One modern critic called this artist “the Rembrandt of Ruins.” His imagination was at ease in sumptuous desolation, especially when it depicted the Roman past coexisting with an imaginary disintegrated present. In a capriccio grottesco included in his 1750 Opere Varie (a grottesco included fantastically exotic, monstrous elements), in an overlit background a swirling cloudy darkness frames Rome’s Triumphal Arch and, in the foreground, a cataclysm commands our attention: ferocious vegetation squirms from stones and broken pillars and musical instruments while human figures haul around remnants of a ruptured civilization. All this dust-enraptured ruination creates a barbarously elegant scene.
In another engraving, Piranesi depicts the ancient Appian Way as an open-air archeological warehouse, a boulevard packed tight with ewers, urns, statuary, and ornaments. (He lived in the first great age of modern archeology: extensive excavations were taking place in Herculaneum, near Naples.) In Skeletons, a boneyard is strewn with burial shrouds, tombs, and architectural fragments, and bestriding this mess of mortality are over-muscled human figures overseeing their own fatedness. I think Piranesi’s obsession with the streaming of the past into the present went perfectly with his love for architectural elaborations that extend endlessly into imagined space. In his fantasy of a harbor scene, for instance, the piers that meet the turbulent waters — along with imperial staircases and platforms and passageways — lead us into a parable of indeterminable destinations.
This indeterminateness saturates Piranesi’s most famous work, the Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), a series of 16 prints that don’t so much depict humans suffering in confinement as they depict the stupendous oppressiveness and unendingness of spaces and structures that articulate such confinement. What oppresses, in other words, is the unfinished incompleteness of the housing, as if torment and isolation were constantly reinventing their means. It’s the tyranny of the invisible. In the great vaulted spaces of the Carceri, delirium and unreason are given carefully, madly elaborated structures composed of gangways, platforms, chains and pulleys, shattered masonry, archways and bridgeworks to nowhere, turrets and tunnels, observation decks, ropes and racks and pikes and, tucked into shadowy recesses, the prisoners themselves, whose despair can be calculated by the spaces that contain and miniaturize them. The figures, phantasmal emanations crosshatched into shape, seem there and not there.
I think the Carceri was primarily a thrilling adventure in exploring space and the theatricality of evil, with emphasis on the theatrical; by the time he etched them, Piranesi was an expert in Venetian set design. But you can’t always control what your successors will make of your work. Romantic writers — De Quincey and Coleridge, most famously — took up the prison imagery as an externalized representation of the sufferings of the inner life. But it was a much later writer, Marguerite Yourcenar, author of the great Memoirs of Hadrian, who stated most strongly how Piranesi’s soaringly oppressive confinements are the visual expression of “the key features of the dream state: the denial of time, the unevenness of space, the hints at levitation, the intoxication of the impossible reconciled or overcome, the absence of visible links between the participants or characters in the dream, and finally the fatal and inevitable beauty.”