Piranesi year is over. His drawings and etchings have returned to their solander boxes in the print rooms of Europe and America, his great bound folios have been put back in place and—presumably—additional shelving has been set up to support the weight of the avalanche of recent publications devoted to him. Specialist students all over the world seem to have taken the opportunity to expound their diverse theories, and to promise such further productions as complete catalogues raisonnés of his prints and drawings. His current popularity is, nonetheless, difficult to explain. He was a masterly draftsman and etcher but hardly to be compared artistically—though some enthusiasts do compare him—with Tiepolo and Canaletto, let alone Rembrandt and Goya. The vast majority of his etchings, and those on which his fame in his own day was founded, are of Roman Imperial architecture which does not at present arouse much admiration from either scholars or the general public. His works of architectural theory were too confused and eccentric to have ever had much influence. As an archaeologist he was more imaginative than scientific. And although he styled himself an architect, his “practice” was limited to refurbishing a single, quite small building, Santa Maria del Priorato in Rome, which cannot be described as a masterpiece.

He has, however, held a peculiar fascination for writers ever since the eighteenth century. To describe his fantasies became an exercise in literary skill, one undertaken by Horace Walpole, Thomas De Quincey, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset (who cheated by translating De Quincey), Théophile Gautier, Herman Melville, and in our own time Aldous Huxley, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Piranesi is very much a writer’s artist. This may indicate something of his essential quality. And it partly accounts for the flood of art historical writing devoted to him in the past thirty years. He must now be among the most written-about of all eighteenth-century artists, Watteau, Boucher, Tiepolo, and such architects as Juvarra and Vanvitelli lagging far behind.

Despite fierce competition for loans, four exhibitions were held to mark the two hundredth anniversary of Piranesi’s death (November 9, 1778). The one organized by John Wilton-Ely for the British Arts Council and shown at the Hayward Gallery in London was the most ambitious. Here an attempt was made to set Piranesi in the context of his time. Some of his earliest drawings, done in his native Venice, were shown in the company of works by Canaletto, Tiepolo, and Francesco Guardi and designs for theatrical scenery by Filippo Juvarra and Giuseppe Galli-Bibiena. We were thus able to see him emerging out of his Venetian and Roman background.

One of Panini’s characteristic paintings of ruins, sharply lit and neatly gathered together, illustrated the cor ventional early eighteenth-century view of the marvels of ancient Rome which Piranesi was to transform by the prints he etched after settling there in 1745. His drawings of the 1740s and 1750s were displayed alongside those of some of the young architects of the French Academy whom he knew, and of Robert Adam with whom he struck up a friendship in 1755. There were various drawings of prison scenes for comparison with his more famous Carceri etchings, one or two experiments in the Egyptian style to set beside his in the same vein. It is a pity that this comparative material could not be illustrated in the catalogue for it was very intelligently selected, and demonstrated both the similarities and the very vital differences between Piranesi and his contemporaries.

An exhibition in the new East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington was devoted mainly to etchings (with a few drawings) of imaginary architecture made by Piranesi between 1743 and 1751 though subsequently revised. Great emphasis was laid on the revisions, all quite apparent from impressions made from the same copper plate at different times. To most people who are not print collectors the study of such “states” may seem no more than a kind of higher philately, and so it all too often is. But the ways in which an artist alters his work, whether to improve it or simply to repair damage, may have some further significance for us.

And Piranesi’s Carceri, which became ever darker and more overwhelmingly oppressive the more he revised and reworked them, are perhaps the most revealing of all instances of this. They allow us rare insights into the creative process. Piranesi reworked and adjusted his etchings mainly in order to gain cogency, to make the constructions they depict more logical so that the great flights of stairs, for example, visibly connect with each other: yet the pictorial space seems paradoxically to become more disturbingly hallucinatory the more clearly and precisely it is defined. In the introduction to the “guide” to the Washington exhibition both its organizer, Andrew Robison, and the director of the National Gallery, J. Carter Brown, remark on the similarities between Piranesi’s fantastic architecture and the interior of the new East Building.1 It is curious to note that this is intended as a compliment to the architect Ieoh Ming Pei.


