Title page of the Carceri, Piranesi's haunting imaginary prisons
Pier with a Lamp image from Piranesi's Carceri (Prisons) series
Prisoners on a platform in Piranesi's Carceri (Prisons) series
The Round Tower image from Piranesi's Carceri (Prisons) series
The Well, image from Piranesi's Carceri (Prisons) series
Piranesi's Carceri, the Prisons
Of all the artistic production of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, perhaps the most haunting and dramatic of all are the nightmarish series of Carceri d'invenzione, the Prisons.
This series of 16 copperplate etchings, dating from the 1760s, is as ambiguous in content as it is in representation of space. Massive architectural forms loom above darkly shadowed spaces, and stairways lead nowhere while insignificant human figures are barely noticeable. Sharp, deep diagonals are counterbalanced by flat planes and dense patterns of line to create interlocking, mysterious compositions.
The disturbing psychological atmosphere of these architectural fantasies has caught the imagination of many artists over succeeding centuries. Their menacing, exotic atmosphere inspired the Romantics of the 19th century, while the Surrealists of the 20th century admired their irrational portrayal of objects in space.