditional scholarly works, can be identified and interpreted.

The fact is that, in contrast to the precision that characterizes Piranesi's most famous works, like his Antichittà Romane or Vedute di Roma, Piranesi deliberately pursues ambiguity and haziness in Carceri d'Invenzione. To begin with the title, literally translated as "Prisons of Imagination," Piranesi left us wondering what the illustrations are really about: are they representations of invented scenarios, or are they scenarios that imprison the imagination? Are the tiny human figures depicted throughout the plates finding their way out of the gloomy agony or are they becoming more and more entrapped in the labyrinthine succession of corridors, staircases, and archways? Are the spaces infinite or confining? Do bridges and stairs connect or divide? Should we interpret the many trophies as emblems of victory or markers of downfall?

Piranesi destabilizes dualism by inverting the meaning of binary concepts, be them related to space, time, or normative assumptions on varied subjects that encompass history, art, law, morals, and so on. For instance, Piranesi subverted the distinction between interior and exterior, creating open-ended interiors confined in claustrophobic exteriors. The elaborate spatiality and the inventiveness of the architecture are remarkable. Piranesi created flights of stair that do not lead anywhere and successive empty vast spaces that intercept each other, linked or separated by light, shadow, and fumes. Every object is potentially a torture instrument: chains, spikes, lanterns, bollards, beams, pulleys, winches... Even the lonesome vastness is desolating. We can almost hear the murmurs, groans, and cracking sounds echoing on the cold stone surfaces. With these scenarios, so stimulating to our senses, Piranesi raised questions about permanence, history, and imagination. Certainty is not allowed to the Imaginary Prisons' beholders. 

In spite of the unviability of the architecture and the bleak atmosphere of the prisons, we can't possibly refuse Piranesi's invitation to get closer, to explore each single shape that dissolves in the blurred vastness, to plunge into the dark subterranean and challenge our own boundaries of understanding. By calling us to embrace unpredictability in exchange for comfort, the Imaginary Prisons pose an array of exciting possibilities and new meanings. They also daunt us with countless questions, defying us to unveil the rationale concealed in their mysterious forms. 

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