In New York the Pierpont Morgan Library put on show its magnificent collection of drawings by Piranesi and issued a finely produced and very modestly priced catalogue, which is the best bargain of the year. This is the largest and most interesting single collection of the artist’s drawings anywhere, illustrating the full range of his artistic interests and the various phases of his stylistic development. Designs of about 1744-1745 for frilly asymmetrical wall panels and a spectacular festival gondola with human figures and birds emerging out of a froth of ornament show him at his closest to the Venetian rococo. He appears in a more solemn mood at about the same time, copying the illustrations in the great Austrian Baroque architect J.B. Fischer von Erlach’s Entwurf einer historischen Architektur that pioneered an attempt to compare the architectural styles of different civilizations. The increasing selfconfidence and freedom of his draftsmanship are revealed in designs of imaginary buildings.

There are also many careful drawings which indicate the loving attention he paid to fragments of ancient Roman carving. Two very interesting groups of sheets dating from the mid-1760s are devoted to designs for the apse of San Giovanni in Laterano, which he hoped to rebuild and redecorate, and for his church of the Knights of Malta, S. Maria del Priorato. Furniture designs of the same period retain some reminiscences of his early rococo work but all their ornamental motifs are derived from ancient Rome, or Egypt. The latest drawings in the Pierpont Morgan collection, of ruins at Pozzuoli and Pompeii, date from the 1770s and are marked by a greater firmness, almost rigidity, in handling and an insistence on spatial clarity in tune with the work of neoclassical painters. It was at this time, too, that he drew the austere Doric ruins at Paestum, forgetting his former fulminations against the Grecian taste.

Venice celebrated Piranesi year with two exhibitions at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. One assembled a representative selection of drawings, the other prints. The catalogue of the latter is of interest not only for the large scale and very well reproduced illustrations but also for the brief essays in which a number of scholars introduce the various sections. It provides, in fact, a kind of “variety show” in which each of the experts does his “turn.” Thus Maurizio Calvesi contributes a brief essay on The Fall of Phaeton, a spectacular and longlost architectural fantasy which he discovered in 1965, and reiterates his belief that it expresses ideas derived from Vico. John Wilton-Ely writes about the illustrations to Piranesi’s contentious theoretical works. Andrew Robison, who has done much to clarify the dates of the early prints, summarizes his findings about the Vedute di Roma. The exhibition also includes photographs of the little Roman church of S. Maria del Priorato with an introduction by Manfredo Tafuri, who seeks, rather portentously, to unravel the hidden meaning and significance of its decorations.

The French jumped the gun by mounting a notable exhibition, Piranèse et les français, shown in Rome, Dijon, and Paris in 1976. Piranèse—what exactly does the assimilation of a foreign name into French signify? Admiration? Or just familiarity? In any event Piranesi is the only eighteenth-century artist to have been francisé and thus enrolled in the select company from the previous century of le Guide, le Dominiquin, les Carraches, and, of course, Caravage. The publication of the twenty-eight papers read at a colloque organized in association with the exhibition was deferred until 1978. This is a handsome volume, a characteristic product of the Edizioni dell’Elefante in Rome.

Piranesi himself is but a shadowy figure in the background to several of the studies, notably an excellent account of the Egyptian taste and Villa Borghese with which Piranesi was, of course, only rather remotely connected. However, his relations with and possible influence on French painters and architects (especially Ledoux) are investigated by several scholars and an overingenious theory about his indebtedness to a minor figure, Jean-Laurent Legeay, is anathematized with “twenty-nine distinct damnations one sure where another fails.” Two of the contributions are of more general interest than their titles might suggest—Georges Brunel’s study of the Pagliarini brothers who published Piranesi’s first book and Nicola Giobbe to whom it was dedicated (with an inventory of the latter’s library and collection of works of art), and Madeleine Barbin’s list of the drawings and prints by Piranesi which passed through the French sale rooms between 1756 and 1820. Of this, more by and by—as Carlyle would have said.


