Sunday, 31 January 2010


“Self is the only prison that can ever bind the soul.” - Henry Van Dyke

For Art Sunday today, a flight of fancy or rather a descent into the dark imaginings of a whimsical artist. It is Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778). He was an Italian etcher, archaeologist and architect, born in Venice but active in Rome from 1740. He became famous for his poetic views of Rome, and his drawings of the fanciful reconstructions of antiquities. More original are his fantastic imaginary interiors. His Vedute (Views) is a series of 135 etchings of ancient and contemporary Rome, published from 1745 onwards, which established the popular mental image of the city, which even today we romantically adhere to.

His effects of scale conspired to make the buildings appear larger and grander. He also exaggerated the contrasts of light and shade to invest them with drama. The most remarkable etchings of his oeuvre are those of imaginary interiors, the Carceri d' Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), a series of plates issued in 1749-50 and reworked in 1761.

Piranesi who believed in the supremacy of Roman over Greek architecture, an argument he propounded in his Della magnificenza ed architettura dei Romani (On the Magnificence of Roman Architecture, 1761). In his other major treatise, the Parere sull' architettura (Observations on Architecture, 1765), he advocated an imaginative use of antique Roman models to produce a new style of architecture. Only one building was ever erected to his designs, the rather ordinary church of S. Maria del Priorato, Rome (1764-6).

Piranesi's influence as an architect may have been negligible, but his romanticised views and imaginary interiors had a profound effect on stage designers, painters and even writers. In the 20th century his imaginary interiors have been admired by the Surrealists and provided source material for horror film set designers.

Here is his Carceri d'invenzione: Plate XI: The Arch with a Shell Ornament (Later State), 1749–50 and 1761
Etching on 18th-century laid paper
15 7/8 x 21 1/2 inches, Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia.


  1. he sounds like a bit of a fascist to me! :-)

  2. lol
    with prisons like that of course he was a fascist