Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Italian, 17201778)
Etching, engraving, sulphur tint or open bite, burnishing; 21 7/8 x 16 7/16 in. (55.6 x 41.8 cm)
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1937 (37.45.3(27))
The fourteen plates of the Carceri, described on their title page as "capricious inventions," are probably Piranesi's best-known series. These structures, their immensity emphasized by the low viewpoint and the small size of the figures, derive from stage prisons rather than real onesPiranesi had created an earlier prison fantasy (in his Prima Parte) that is closely based on stage designs by Ferdinando Bibiena and Filippo Juvarra. Spatial anomalies and ambiguities abound in all the images of the series; they were not meant to be logical but to express the vastness and strength that Piranesi experienced in contemplating Roman architecture, to which he remained in thrall throughout his life. While elaborate theories have been developed to account for this series, it has also been plausibly suggested that Piranesi chose an architectural subject devoid of ornament and requiring little detail or textural differentiation, so that he could isolate the issues of perspective and spatial structure. In this series of variations on a theme, Piranesi attacked his copperplates with a boldness and spontaneity unmatched in any other work of his time. One of his goals seems to have been a thorough exploration of the tools and techniques of the etching medium. In The Round Tower, he used both burin and etching needle to scrape and scratch lines of every depth and width, while the burnisher was used to soften lines and create lighter patches. He created areas of gray throughout the plate by means of shallow surface scratches that held a light film of ink. In other places he applied acid directly to the plate in order to roughen it, resulting in scattered black spots. The brightest highlight of the print has been achieved by adding a resistant ground to an isolated spot before inking the platethe ground covers any etched lines in that area, as well as accidental scratches, so that the area prints a pure white in the midst of a wide range of blacks and grays.
About ten years later, Piranesi reworked these plates and added two new ones to the series. These reworked plates are even darker and more complex, with added details and inscriptions. While it is hard to find meaning in the first state of the series, the second state includes explicit references to the justice system under the Roman Republic and to the cruelty for which certain emperors were known.