Perhaps the most valuable part of Piranèse et les français is, however, the transcript of the manuscript life of Piranesi written in 1799 by J.-G. Legrand, often used by his later biographers but previously printed in full only in an elusive mimeographed periodical of very limited distribution. Legrand, who was closely associated with Piranesi’s sons, is the sole source for a great deal of information as well as the best and most vivid anecdotes. It is he who describes, as if from personal observation, Piranesi’s method of etching, working directly on the copper plate from memory and rough sketches rather than finished drawings (such as were generally used by printmakers). He recounts the story of Piranesi measuring a subterranean cavern so oddly dressed in a short coat and vast hat and so excitedly gesticulating and talking to himself that he was mistaken for a sorcerer. It is Legrand, too, who tells us of his calling for a volume of Livy on his deathbed.

The fundamental importance of Legrand’s text was first pointed out by Henri Focillon, who made use of it for his Giovanni Battista Piranesi published in 1918. Despite the large number of Piranesi’s works (mostly drawings) that have come to light since then and the increase generally in our knowledge of artistic life in eighteenth-century Rome, Focillon’s book has never been entirely superseded. An Italian translation with a useful introduction by Calvesi was issued in 1967 but it was not until 1975 that the first new full-length study appeared, by Jonathan Scott. Three further books came out last year. That by Nicholas Penny provides an excellent, well-balanced introduction which one only regrets is not longer, so observant and intelligent are his comments, and written with such a neat turn of phrase—he describes the figures in Piranesi’s prints as “waving dislocated arms in desperate conversation with deaf companions.”

John Wilton-Ely’s The Mind and Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi is a good deal longer and a more lavish production, with some 230 illustrations in the text and excellent reproductions of all 137 Vedute di Roma and the second edition of the Carceri. This is an eminently sound book which takes account of all the recent research and even the wildest of recent interpretations. Due attention is paid to Piranesi’s stylistic development, his technique as a draftsman and etcher, his designs for buildings and furniture, his theoretical writings, his activities as an archaeologist and antiquary, patching together Roman marblesw for sale to grand tourists from northern Europe, especially the English. It is hard to choose between this book and Jonathan Scott’s, which is no less level-headed, clearly expressed, and well illustrated. But Wilton-Ely’s is stronger on theory and the purely art historical issues: it will probably be the one to go on lists of “recommended reading” as the standard monograph.

Norbert Miller’s sparsely illustrated Archäologie des Traums is an entirely different kind of work, less a conventional “art book” than a literary and psychological study. The author is a young professor of Germanic literature at the Technisches Universität, Berlin, who approached Piranesi—so he tells us—by way of Victor Hugo and Gérard de Nerval and who consequently stresses those aspects of his work which most strongly appealed to the Romantics. He presents Piranesi, indeed, as a “Romantiker avant la lettre,” obsessed by the real relationship between the inner and outer world, dream and reality. Although he has made full use of virtually all the recent research, Miller’s aim is essentially interpretative rather than expository. He leads us through the mysteriously boundless spaces and around the massively solid forms of Piranesi’s etchings and makes them seem even more disturbingly strange. His long book—with just on 500 pages it is by far the longest to have been published on its subject—abounds in observations which are no less perceptive than original, though sometimes one feels that he is bending Piranesi’s work to meet his own conception of Romanticism.

Piranesi is a very difficult artist to categorize. Some of his early works could hardly be more frothily rococo. But before long he had swung to the other extreme. His prints of imaginary structures as well as his views of Roman ruins convey with unequaled force the solemnity, the sheer weight and immutability, of their subjects and they powerfully influenced the course of neoclassical architecture. As Robert Adam wrote in 1755: “so amazing and ingenious fancies as he has produced in the plans of the Temples, Baths and Palaces and other buildings I never saw and are the greatest fund for inspiring and instilling invention in any lover of architecture that can be imagined.” Architects of the late eighteenth century found him—as Fuseli said of Blake—“damned good to steal from.” An edition of his prints issued in France under the Empire was advertised as a “Cours complet d’Architecture” (as a contributor to Piranèse et les français points out, this was published with the collaboration of Durand, the great and enormously influential French academic theorist). Only a little later—and for entirely different reasons—he was “discovered” by the Romantics and, if Norbert Miller is right, may have played a part in the formation of their outlook.

