The Gothic Arch, plate XIV from the Carceri d'Invenzione [Imaginary Prisons]
51.2 cm x 71.4 cm (20 3/16 in. x 28 1/8 in.)
Giovanni Battista Piranesi
(Mogliano (Treviso), Italy, 1720 - 1778, Rome)
Medium and Support:
Etching, engraving, and sulfur tint with burnishing
Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the generosity of the Still Water Foundation and the Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1992
The Carceri are Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s most inventive and famous series of architectural fantasies. The fourteen plates present sweeping views within vast interiors of massive masonry construction. Certain architectural motifs, various accoutrements of prisons and torture, and above all the suggestion of overpowering weight signal the theme. The Carceri conflate the visionary reconstruction of ancient Roman architecture in one earlier series, the Prima Parte, and the fanciful variations upon archaeological remains in another, the Grotteschi. Meanwhile their superimposition of rigorous perspective over frequently illogical structure recalls Piranesi’s training in scenographic decoration.
As they were fully articulated in later states with extensive re-biting and burin work, the Carceri are dark, menacing prefigurations of the awesome beauty of Edmund Burke’s “sublime.” But each plate began with a preparation in practically pure etching, which was issued in a small edition for connoisseurs. On the one hand, their fluent gesture and animated surface hark back to the earliest Italian etching. On the other, their ambiguous subject and summary rendering prefigure the preoccupation with surface and the self-referential technique of modernism.