Giovanni Battista Piranesi was a frustrated architect; the most notable of his few commissions was for the restoration of the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato in Rome. Born in Venice in 1720, he moved to Rome in his early twenties and turned to the production of souvenir views, or vedute, of the city. Until his death in 1778 he remained a celebrant of Rome’s massive buildings and ruins; he depicted them in an outpouring of etchings that, according to as impassive an authority as the Encyclopedia Britannica, are “the most original and impressive representations of architecture to be found in western art.” His first volume of representations, Architecture and Perspectives, Invented and Etched by Gio. Batt.a Piranesi, Venetian Architect, appeared in 1743 and consisted of twelve prints presenting idealized reconstructions of “an ancient capitol,” “a magnificent bridge,” “an ancient temple,” “an ancient mausoleum,” and so forth—Roman ruins extrapolated into a pristine, elaborately decorated timelessness.

Since Rome with its vast ruins, pompous post-medieval churches, and heroic hilltop vistas presented a medley already bordering on the fantastic, and since Piranesi was an aspiring architect bent on showing what his imagination could do, the viewer easily accepts the visionary quality of these early prints; their surprising extension into a fantastic underworld followed in 1749, in a set of fourteen plates titled, in Italian, Invenzioni Capric. di Carceri (Fanciful Images of Prisons). These imaginary carceri, inspired in part by the architect’s acquaintance with the immense Roman sewers, were to become Piranesi’s contribution to the history of art, as distinguished from the history of etching. After producing many superb etchings of actual Roman ruins in all their majestic dilapidation, Piranesi in 1761—the year in which he set up his own printmaking business—reissued the Carceri, heavily reworking the fourteen plates and adding two new ones.

It has been the happy inspiration of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, drawing solely from its own collections, to present the engravings of 1749 and of 1761 in juxtaposition. These large prints, roughly twenty-four by twenty inches, take up one room; a second room exhibits the work of artists contemporary with Piranesi or influenced by him, along with some pen and wash sketches by the artist, showing his “fiery brushwork” and thoroughly practiced eye for the anatomy of buildings.

But the Carceri are the main attraction, and the first thing this viewer was struck by was their extraordinary freedom and even fury of execution. Piranesi etched on large copper plates as freely as most artists use pencil and paper. He went, especially in the 1761 reworking phase, for the impressionistic effect, shading not only with parallel gouges of the graver but with an evolved scribble that can be seen these days in the cartoons of Edward Sorel. The result is as dashing and headlong as the music manuscripts of J.S. Bach. The meticulousness of his usual engravings, especially in his utilitarian albums of architectural ornaments (1769) and of “vases, candelabras, grave stones, sarcophagi, tripods, lamps, and ornaments” (1778), has been ousted by a personal urgency; he is working, one feels, not to win customers but to unburden his soul.

The 1749 originals—initiated during a return to Venice in 1745–1747—are personal and bizarre enough: high-roofed interiors hold a multitude of arches, stairways, catwalks, lad-ders, drawbridges, columns, projecting beams, dangling chains, and various gloomy apparatuses suitable for dungeon use. Shadowy figures, stooped and dwarfed, move about in the many-storied maze like dazed members of the damned. A semblance of sunlight falls wanly down into some of the perspectives, and clouds are seen in The Grand Piazza and The Giant Wheel (really a round window, the wall caption explains), but the feeling overall is of hopeless, albeit palatial, enclosure. The details come from the streets of Rome, but are disposed here in giant punitive crypts. A kind of communal subconscious, the dank and menacing underside of European polity, is exposed to view.

When Piranesi returned to this dire vision over a decade later, he darkened the plates dramatically, crosshatching the foregrounds and loading fresh detail into the background recessions. He added catwalks and archways and crossbeams to the point where (see The Gothic Arch) the perspective no longer reads, and instead frustrates the eye, as in a tricky print by M.C. Escher. Escher, that compulsive twentieth-century engraver of impossible patterns, of twist and transformation, comes to mind more than once as one visually roams through Piranesi’s tangled castles. Impalpable space is here so subdivided and crisscrossed as to become, by visual calculus, palpable. Some grim work of construction seems in progress; we can almost hear the echoing clangor. The plates take their titles, often, from utilitarian artifacts that loom in the foreground as threateningly as guards or arresting officers—The Well, with its hanging bucket and loose, liana-like rope; The Sawhorse, its spread-legged form almost swallowed in the darkness of the later version and surrounded by cruel spikes, silhouetted; The Pier with a Lamp, its lamp less striking than the three sculptured heads holding heavy tethering rings in their mouths; and The Pier with Chains, the massive pier squared since its first version and a viciously toothed drawbridge added, along with a trio of Latin slogans promising terror and infamy to treachery and evil conduct.