In his own time Piranesi was regarded as an “original” in the eighteenth-century meaning of the word. “The most extraordinary fellow I ever saw,” Robert Adam called him after a first meeting, though he later complained that “he is of such disposition as bars all instruction, his ideas in locution so ill-arranged, his expression so furious and fantastic.”2 But he was also to discover, behind the eccentric façade, a man no less canny than himself—it was a case of anti-Grecian meeting anti-Grecian. Piranesi was very far from being a genius in the Romantic sense of the word, a solitary otherworldly artist-seer struggling against the current of his time. He could be astutely businesslike and was very ready and willing to answer the demands of the art market.

A few months before he died Piranesi wrote to his sister in Venice a very revealing letter now known only from an early nineteenth-century paraphrase (printed in full in the catalogue of the exhibition of prints at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice). In this he confessed that he had exiled himself from Venice simply because he could find no employment there and would never return because it was not—in his furious mixture of metaphors—“a theatre capable of giving pasturage to the sublimity of my ideas.” If he had to live elsewhere he would settle in London, for, he said, the English had been his most profuse patrons. Since he had been living in Rome he had built up a capital of between 50,000 and 60,000 scudi—between £12,500 and £15,000 in the English money of the day—a not inconsiderable sum at a time when £500 a year was regarded as a very handsome income. The Pope paid him 200 scudi a time for bound sets of prints to give to distinguished visitors. But it was probably from the sale of smaller groups and individual prints that he earned enough to begin dealing in antiquities and thus further augment his fortune.

The financial aspect of Piranesi’s enterprise is a subject of some interest, though one that has been explored only by Jonathan Scott. The artist’s price for single prints was a modest 2 1/2 or 3 paoli (there were ten paoli to the scudo). He claimed that he could take 4,000 prints from an etched plate. Since 400 was normally considered the maximum number this may partly account for the extensive reworking in the later copies. According to this calculation, and allowing for the cost of materials, a single plate could yield a profit of 840 scudi. It is a large amount when set beside the payments made to painters of the time. In 1754-1755 Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, then at the height of his fame, was paid very little more (1,000 scudi) for frescoing the entire surface of a large dome in a church in Venice. Canaletto began by charging less than 50 scudi for a painting of Venice and the 240 scudi he later asked was thought to be exorbitant. The most fashionable painter in Rome, Pompeo Batoni, expected no more than 100 scudi for a full-length portrait in 1765 though he had doubled this price by 1780.

So even if Piranesi exaggerated the number of prints he could pull from a plate, he clearly profited very handsomely from his self-appointed task of recording the ruins of Rome before, as he said, they totally crumbled away. In his first publication he had written of “queste parlanti ruine“—these speaking ruins—but it would be ungenerous to suggest that they gave him only practical advice about lining his own pocket. Piranesi seems to have been, nonetheless, among the first of all those who have managed to do rather well for themselves out of the threats of doom hanging over our “artistic heritage” (as it is called nowadays)—not least in Italy.

Piranesi’s financial success also depended on his ability to cater for a large public—large by the standards of his day and by no means small even by those of ours. Eighteenth-century painters, sculptors, and architects normally worked for a very limited patronage. The printmaker’s wider and mostly anonymous public—for very few of them would be ever know personally—may have led him to feel more free of the constraints of patronage, but, if so, it was largely an illusion. Choice of subject matter and even style were necessarily conditioned by the tastes of those who bought the prints, and Piranesi was no less ready to answer their demands than any other eighteenth-century printmaker. But writers about him have rarely inquired who these people were: they often imply that he was simply working out his ideas on his own, “doing his own thing” without thought of the morrow.

