A Venetian by birth, Giovanni Battista Piranesi is known as a champion of Roman classical architecture and an engraver of Roman views. Inspired by the monumental and magnificent ruins of antiquity, beginning in 1740, Piranesi created a series of great books composed of real and fantastic visions of a civilization long past.
The print shown here is from a set of 16 known as the Carceri d'Invenzione [imaginary prisons], which are perhaps Piranesi's greatest creations. Piranesi derived the monumentality of these plates, a feature emphasized by the viewer's low vantage point, from Roman architecture. He was also inspired by the fantastic stage designs of the Bibiena family and by the capricci of the Tiepolos.
The earliest version of the Carceri included fourteen prints. In the second edition, shown here, Piranesi added two plates and reworked the original designs, making the scenes dark and foreboding. He created a mesh of interwoven lines and idiosyncratic shadows, an oppressive and frenetic vision of masonry arches and vaults, and of ramps and staircases with uncertain destinations. Mysterious cables, instruments of torture, and even scenes of torture inspire unease in the viewer. For Piranesi, the significance of these works lies less in architectural logic and literal meaning than in their exploration of the endless possibilities of the human imagination. The Carceri are very much in keeping with the Italian tradition of fantasy and caprice in printmaking.