Prisons of the imagination

M. C. Escher drew impossible objects – things that could not actually exist in three-dimensional space. But an Italian engraver named Giovanni Battista Piranesi was drawing them more than a hundred years earlier.

Gothic Arch
Giovanni Battista Piranesi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Giovanni Battista Piranesi is without a doubt my favourite Italian engraver of the 18th century. He produced many etchings and prints celebrating the ruins of Rome – these were mainly collected by people on the Grand Tour (mentioned in an earlier post). But he also produced an amazing series of illustrations of fictional vistas called the Carceri D’Invenzione: the imaginary prisons.

These illustrations are impressive and oppressive: a series of dungeon-like interiors with endless stairs, arches, spikes, and columns, with tiny anonymous figures dwarfed by the cavernous architecture around them. There are no windows, no views, no doors, and no escapes.

The Carceri were a significant influence on the birth of the gothic novel in England. Horace Walpole supposedly fell asleep after viewing the engravings and dreamed up The Castle of Otranto. I mean that literally: he had a dream about someone being crushed under a gigantic helmet, and the 8th plate of the Carceri features a gigantic helmet. De Quincey and Coleridge were known to be fans.

Take a look at the picture above. Consider the relative positions of the leftmost column and the one immediately to its right. They are joined at the top by arches that place the left column in front of the middle one. But there’s also a staircase at their base, and that puts the middle column clearly in front of the left one. It’s an impossible object.

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