Hence the importance of the article I’ve already mentioned, by Madeleine Barbin in Piranèse et les français, which informs us precisely on this matter. A surprising variety of French collectors owned specimens of his work in the eighteenth century, ranging from great noblemen and rich financiers to artists and writers, including that master of elegant eroticism Crébillon fils who bought no fewer than 125 Piranesi etchings. The artists are a somewhat odd bunch, mainly former students at the French Academy in Rome, and neoclassicists by no means predominate. In fact Piranesi was not represented at all in the library of Etienne-Louis Boullée. As one might expect, the views of Rome are the prints most often listed in inventories and sale catalogues. But there are also fairly frequent references to the Prisons, curiously mistitled on one occasion as “Des Caprices d’architecture en treize pièces, d’après Piranèse par Carceri.”

In the preface to his first independent publication, Prima parte di architetture e prospettive (1743), Piranesi remarked that in default of opportunities to build on the grand scale of Ancient Rome, “there seems to be no recourse than for me or some other modern architect to explain his ideas through his drawings.” Rather too much has been made of this as evidence of his frustration as a practicing architect. It seems likely that the book was addressed primarily to artists, architects, and especially amateurs at a time when many members of the upper classes fancied themselves as architects and were very closely involved in the design of the buildings they commissioned (much to the annoyance of the professionals they employed).

Horace Walpole was probably thinking of the prints in this volume (or those added to later editions) when he wrote in 1765 that the

delicate redundance of ornament growing into our architecture might perhaps be checked, if our artists would study the sublime dreams of Piranesi, who seems to have conceived visions of Rome beyond what it boasted even in the meridian of its splendor. Savage as Salvator Rosa, fierce as Michel Angelo, and exuberant as Rubens, he has imagined scenes that would startle geometry, and exhaust the Indies to realise. He piles palaces on bridges, and temples on palaces, and scales Heaven with mountains of edifices. Yet what taste in his boldness! what grandeur in his wildness! what labour and thought both in his rashness and details!

As its title indicates, Prima parte was a kind of manual of architecture and architectural draftsmanship, and this may account for much of its popularity. The Carceri, which Piranesi began to etch in about 1745 and published in volume form with a reissue of the Prima parte as Opere varie in 1750, may well have been understood in the same way—simply as demonstrations of how complex interior spaces could be delineated.

The volume of 1750 also included four prints of a different kind entitled Grotteschi, fantastic compositions of architectural fragments with abundant vegetation, water and snakes slithering among tumbled antique sculptures. A great deal of ingenuity has been devoted to unraveling their meaning. They have been plausibly associated with the poetic effusions of the Roman literary society of Arcadians. They have been interpreted by Maurizio Calvesi as allegories of the four seasons, times of day, the elements of earth, water, air, and fire and the “humours” of the body—with Masonic symbols thrown in for good measure. (Odd that the Freemasons who jealously guarded the secrets of their “craft” should be supposed to have been so prodigal in scattering its emblems in works of art!) In all probability they were just exercises in fanciful composition—in the manner of Marco Ricci’s and Tiepolc’s Capricci.

“Almost every man of taste is in some degree a collector of prints,” wrote the author of a dictionary of engravers in 1785. Prints were, however, collected and valued for two quite different reasons. Some, the minority, were regarded like drawings as works of art in their own right, notably those by Rembrandt, Callot, and Castiglione which were admired for their freedom of handling. In An Essay on Prints first published in 1768—a very popular work reissued for the fifth time in 1802—William Gilpin stated that “unlimited freedom” was “the characteristic of etching. The needle, gliding along the surface of the copper, meets no resistance; and easily takes any turn the hand pleases to give it.” Of Castiglione’s prints he wrote: “Freedom, strength and spirit are eminent in them”; Tiepolo’s “best pieces were those in which he gave a loose to the wildness of his imagination,” commenting that “the subject of them is emblematical; but of difficult interpretation.” His praise of Piranesi was qualified but, he declared, “The great excellence of this artist lies in execution; of which he is a consummate master. His stroke is firm, free and bold, in the greatest degree; and his manner admirably calculated to produce a grand, and rich effect.”

