The Digital Piranesi

Plate X

Despite the gloominess of the Carceri series, Piranesi represented explicit torture scenes only in this plate and in plate II. Here, the artist shows us a platform on which a group of five human figures are tied to a pole in distressed poses. In this unusual scene, Piranesi represented a torment method called veglia, or enforced wakefulness. With legs and hands tied, the victim was seated in precarious balance on a tall pointed stool and remained in this position for hours before collapsing and getting likely severely injured. Three men are already fallen while two other figures check on them.

The iconography present in the Carceri portrays the actual elements in contemporary penitentiary environments, including torture devices. Prison scenes were a common and popular theme in the eighteenth century. Many are the artists that had worked with the subject, which includes important influential artists on Piranesi’s career such as Filippo Juvarra (1678 – 1736), Ferdinando Bibiena (1656 – 1743), and Luigi Vanvitelli, among others. Largely influenced by theater and stage design, the counterparts of Piranesi’s prisons show very similar iconographical features and spatial configurations, albeit much less complex than those of Piranesi. Communal large spaces instead of cells were frequent, as well as metal rings, ropes, pulleys, and lamps.

Similarly, Piranesi depicted common eighteenth-century methods of torture in the Carceri. Besides the veglia described above, Piranesi unambiguously represented the corda in plate II. He also suggested the antenna, a sort of cage for solitary confinement, in many plates. The wheels that Piranesi depicted throughout the Carceri, either whole or in fragments, allude to the Catherine Wheel, used for capital punishment to bludgeon victims to death or, as a torture device, to break their bones. Other physical torture devices that suggestively appear in Piranesi’s imaginary prisons are the vergine di ferro (iron maidens), ambiguously depicted as tall bollards, as seen in plates IV, VI, XIIXIII, and XVI. Likewise, spikes or fragments of spiky objects suggest the schiacciamani (hand-squeezers) or comparable torment tools.

Piranesi also explored disorientation and stagnation as powerful psychological torture methods in the Imaginary Prisons. The former has its main trigger in the endless and labyrinthine spatial configuration. The majority of the human figures that Piranesi depicted clearly are lost and unable to find an escape. If, by definition, bridges and stairs are elements of connection that imply movement, in the Carceri they are rendered as obstacles. Blocked and leading nowhere, the bridges and stairs acted just like prisons.

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