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Scientific reproduction and the terrain of terror: metaphysical prisons from Giambattista Piranesi to Franz Kafka.

For readers with broader cultural interests, it was not too difficult to spot a trend in the latter part of the 1990s: the renewed vigorous interest in the person and the works of Giambattista Piranesi. In 1997, Piranesi's works were featured with those of two other Venetian artists, Tiepolo and Canaletto, in an exhibit in Padua. In the same year his etchings of imaginary prisons, Le Carceri d'Invenzione, were dramatized in a film that 'was part of the PBS series Inspired by Bach. Exhibits of his works followed during the next two years in Rome and Stuttgart, accompanied by the publication of catalogues, as had been the case with the Padua exhibit. In 2000, two publications were of interest: the English translation of Gerhard Kopf's novel Piranesi 's Dream, an imaginary autobiography of the artist, and Luigi Ficacci's catalogue raisonne of Piranesi's etchings in a trilingual edition.'

The intensity of interest in our time in an eighteenth-century engraver is surprising, because he had for so long been considered a minor artist. Older art histories directed toward a general readership, such as the excellent book by E. H. Gobrich The Story of Art, (2) do not mention Piranesi at all, while others might give a little information such as that he had been a Venetian architect who never built anything in the city of his birth, and next to nothing in Rome where he spent most of his life.

What then accounts for the interest in Piranesi, who, in his own time, had been known primarily as the manufacturer of hundreds of views of Rome, past and contemporary, as popular souvenirs for the privileged travelers of the grand tour? What Piranesi did achieve in his Antichita Romane and other such precisely measured and described engravings of classical monuments is nothing short of creating the beginnings of serious scientific archaeology. He worked, as Ficacci described, "under the banner of a radically new scientific empiricism drawing on the power of the imagination in an inseparable whole perfectly represented by the organic unity of the four volumes of Antichita Romance" (38). What Piranesi's work ultimately offers is a form of visual archaeology.

Marguerite Yourcenar links Piranesi's scientific method to the fact that he thought like an architect. He was an artist, who throughout his whole life focused on only one object, manmade structures:

Many painters of genius have been architects as well; very few have thought solely in terms of architecture in their painted, drawn or engraved work. ... Piranesi's studies as an architect taught him to reflect thoroughly and continuously in tenns of balance and weight, of blocks and mortar. His antiquarian research, furthermore accustomed him to recognize in each fragment of antiquity the singularities or specifications of kind; they were for him what the dissection of cadavers is for a painter of the nude. (3)

Yourcenar's reference to dissection reminds one of two paintings by Rembrandt on this subject: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. TuIp (1623) and the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Jan Deyman (1659). It was Rembrandt who strongly influenced Piranesi, especially in his etching technique. In the subject matter of dissection, Rembrandt in turn had been influenced by the great Renaissance anatomist Andreas Vesalius, in whose etchings of De_Humani Corporis Fabrica flayed cadavers trailing ribbons of skin behind them walk surreally through Italian landscapes. Of note especially are the plates of the second book of De Humani, which illustrate the muscle groups. The background of one plate shows overgrown Roman ruins of the kind Piranse would evoke frequently in his Vadute. (4) But in their matter-of-fact depiction of such macabre scenes, the plates of Vesalius can be likened to the mood pervading Piranesi's Carceri.

Piranesi's meticulousness of observation and the precision ofhis representation, especially in his etchings depicting the ruins of Caesarean Rome, may justifiably be compared to the skills of a pathologist. Kopf's fictionalized Piranesi describes his method similarly: "I dissected masomy just as an anatomist dissects a corpse" (59-60).

Piranesi's scientific accuracy in the reproduction of Roman ruins, which are lovingly and almost photographically detailed, although he skewed his perspectives, can hardly account for the esteem in which his work is held. Although among art historians the interest in his work fluctuated, it always seemed to have found admirers among writers and artists. De Quincey and Coleridge, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, and Mallarme are noteworthy examples.

Through the symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, who used Piranesi's etchings not only as inspiration but as actual models for his paintings (e.g., D jomedes Devoured by His Horses 1865), the engraver's influence passed into the era of literary decadence especially to Joris-Karl Huysmans. (5)

Kafka, the other pole of this examination, rejected the writers of the decadence such as Huysmans and Oscar Wilde, in spite of the fact that "the literary antecedents of the 'Penal Colony' have been persuasively traced to Le Jardin des supplices, a rather lurid 1899 novel by the French playwright Octave Mirbeau that combines a sado-anarchist assault on bourgeois morals with explicit sexual imagery." (6)

At first glance Mirbeau's ornate decadence does not matchKalka's objective rather matter-of-fact style, were it not for the sexual images that can readily be found in his writings combined with a punishment scenario that is being performed over and over again.