Prints were also, and much more generally, collected for the visual information they conveyed, topographical, mechanical, scientific, and, of course, artistic. They were bought as reproductions before the invention of photography. Piranesi’s earliest etchings, made on his first visit to Rome, were of this informative type: little views of ancient and modern buildings intended as illustrations to a guide book. But gradually, and especially after he began to issue his large Vedute di Roma, the emphasis changed. They became more and more valued as works of art themselves and not merely as reproductions of other works of art. He published them himself, without an intermediary, and by the beginning of the 1760s was even issuing catalogues.

The rather prosaic printmaker Vasi under whom he worked for a while is said to have told him, “You are too much of a painter to become an engraver.” But this was of course the main reason for his success. Years later William Mason was to write of ruins (in a passage which seems to have escaped the Piranesi experts) that

They please, when, by Panini’s pencil drawn
Or darkly grav’d by Piranesi’s hand.

It is in the context of the later cult of ruins that Piranesi’s supposed Romantic tendencies have usually been discussed. His prints may well have contributed to the idea that ruins could be picturesque or even beautiful in themselves but there can hardly have been any closer connection. Even his romantic-sounding remark about “speaking ruins,” already quoted, is only superficially akin to the later Romantic attitude as expressed by Benjamin Constant—“Les édifices modernes se taisent, mais les ruines parlent“—and by Stendhal, who seems to have been the first to say in so many words that the Colosseum was more beautiful in his day than it had been in antiquity.

The public for Piranesi’s prints of Roman ruins naturally consisted mainly of visitors to Rome and those who longed to go there at a time when, as Dr. Johnson remarked, “a man who has not been to Italy is always conscious of an inferiority.” They seem to have been intended not merely to answer but to enlarge the taste of this public. The Grand Tour had become an institution for upper-class Englishmen early in the century. And by the time Piranesi settled in Rome the city was receiving each autumn shoals of pink-cheeked young milordi whose air of lackadaisical arrogance. Pompeo Batoni so skillfully depicted. Their aim was of course to complete the classical education they had been given at home, to tread “with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum” as did Edward Gibbon in 1764, and to seek out “each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell.” The more persevering toured the city with a cicerone, usually a British expatriate, and Gibbon refers with some feeling to the “daily labours of eighteen weeks” during which time “the powers of attention were sometimes fatigued.” Piranesi’s prints—modestly priced and easily transportable—provided the perfect memento to take back home and they were bought by visitors of all nationalities. In a guide for German tourists, J.J. Volckmann called them Vortrefflich—“they show the most beautiful churches, palaces, fountains and ancient monuments…. They are not at all elegant but etched in a very masterly firm manner and are given attractive settings. He often shows the ruins as they were rather than as they are nowadays. Their price is very reasonable and one can do without all others.”

Grand Tourists were almost equally fascinated by the contemporary scene, the colorful world of the pope, cardinals, and the great papal families. Significantly, nearly one third of Piranesi’s large Vedute are of post-classical, mainly baroque, buildings. Here he sometimes plays architectural critic. His view of the Lateran, for example, emphasizes how awkwardly the façade is tacked on to the nave of the basilica. In his print of the Trevi fountain, on the other hand, he “corrected” the architect’s design to give less prominence to the sculpture and much more to the water—in accordance with the published opinion of his friend Monsignor Bottari. But he sought, above all, to record the city as a whole with its opulent princely palaces, its exuberant baroque churches, the bustle of life on the Corso and the quay by the Tiber animated by those sudden juxtapositions of ancient and modern which still appeal so strongly.

