Piranesi’s “Imaginary Prisons”

The “Imaginary Prisons” by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) are, in the words of Marguerite Yourcenar, “one of the most secret works bequeathed us by a man of the eighteenth century”. According to the Belgian writer, the sixteen prints that the Venetian artist created between 1745 and 1750 represent the “negation of time, incoherence of space, suggested levitation, intoxication of the impossible reconciled or transcended”. They have the same quality of dreams. Or, rather, of nightmares.

But, unlike in dreams, the vertigo caused by these labyrinthine shapes, by their deceiving prospective, and by the crowding and multiplication of figures, is constantly dominated by the vigilant and precise mind of its author, who constructs a geometric world in which every measurement is the result of a “multiplicity of calculations which we know to be exact and which bear on proportions which we know to be false”, again quoting Yourcenar.

Piranesi revolutionized the stylistic canons for the representation of prisons – an iron cage, or a cell surrounded by massive bars – and expressed the deep angst that stems from seeing life as an unstoppable, eternal return of pain and evil.

The “Imaginary Prisons” influenced Romantic and Surrealist artists, as well as some contemporaries, well beyond Escher.

December 14, 2013