Inconsistent Images

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Piranesi's Carceri as Inconsistent

Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s brilliant series of etchings of imaginary prisons, known popularly as Carceri, is well known. It came in two Editions. The first Edition of 1749/50 contained a title page and 13 plates. In 1761 he published a revised second Edition, with a title page and 15 plates, several of which were significantly reworked. Each of these Editions has more than one printing in different states (with minor changes). Of interest to us here, is that some of the second Edition appear to contain impossible elements, arguably deliberately so.

In The Eye Beguiled (1986) Bruno Ernst identifies Piranesi’s Plate XIV of the second Edition as impossible. Plate XIV is as follows.

Ernst points out (83-4) that the stairs to the left intrude in an impossible way into the face determined by the series of pylons. Ernst’s own simplified diagrams are as follows (thanks to Ernst for permission to reproduce):.

This seems correct. However, it is worth noting that two further plates look to be impossible. First there is the Title Page. The Title Page of the first Edition is relatively innocuous, as follows.

But in the second Edition, the Title Page has extensive additions, particularly the
construction on the upper left.

While the matter is not entirely definite, the beams on the top left seem to have the following form.

That would be impossible. The two uprights seem to be connected to the horizontal beam below them, and not to either of the forward-protruding beams below that. But then their upper parts look to be aligned parallel to the forward-protruding beams. That is impossible. In any case, if the two uprights line up parallel to the protruding beams, then the upper beam joining the two uprights should not pass between them.

A second suspect etching is Plate VIII, as follows.

This is definitely impossible. The square arch forms a face. The stairs begin on the left at one of the uprights of the arch, hugging the face, then turn at a right angle before meeting the other upright of the arch. If the arch really had a face, there would be no room for stairs to turn into it before intersecting it. The arch below the second flight of stairs carries the upper landing behind the left-hand upright, demonstrating that the upper landing goes through the main face. See below.

The question arises of whether Piranesi knew that he was creating impossibilia. Bruno Ernst thinks yes, and that Plate XIV above demonstrates it. If the evidence were Plate XIV alone, then one might suspend judgement on the grounds that it could have been an error of perspective. But adding the Title page and Plate VIII suggests that Piranesi was exploring the theme of “imaginaryness” in his title (without of course letting it dominate his primary concern of creating impressive, forbidding dungeons). But there is also the further consideration of Piranesi’s other works. He was an architect, and his extensive publications contain many beautiful scenes of Rome, its public buildings, gardens and ruins, all skilfully drawn with perspective. He was, indeed, a master of classical perspective. It is hard to believe that such technical brilliance would easily make several errors in just one place, the Carceri, where they were appropriate to the primary theme (and after he had time for revision in the second edition, when the Title Page was modified). It is more reasonable to think that he knew well what he was trying to achieve.

Chris Mortensen
November 2007

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