Of Piranesi's large body of work, only a small part is responsible for the unflagging interest writers have in him, and that is a single work, the Carceri d'Invenzione, which consist of no more than sixteen plates. The Carceri were created when the artist was twenty-three years old, and at times this work was thought to be something that carried no greater weight than a showpiece designed to demonstrate dexterity, an ability to comprehend and construct large interior spaces, and whatever other skills an inventive architect needed to demonstrate. Various other explanations have been offered for the existence of this extraordinary work, as if cause and reason were needed. One such objection to its greatness was that it was not unusual at all, but merely a product of the Zeitgeist of the eighteenth century and its preoccupation with prisons. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham personified this special interest by working for twenty-five years developing a perfect prison, his Panoptikon. The tendency of the enlightenm ent to reform institutions such as insane asylums and prisons surely cannot be seen as motivation for the creation of the Carceri. Unconvincing is also the view that the Carceri is merely another work in the genre of architectural fantasies and thus without inner meaning and devoid of any connection to the heart, soul, or mind of the artist, such as pieces executed by the Venetian Giuseppe Bibiena. Others claimed that the Carceri are merley design sketches for the Baroque stage, such as those of Ferdinando Bibiena, who designed a gothic prison set for a Venetian theater. (7)

Equally unbelievable is the idea that the Carcert are merely part of yet other Baroque and Rococo genres, such as the grotteschi and the capricci. Of the latter genre, a work by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Capricci (1743), is noteworthy for two reasons, one, that it confronts death, as the Carceri do, and the other is that Piranesi worked in Tiepolo's studio just prior to etching his Carceri (Wilton 15). Yet, the conventionality and emptiness of the above-mentioned genres do not provide the basis for a fruitful comparison with the Carceri, which is "an intensely private work far ahead of its time in both form and content" (Wilton 81).

Although beyond the scope of this article, it is worth noting that shortly after Piranesi's departure for Rome, Tiepolo also left Venice. He went to Madrid, where he stayed till the end of his life. Here he encountered Goya, who would become the creator of possibly the greatest depictions of terror in his Horrors of War. It ought not to surprise that Goya collected Piranesi's etchings. (8)

The nature of the Carceri was discussed by De Quincey and Coleridge, who had not seen these etchings before.

Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi's Antiquities of Rome, Mr Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist, called his Dreams, and which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever. Some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr Coleridge's account) represented vast Gothic halls: on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, &c. &c. expressive of enormous power put forth and resistance overcome. (9)

The Carceri showed Roman architecture rather than "vast Gothic halls," and these etchings were never known as Dreams. It is not clear which state of the Carceri Coleridge had seen. The two states, separated from each other by fifteen years, show important differences from each other. The plates of the second, published in 1760, are considerably darker than the original state, not merely in tone but also in mood. Through the introduction of machines of torture and execution the Carceri had become even more threatening and violent. Instead of being merely a reissue with some added crosshatching, the differences between the two states of the Carceri amounts to "a radical reworking of the engraving" (Ficacci 128). To the word "reworking" one would like to add the word "rethinking."

The initial etchings of the Carceri are ominous, not because of what is there but because of what is merely implied. The most harrowing feature of the prisons depicted is their endlessness in space and time. There are no ceilings confining our imagination and we are led to believe that other stories can be found below the bottom edge of the etchings. These huge spaces are crisscrossed by stairs and by walkways thrust into nothingness, threating like anything jutting into the prison space. Inmost etchings of the first state, simple and harmless explanations can be found for "the engines and machinery, wheels cables, pulleys" mentioned by Coleridge. A sawhorse sitting in the foreground of plate XII need not be an instrument of torture, but it unmistakably becomes one when, in the second state, it is studded with large spikes. And so, in Piranesi's reworking of the Carceri of his youth, the tackles, wheels, hawsers, winches, and ropes can no longer be mistaken for construction equipment, but now plainly belong i n the arsenal of the torturer.

After having understood the implications of the Carceri, one almost automatically draws a line from Piranesi to Kafka. It is hut a short journey from the Carceri to a penal colony where prisoners are tortured and executed by an immense machine. Reading the "Penal Colony," one may only belatedly become aware that this story of about thirty-five pages is devoid of any color whatsoever. This imaginary Devil's Island has become in Kafka's hands a black-and-white prison, not unlike Piranesi's. Drawings of Kafka that have survived show black stick figures on a white background.

