The Imaginary Prisons. An Exercise of Freedom from Giovanni Battista Piranesi to Vik Muniz

Written by Paola Paleari

How can artistic work created four centuries ago continue to be contemporary, both in its meaning and in its appearance? And how can a place, that is usually associated with the ideas of punishment and imprisonment, become a vehicle for the application of free thought? A possible answer is given by The Imaginary Prisons by Giovanni Battista Piranesi and their influence on the art of the centuries to follow.

Retracing the history of art and culture from Middle Ages to present day, it is possible to witness how some crucial moments, that are destined to change the course of future events, periodically occur. These moments are often embodied in the work of artists who, because of superior sensitivity and imagination, remain forever contemporary, constantly reliving the sensitivity and vision of the generations that follow them. Giovanni Battista Piranesi is undoubtedly one of these authors. Through his work, he put a strain on the artistic gaze of his days, and not only. Anyone contemplating Piranesi’s etchings is confronted with the existential nightmare of human nature and its infinite mysteries. In the Twentieth century, Piranesi has had a direct influence on writers the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka and movie directors such as Terry Gilliam and Peter Greenaway. But first and foremost on visual artists, who have accepted his legacy and fit it to their times.


An engraved self-portrait of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1760

Giovanni Battista Piranesi was born in Venice in 1720. In his early twenties, he visited Rome, where he was deeply impressed by the sight of the ruins of the ancient empire. Here, he started to work as an engineer and architect, but became famous as an engraver and theorist. His work as a theorist is a true manifesto based on the desire to break the codes of language and art history in order to return them to subjective interpretation. For Piranesi, there is a need to enhance the inventiveness while crushing traditional languages against the slavery of a unique style, in a climate of substantial syncretism and eclecticism. The stylistic elements of the past become a receptacle ready to be transfigured by the artist’s imaginative power, which turns them into living forms.

This concept is crucial to understanding his dramatic series of etchings The Imaginary Prisons (Carceri d’invenzione). As the title suggests, they represent views of imagined dungeons. The scene is dominated by architectural constructions, in which the artist shapes all the elements that correspond to his own conception of Antiquity: gigantic arches, draw bridges, walkways that make their way to inaccessible places, staircases, chandeliers and instruments of torture.

The first version of the Prisons dates back to 1745, in the early years of Piranesi’s residence in Rome. The fourteen tables are a “whim”, as defined by Piranesi himself: a kind of exercise and stretch of the imagination. Fifteen years later, a second edition of the Prisons appears with some new plates in addition to the previous ones, significantly reworked. Here, we witness a real transformation of the designed spaces, which are more complicated and ambiguous. As Marguerite Yourcenar wrote, “the irrational world of the Prisons dizzies not from its lack of measurement (for never was Piranesi more of a geometrician) but from the very multiplicity of calculations which we know to be exact and which bear on proportions which we know to be false”. A different reality is shaped here, but the disturbing and hypnotic atmosphere remains unchanged; indeed, the chiaroscuro is accentuated and the images are even more dramatic.

What position do humans hold in these new plates? In addition to prisoners, in many of them we see strange comings and goings of people, often in small groups. It seems like a horrible fate unites convicts and their overseers: wandering tirelessly, day and night, across these boundless places.

The prison is a labyrinth that strikes terror because it cannot be rationalized nor understood: it is not mappable, perhaps not even mentally. Yet, in order not to go crazy, the inhabitants of the Prisons must grope around to reconstruct the reality in which they are immersed. A mental exercise which the outside observer – looking for a focus that escapes continuously – is also obliged to carry out.

The paradoxical result is that, instead of succumbing, each individual finds himself freed thanks to this exercise of invention and boldness. The Prisons are a world where the decision is abrogated, where the figures of the tortured are coupled to the evocations of ancient heroes, and the silhouettes of gigantic machines veil the prospects of glorious monuments.

In the Prisons, Piranesi does not choose; he does not take the side of the tortured nor that of the torturers; he is not in favour of those who break the law nor of those who comply with it. Hence, the inevitability of arbitrariness and, therefore, the audacity of invention, which – as such – can not be translated into a choice, nor is it synonymous with a way to take sides. This explains the deeply transgressive character of the Prisons, and probably the strong influence they exerted on certain artistic movements of modern times.


Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Tavola VII (The Bridge), from The Imaginary Prisons series, 1745

A modern artist who was strongly influenced by the work of Piranesi and in particular by his Prisons is Dutch graphic artist and engraver Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972). The art of Escher rests on the observation of nature and the scientific and cultural context of the beginning of the Twentieth century: on the one hand, it is an art based on Gestalt and on perception, which is filtered and re-proposed in a mathematical key; on the other, it is an extension of the Surrealism, of the illogical that reigns on the logical, dominates it and replaces it in the game of irrationality.

Some architectural scholars have pointed out that, just like the Prisons by Piranesi, the mazes by Escher are constructively impossible. His recordings bring to light the perceptual mistakes made by our brain during the act of observation – errors that can be seen as amusing, but that, at the same time, denounce the collapse of reason and the risks associated with a judgment based exclusively on perception.

The lithograph Relativity (1953) especially recalls the influence of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. In Relativity, Escher uses three different vanishing points to give origin to a unitary representation which depicts three separate worlds populated by humanoid creatures. Each group of creatures inhabits a perfectly coherent world in which the humanoids oriented in other directions appear strange. The doors, which appear vertical in one of these worlds, become hatches for the others, the walls become floors, the ceilings become walls, and so on. Since the vanishing points lie outside the depicted space, Escher can lead us to believe that three different gravity forces are operating simultaneously.

Now, if we compare the Prisons by Piranesi with Relativity by Escher, we can not fail to notice the great similarity they have in common: both are based on a perspectival deception, on a trompe l’oeil that makes the gaze wander without a specific reference. Both advance a cognitive doubt, putting our everyday certainties under siege. The illusionistic games by Escher create a spatial disorientation in the viewer, but at the same time give him the magic of illusion and the possibility of manipulating the space. For Escher, as well as for Piranesi, the illusion is the access key to an inner world, an area of ​​freedom and awareness to seek beyond vertigo.


Maurits Cornelis Escher, Relativity, 1953

The staggering originality of Piranesi has remained a source of inspiration and fascination to this day, both on a visual and conceptual level. In 2002, the Brazil-born, New York-based artist Vik Muniz has created a series of photographs inspired by the Prisons.

Muniz’s work lies between drawing and photography: using unorthodox and unusual materials, such as chocolate, sand, woolen yarns and jelly, the artist first creates an image by plastically manipulating the material, and then he photographs it. His main subject are icons of art history and our time: he created the reproduction of the Mona Lisa by Andy Warhol with peanut butter and cherry jam, the Head of Medusa by Caravaggio with spaghetti in tomato sauce and the face of Barack Obama with torn up and reassembled outdated magazines. The displayed object is always the photograph of the composition and not the composition itself, because only photography can effectively covey the creative aspect of the artistic process. The conceptual link between subjects and materials, combined with the skillful play of perspectives, compels the viewer to make an effort to decode the meaning of the photographic image that appears in front of him. By coating the photographic expression with symbolic value, the “low-tech illusionist” – as he likes to describe himself – is able to reveal its deceptive nature: the reality is a form of appearance and the appearance is a spectacular form of reality.

In his Prisons, after Piranesi series, Muniz replicates the etched lines of the Prison images with thread, which is wound around hundreds of pins on a cardboard surface. A photograph of these constructions is the end product of Muniz’s work. Even in this case, the representation of a closed and inaccessible place as the prison is chosen to convey an idea of ​​technical innovation and mental opening. It is no coincidence that Vik Muniz has chosen to duplicate the Prisons: here, the engraving technique of Piranesi, open to painting and architecture, reaches its climax. Similarly, Muniz experiments with traditional media and disciplines, coming to a summary intended to mix different languages.


Vik Muniz, Carcere III, The Round Tower, after Piranesi, 2002

The representation of reality, the sense of visual perception, the relationship between art and audience, the disorientation created by the act of vision: these are the instances contained in the Prisons by Giovanni Battista Piranesi and then collected and reissued by Maurits Cornelis Escher and Vik Muniz. These three artists aim to establish a subtle dialectic between the author, the work of art and the viewer, called upon to rework the signs and, therefore, to make their own sense out of the image before his eyes. Ultimately, their works are profoundly democratic: here, even a prison becomes an area where human beings can exercise their free will.


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