Years ago when I taught at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, JB and I attended an auction as a fund-raiser for the school. We purchased a (poorly printed) Piranesi etching printed from his original plate, part of his prison series Carceri d’Invenzione, Plate X, “Prisoners on a Projecting Platform.” Its home for the past 25 years or so has been upstairs in the library, but yesterday we swapped some pictures around and brought it downstairs, where there is much more natural light.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) was a printmaker who did prints of Roman antiquities, and views around Venice, but what he is most known for is his Prison series. Piranesi began this series when he was just 25 years old and it was first published as 14 prints in 1750. Two new prints were added later for a complete 16. Some have called these images “kafkaesque.” The vast architectural spaces, seemingly underground, in ruins like the Roman antiquities he was fond of rendering, are haunting, mystical, eerie, unnerving, and compelling. They remind one of Escher too in their logical distortion and stairways leading nowhere. Where is this place and what is happening? And who are the observers on the bridges and walkways above? Why are these prisoners chained and what is the distorted figure at the right side of the platform doing? These enigmatic images were enormously influential on the development of the movements of Romanticism and Surrealism.
Leaving the quiet space of our cluttered library where it hung on the wall at the top of the stairs, Piranesi has descended into our living room to help to remind us of our own prisons, those trapped and stuck places, those ruts that we have created and built for ourselves, holding just a whisper of the possibilities of redemption.
The video below was created by Gregoire Dupond and is a clever saunter through these imaginary prisons.