Figures do appear in Piranesi's etchings, but most often in detached attitudes even when they are in close proximity to torture and its instruments, which is reminiscent of the same attitude in Kafka's characters, when they witness a beating or other violence.

What Heinz Politzer says about the relation of human figures to the torture and killing machine in the "Penal Colony" is also applicable to the Carceri. "Although this device is as dead as it is deadly, its presence so dominates the story that the human figures around it must be relegated to minor roles. (10)

Not only are the roles people play in the Carceri distinctly minor, but the people themselves are small. In 1914, the year Kafka wrote the "Penal Colony," Benjamin Burges Moore commented on the size of the human figures as drawn by Piranesi. "His use of the human figure rises to the truly dramatic. In the midst of these vast and awful halls with their air of stillness and of power of 'resistance overcome,' he places men who seem the smallest and frailest among creatures." (11)

It is true, neither Kafka's story nor Piranesi's etchings are about people; one is about an inhuman machine while the other is about inhuman architecture. One then has to wonder why there are human beings at all in the Carceri, because even without them the character and nature of the buildings are unmistakable. The inclusion of people in the Carceri as well as in architectural drawings and models is to provide a scale, except Piranesi's prisons are not drawn to a human scale but are titanic in measure thereby reducing the figures to the size of gnomes. In the first state, the exception to this practice is found on the most remarkable plate X, where an over-sized group of prisoners is tied to stakes. "Prisoners on a Projecting Platform," a title given only later to this etching, is unique among the plates of the first edition, because it forces the viewer to focus his attention on the scene of men hanging in their ropes, some dead or at least without consciousness. This scene isso unusual in theme as well as by being out of proportion to anyone or anything else on this plate, that it would not be a leap of imagination to see these bound prisoners as a monumental sculpture, such as that of Laocoon and his sons struggling against the deadly coils of the sea snakes. Inserting a statue into the larger image of the prison is in keeping with something Piranesi had done earlier and that is to combine in the same work an imaginary building with readily recognizable classical statuary, such as the "Horse Tamers" and "La Dea Roma" in a pen-and-brown-ink drawing identified only generically as "Architectural Fantasy," drawn in 1745 just prior to the Carceri. (12)

In producing the second state of his etchings, Piranesi not only made his prisons darker, more cluttered, and thus more oppressive and violent, but he also included more people. Some are involved in acts of torture, while many others seem to have no purpose at all. Coleridge relayed a strange observation about one such man to De Quincey:

Creeping along the sides of the walls, you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the Stairs a little further, and you perceive it come to a sudden abrupt termination, without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who had reached the extremity, except into the depths below. Whatever is to become of poor Piranesi, you suppose, at least, that his labours must in some way terminate here. But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher: on which again Piranesi is perceived, by this time standing on the very brink of the abyss. Again elevate your eye, and a still more aerial flight of stairs is beheld: and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labours: and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi are both lost in the upper gloom of the hall. (422-23)

There is no such plate in the Carceri nor would it be possible to identify any one of the tiny figures as to any likeness to Piranesi, and yet, the Carceri may after all turn out to be a form of self-inclusion or a self-portrait of the artist.

Self-inclusions of artists in their works are historically not uncommon. To Rembrandt's large number of self-portraits one has to add all of his paintings into which he has inserted his own likeness. Sometimes he played several roles in the same history painting--three alone in The Stoning of Stephan--while in The Raising of the Cross he stands in the focal point of the painting as the executioner of Christ. (13) One wonders whether this was Rembrandt's ironic comment on Durer's self-portrait as Christ, done in the year 1500.

If the Carceri offer us a self-portrait of the artist, one has to ask where in this work one might find the likeness of Piranesi. Jean Starobinski asked that question: "Are we being invited to share the merciless exaltation of an architect-executioner or the anguish of the foredoomed prisoner?" (14) Picasso, who was no stranger to portraying himself in many shapes, said, "The awful thing is that one is one's own Promethean eagle, both the one who devours and the one who's devoured. (15) Eugenio Montale made a similar observation in his poem "The Prisoners's Dream," "Still I don't know if at the feast I'll be the stuffer or staffing." (16)

Rembrandt's Flayed Ox, created in 1655 at a time of great personal misfortune, depicts a "disembowled ox carcas...spread-eagled, lashed to a wooden cross-piece" (Schama 598). If such a painting can be viewed as a "tragic projection of the artist.. who felt the flayers in the wings, the hooks in the bone," then it appears possible to see in the Carceri an attempt by Piranesi to create with his imaginary prisons a self-portrait of the twenty-three-year-old architect struggling to be a builder (Schama 599). When, at age forty, he still had not been given the opportunity to build anything, the second state of his imaginary prisons grew grimmer, the violence of the structure depicted in each case turned against its inner space. Kopf's Piranesi realizes that these unfulfilled dreams are his self-portrait. "The unbuilt structures...all called themselves Me" (97).

