The Digital Piranesi

Plate XII

Our journey through Piranesi’s subterranean port-like structures continues in this plate. Here, we peek at the bottom of a waterless harbor, where two men attentively examine the ground. They seem to ignore the other mysterious elements in this plate, such as the scarily spiky bollards and fragments of trestles at the forefront. Most notably, the large cinerarium that sits on a pier remains completely unnoticed. Blurred on the sketchy darkened objects of the foreground, phantasmagorical forms suggest human silhouettes in an almost unrecognizable fashion. In spite of the mysterious nature of this illustration, we can feel a sense of discontinuity and loss. The cinerarium alone, with its position and scale within the composition, is enough to conjure up the idea of death.
The Carceri series and its outstanding amount of either hidden or explicit references to past and contemporary debates is an exemplar of how Piranesi used his works to express his convictions and persuade his public. The allegorical nature of the Imaginary Prisons is significantly connected to Piranesi’s membership in the prestigious society Accademia degli Arcadi. Founded in 1690, this academy was probably the most influential of the many literary societies in the passage of the seventeenth to the eighteenth century. The grandiose ambition of the Arcadia’s members went far beyond literary reforms. Besides freeing the literature from the Baroque style, the arcadi wanted a reform of society as a whole.

In the eighteenth century, the concepts of ethics, virtue, and truth were closely connected to taste, and, in this vein, the arcadi deeply engaged in their endeavor towards the improvement of society. By vehemently rejecting baroque excesses and using classicism as the source for ideal models, their aspirations were to promote wide-ranging ethical revisions. Their debates, thus, covered a broad scope of subjects, including mathematics, physics, and, especially influential for the Carceri, jurisprudence.

In the Arcadian academy’s meetings, law and taste were intertwined themes, and many of its members published books on the two subjects. Among them, the jurist, poet, classical scholar, and professor of Law at the Sapienza Gian Vincenzo Gravina (1664 – 1718), one of the founders of the Accademia degli Arcadi, had a substantial impact on Piranesi and, particularly, in the rationale behind the Imaginary Prisons. Gravina published a famous book on the history of civil law and also the influential Della Ragion poetica. Even though he had died before Piranesi was born, his legacy was remarkable. For instance, he contributed to the Carceri’s foundational idea that poetry (a concept that in the Arcadian context also encompasses art) should not only embody reality but, through images and allegories, serve educational purposes. Consequently, Gravina attributed to artists a prominent social and moral role in diffusing taste, calling artists to instill their works with ethical and moral principles. Furthermore, like Piranesi, he promoted classicism as a way of restoring the cultural decadence of his time.

Piranesi was accepted as a member of the prestigious academy circa 1744, approximately one year after the publication of his first book, Prima Parte di Architteture e Prospettive (1743). The election undoubtedly denoted an intellectual alignment between him and the academy, but it is important to highlight that Prima Parte had been his only publication up to his election. It is more than reasonable to assume that Piranesi directed his following works towards subjects of arcadian interest. His election must have had a huge impact on a young "outsider" artist struggling to establish himself in Rome. It was a way of making a name for himself while, at the same time, addressing the most prominent debates in Roman society. Piranesi’s most symbolic and allegorical forms came, therefore, in the following publications: the Grotteschi and the series of imaginary prisons that he appropriately named Invenzioni capric[ciose] di Carceri (capricious inventions of prisons).

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