PIRANESI, Giovanni Battista
(b. 1720, Mestre, d. 1778, Roma)

The Prisons (plate IV)

c. 1760
Etching, 54,5 x 41,5 cm
Various collections

Giovanni Battista Piranesi not only produced an incredible number of etchings and engravings, but is known to have written an autobiography which was reputedly as full of swashbuckling incidents as that of Benvenuto Cellini. His two sons knew this manuscript and, with additions based on their recollections, prepared their own version, which was submitted to an English publisher. Both versions are lost. In 1831 Francesco Piranesi did, however, publish an account of his father's career, part of which reads: "In an age of frivolities, he boldly and singlehanded dared to strike out for himself on a new road to fame: and in dedicating his talent to the recording and illustrating from ancient writers the records of former times, he met with a success as great as it deserved, combining, as he did, all that was beautiful in art with all that was interesting in the remains of antiquity."

Born in Venice, Piranesi yearned for Rome, and there he lived and worked most of his lifetime, dedicating himself to studying, measuring, and drawing its architectural treasures. From Giuseppe Vasi he had learned etching and engraving, and most of his plates are a mixture of these two techniques. It is believed that during his residence in Venice he also knew and studied the etchings of Tiepolo.

Certainly Piranesi's most often discussed prints are in his etched Prison series, the Carceri d'Innenzione. A famous description comes from De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. De Quincey never saw Piranesi's plates, but obviously was very moved by the verbal description of them given by his friend, the poet and essayist Coleridge.

Piranesi was twenty-two when he composed his sixteen fantasies. They were reissued about sixteen years later. They may be seen in two states: the first more freely drawn and lightly etched, the final one (to which this illustration belongs) reworked with deep, dark lines and more ominous interiors. These etchings were destined to influence countless scenic designers in preparing their sets of dungeons and torture chambers.