In our time the interest in the Carceri is broad-based enough to warrant the attempt by a television series to create a synthesis of music and architecture based on Piranesi's etchings. Part of the PBS series Inspired by Bach, in which six filmmakers visualized the composer's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, is a film by Francois Girard combining the music of Suite No. 2 with the architecture of the Carceri. (17) The poet Novalis stressed the necessity that one ought never to look at plastic works of art without accompanying music." In Girard's film the Carceri become a computer-generated three-dimensional site with Yo-Yo Ma at its center. Against this somber background Bach's music eloquently recreates the human voice crying out in sorrow and mourning over the victims of torture and execution. It is as if the cello strings were needed to give voice to those who have been crushed by their suffering into silence. Bach's music provides the human counterpoint to Piranesi's gigantic structures of absolute power. T he music having become voice ennobles the human suffering, as Goethe's Tasso cried out in his despair, that in all his suffering which struck others dumb, nature had gilled him with music and speech to lament the depth of his misery. (19)

Goethe also had seen the affinity of music and architecture, calling the latter frozen music and had spoken of Orpheus as the first architect, as he, lyre in hand, through his music was able to move stones to arrange themselves into orderly structures surrounding a market place.

Piranesi and Bach meet on the ground common to both: painting and mathematics. The Roman engraver Giuseppe Vasi dismissed Piranesi from his workshop because he was "too much of a painter to be an engraver" (Ficacci 19). Albert Schweitzer, in his book on Bach, repeatedly mentioned the painterly qualities of the composer. (20) Goethe had already noticed these qualities in his assessment of Bach's fugues as well as their mathematical nature by calling them "illuminated mathematical exercises" (23:945). Here again, Piranesi and Bach meet.

A contemporary audience, shown the structure of the Carceri, will be reminded of buildings in M. C. Escher's etchings. Although Escher usually does not imprison anyone in his maze-like buildings, he certainly traps the viewer in his structures conceived as mathematical games executed as optical illusions. This artist's greatest affinity is, once again, Johann Sebastian Bach. Escher describes in almost mystical terms his experience of attending a performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations at the Concertgebouw:

The concert made an indelible impression on me. I sat listening in breathless ecstasy to that glorious music. And the farther along the stream of variations advanced, the greater my admiration became... That was Bach to whom I have pledged my heart and my intellect at the same time. (21)

The enduring popularity of Piranesi and the particular relevance of the darkest of his works to the generations of the twentieth century, may be explain by the fact that in the Carceri he was not representative of his own century, but his temperament and the intensity of his personal vision made this work timeless. Not even the vagaries and the fluctuation of movements in art and literature were able to diminish the interest in Piranesi's work, because he was classic as well as romantic, as Benjamin Burges Moore pointed out early in the twentieth century:

He was both, by nature and by volition, profoundly classical, yet he enveloped all that he handled, however classic it might be in subject, with a sense of mysterious strangeness so strong as to arouse the sensation called in later times romantic. This contrast is one of the distinctive phases of his originality. (46)

Finally, after having admired the classical precision of Piranesi's measurements and his mathematical calculations which made his imagined prison real, one needs to keep in mind that in spite of the apparent solidity of the fortress-like walls of his dungeons, they veer off into dream-states and reveal themselves as nightmarish hallucinations. "In the inspired Imaginary Prisons, he will audaciously combine elements which are Roman; he will transpose the substance of Rome into the realm of the irrational" (Yourcenar 89-90). The assumption is that the irrationality of the Carceri could be explained by the possibility that the work was conceived while the artist lay ill with fever. The idea that the Carceri were the product of feverish hallucinations does not account for the fact that plates of the second state, published sixteen years later, increased the nightmarish qualities of the earlier work. The etchings of the Carceri clearly represent the artist's dark view of the world as such. Kopf lets his fictional Piranesi state: "The dungeon as mirror of the world, distorted and exaggerated, but in that way all the truer--the dungeon as counterworld in which our terrible world can be depicted" (50). One could add that the "Penal Colony," created in the late autumn of the first year of World War I, can likewise be seen as such a counterworld of our terrible world. This surely is the conclusion reached by Kafka in each of his works and in none more than in his "Penal Colony."