The engraver’s alterations, imposed over a resmoothed section of plate or else scratched into place with an effect of hasty transparency, are not all improvements: The Arch with a Shell Ornament, one of the most reproduced of the Carceri, was more intelligible and eloquent in its simpler 1749 version; The Round Tower lost its sure, swift sketchiness. But the general intensification of shadow and detail is a gain, making the vistas more theatrical and more hellish. This venture of Piranesi’s into surreality has two recognized parents: the Arcadian fantasies of the Venetian Marco Ricci and the Baroque stage designs of the Galli-Bibiena family. Piranesi himself briefly studied stage design under the Valeriani brothers. Theatricality was the Baroque manifestation of spirituality; the rococo aftermath of the eighteenth century minimized the spirituality, as the power of spectacle ousted human scale from official architecture and the theater itself. Once the neoclassical alexandrines of Racine and Molière died away, the human voice counted for less and less in drama, and only operatic voices adequately filled the giant painted shells of aristocratic entertainment. Piranesi’s Carceri seem shaped for the shout of the costumed male chorus, the piercing high note of the betrayed heroine, and the sobbing tenor farewell from the hero.

What did Piranesi consciously intend with these fantastic vistas, which were dear enough to him, and evidently to a buying public, that he reissued them, strenuously revised? He was demonstrating, perhaps, his architectural virtuosity to the clients whose commissions never came—or came late, in his mid-forties. And he was offering to the public, with his unprecedentedly refined and confident etching technique, vicarious realities not so different from actual buildings they had never seen. Prints were the photographs, the pictorial bulletins, of their day. In a Europe debating the relative sublimity of Greek and Roman architecture, and where the fresh discoveries of archaeology were turned into eclectic contemporary design, views of buildings had news value and even polemical content.

But why carceri? It is easy for the modern mind, accustomed to the totalitarian atrocities and Orwellian dystopias of the twentieth century, to read political protest into these dungeons. As the Enlightenment drained away the theistic justification for monarchy, the burdens of taxation and penal punishment were felt as increasingly intolerable—a crushing oppression without earthly reason or heavenly reward. Society for a few was aristocratic play, amid music and mirrors, and for the many others an endless, laborious captivity. The paved city itself—and no city loomed as more stonily imperious than Rome—had the hardness and compression of a prison, walled with the imposing façades of wealth and power. De Chirico’s empty piazzas and Richard Estes’s photorealistic representations of the unpeopled streets of New York and Tokyo sustain the nightmare note Piranesi struck.

He himself, however, may have seen his gloomy chambers more brightly than we, as imaginary spaces carved and subdivided with an exultant ingenuity—grottos in the public gardens of graphic art. The second room of the MFA’s exhibition shows, through the work of such artists as Ricci and Lajoüe, Cuvilliés and Blondel, that the eighteenth century did not lack for florid visual fancies. Apparitions refugee from the medieval world of fairies and the classical world of nymphs and satyrs formed an Arcadian froth on the crumbling castle of Christian supernature much as grass, flowers, and bushes flourished on the tops of Roman ruins. Europe’s ruins posed in the midst of its population the problem of time, the shudder of the grave. Piranesi’s descendants led art into Romanticism, which relocated God from Heaven and altar to the glories of Nature and the depths of the human heart. These Carceri could be taken to symbolize our own depths, majestically projected into the shapeless earth—cavernous ripostes to the monuments decaying in the air above. There is something exhilarating about them, as the artist feverishly loads more structural features upon their unfolding archways and squeezes farther chambers and stairways, fine as postage stamps, out of relatively underdeveloped spots in the first etchings. The will to construct pushes toward the bounds of possibility; homo faber receives in these imaginary vaults a reverberating homage.

This Issue

June 21, 2001