The city portrayed by Piranesi is the subject of a long, fascinating, and beautifully illustrated book by the late christian Elling: Rome: The Biography of its Architecture from Bernini to Thorvaldsen. When this work first appeared in Danish in 1950 many American and English students of eighteenth-century architecture hoped it might be translated into a language they could understand. Yet the appearance of an English version four years ago seems to have passed almost unnoticed. Elling is concerned mainly with the street architecture of eighteenth-century Rome—interiors are seldom mentioned and none is illustrated—not only the exteriors of churches and palaces but also of prisons, hospitals, stables, workshops, monasteries, and apartment blocks, so that we are given as by no one else since Piranesi the very “texture” of the city. The book’s great and all too rare merit is that architecture is invariably presented as a setting for human activity and Elling provides in the text one of the best available accounts of life in eighteenth-century Rome, with a great range of source material cited in the notes. The miseries as well as the splendors are described. Elling reminds us that in the eleven-year reign of Clement XIII (Piranesi’s most lavish protector) 4,000 people were murdered in the Eternal City—a fact which makes the ragged figures among Piranesi’s ruins seem more sinister than picturesque. It is rather surprising that none of the authors of the books under review so much as mentions Elling’s work (though an old article by him, translated into French, is printed in Piranèse et les français). But he was not an enthusiastic admirer of their hero.

Eighteenth-century Rome is Gibbon’s Rome and, of course, Casanova’s, Winckelmann’s, and Goethe’s. Piranesi was just as much a foreigner there as they were and so was perfectly equipped to interpret it for them. Nowadays his “Prisons” appeal much more strongly and his Roman views are admired in so far as they share the same disturbingly mysterious quality. As John Wilton-Ely points out, this excessive admiration for the Carceri has created “a serious distortion to his reputation,” while Jonathan Scott remarks that modern psychological interpretations of them would “have been unintelligible to Piranesi himself,” which can hardly be denied. “To see them solely in terms of psychological disorder is easy, exciting and wrong.” Just how far such interpretations can be taken is shown by an article in which Manfredo Tafuri—a distinguished Italian architectural historian and critic—uses all the paraphernalia of psychoanalysis, Marxist historical theory, linguistics, and structural anthropology to describe them as visions of a “negative utopia.”3

A valiant attempt to drag the Carceri back into the eighteenth century is made by Maurizio Calvesi with the ingenious suggestion that they were primarily intended simply as evocations of the prisons of ancient Rome. There is much to recommend this theory, especially in view of the Latin inscription referring specifically to ancient Roman prisons on a plate which Piranesi added when he reissued the Carceri in 1760. It does not, however, go very far to account for their later appeal, which is surely due to changing attitudes to the subject matter. The real prisons of Piranesi’s day were not in the least dramatic or sinister, just extremely squalid and dingy.4 Visitors to Rome occasionally noted (as Elling remarks) figures crying through the barred windows: “Monsiu! Milord! give a penny to the poor prisoners.” But only a few reformers took more than a passing interest in prisons or their occupants, among whom there were usually madmen as well as criminals.

Goya was to convey with unequaled directness the horror of such inhuman places of confinement. But there is no suggestion of all this in Piranesi. His etchings are anything but denunciations of a current social evil. They stress the grandeur of impregnable walls, not the plight of the incarcerated. It was the French Revolution which brought the prison dramatically close to the consciousness of upper-class Europeans. And in the years of the Restauration shadows of the prison house fell on everyone with liberal sympathies. At least one early nineteenth-century stage setting for Fidelio derived from Piranesi. So too did Stendhal’s description in La Chartreuse de Parme of the Farnese Tower with its great columns and spiral staircases and huge sculptures of skulls.

In the seventeenth century Pascal had likened the world to a prison populated with criminals awaiting execution. To thinkers of the Enlightenment such a view was, of course, abominable and Voltaire sharply remarked that “le sort naturel d’un homme n’est ni d’être enchainé ni d’être égorgé.” But Pascal’s image survived, though often shorn of its religious implications, to be taken up by the Romantics—as in Alfred de Vigny’s “cette prison nommé la vie.” The prison also became a metaphor for the human mind with its dark recesses. In this context Piranesi’s Carceri took on a new significance. And these unnervingly potent inventions with their complex spaces which are at once confined and apparently limitless, rational and enigmatic—“vernünftig und rätselhaft” as Hans Magnus Enzensberger puts it in the poem with which Norbert Miller ends his book—have continued to unfold further levels of meaning. Today they may even seem a protest against the rationalist architecture they partly inspired, a terrifying demonstration of the tyranny of reason.

This Issue

August 16, 1979