Ten years alter Kafka had written the "Penal Colony," Sergei Eisenstein directed his first film Strike. The battle of the workers with the tsarist cavalry spilled across narrow bridges connecting the tenement blocks, bridges reminiscent of those spanning the Careen. Years later, at the end of his career, the influence of the Carceri could be seen in the vaults and dungeons of Ivan the Terrible. The connection between Piranesi and Eisenstein is not a fanciful or tenuous one, because the director used Carceri etchings as illustrations in the design classes he taught at the State Cinema Institute (V.G.I.K) in Moscow. (22)

But the Carceri were also part of Eisenstein on the most personal level, of his dreams and imaginings. In a sketch "Book Shops," he combined the best features of many stores into one that he considered the ideal book shop. "Here I would often hold a complete set of the Carceri by Piranesi in my hands, of which at home I only possess there plates." (23) This bookstore, to which he had access at any time and could indulge himself without having to worry about whether he could pay, was, as he sadly admits, only a dream. This statement of how important the Carceri were was written by Eisenstein, who by then had become the most important filmmaker of the Soviet cinema, during the time when he worked on Ivan the Terrible.

The line of influence of a single work, the Carceri, by a then-unknown young man, has profoundly echoed through the centuries down to our time, inspiring artist in all the arts and promising to do so in the future. The "violent dreamer" (Yourcenar 92) of the eighteenth century saw the future better than most. Unfortunately so.

(1.) Kopf (New York: Braziller, 2000) and Ficacci, Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Complete Etchings (Cologne: Taschen, 2000).

(2.) New York: Phaidon, 1941. The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays (New York: Farrar, 1984) 99.

(4.) J. B. de C. M. Saunders and Charles D. O'Malley, The Illustrations from the Works ofAndreas Vesalius of Brussels (Cleveland, OH: World, 1950) 94.

(5.) Genevieve Lacambre, Gustave Moreau: Magic and Symbols (New York: Abrams, 1999) 52-53.

(6.) Ernest Pawel, The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka (London: Harvill, 1984) 327.

(7.) John Wilton-Ely, The Mind and Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978) 139.

(8.) Pierre Gassier, Goya (Geneva: Skira, 1955) 18.

(9.) Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (London: Macdonald, 1956) 422.

(10.) Heinz Politzer, Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1962) 98.

(11.) Giovanni Battista Piranesi (New York: Far Gallery, 1962) 57.

(12.) Plate A-I, Felice Stammpfle, Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Drawings in the Pierpont Morgan Library (New York: Dover, 1978).

(13.) Simon Schama, Rembrandt's Eyes (New York; Knopt 1999) 293-94.

(14.) The Invention of Liberty: 1700-1789 (Geneva: Skira, 1964) 198.

(15.) "Helene Parmelin, Intimate Secrets of the Studio at Notre Dame de Vie (New York: Abrams, 1966) 140.

(16.) Trans. Jonathan Galassi, Collected Poems 1920-1954 (New York: Farrar, 2000) 409-11.

(17.) "Girard dealt previously with J. S. Bach in Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, the noted interpreter of Bach's clavier music. Filmed in 1993.

(18.) "Man sollte plastische Kunstwerke nie ohne Musik sehn." Werke/Briefe/Dokumente (Heidelberg: Lambert Schneider, 1957) 3:23.

(19.) "Sie liess im Schmerz mir Melodie und Rede, /die tiefste Fulle meiner Not zu klagen: /Und wenn der Mensch in seiner Qual verstummt, /Gab mir ein Got zu sagen wie ich leide," Gedenkausgabe der Werke, Briefe und Gesprache (Zurich: Artemis, 1949) 6:313.

(20.) J. S. Bach (New York: Dover, 1966).

(21.) Escher on Escher: Exploring the Infinite (New York: Abrams, 1989) 20.

(22.) Vladimir Nizhny, Lessons with Eisenstein (New York: Hill and Wang, 1969) 124.

(23.) Io: Ich selbst: Memoiren (Vienna: Locker Verlag, 1984) 1:433.
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Author:Wegner, Hart L.
Publication:West Virginia University Philological Papers
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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