Terror as subject-matter is common in both art and literature and has a long history. Art tells its own story of horrors. Francisco Goya and Giovanni Battista Piranesi were the outstanding printmakers of their time. Their images of human brutality still resonate in our violent day and age. As court painter to both Charles III and Charles IV of Spain, Goya achieved considerable fame as a portraitist. In 1819, at the age of seventy-three, he had fallen seriously ill. His doctor Eugenio García Arrieta nursed him back to health. On recovering, the artist presented him with a painting entitled ‘Self-Portrait with Dr Arrieta’, the last of many self-portraits which shows the physician ministering to his patient.
The inscription of thanks at the bottom of the painting gives the canvas the look of an ex-voto (a votive offering to a saint or divinity), a type of religious painting which expresses gratitude for deliverance from a calamity. In a further response to his narrow escape from death, Goya decorated the walls of his villa in the outskirts of Madrid, named the ‘Quinta del Sordo’ (House of the Deaf Man), with fourteen ‘black’ paintings.
These are the most hellish visions he ever created, images of a world consumed by hate. One of those paintings is ‘Saturn Devouring his Son’, depicting the myth of Saturn who, fearing that his children would supplant him, ate each one upon their birth. In the depiction of this scene by Rubens (which Goya would have seen in Madrid), Saturn bends his head over the body, sinks his teeth in the flesh and sucks the spurting blood of his screaming child. Goya’s version shows a bleeding remnant of a body, one of its stumps entering the giant’s gaping mouth. The mouth plays a prominent role in Goya’s art. Mouths guzzle ferociously, living flesh as well as dead. Saturn grips his child in his fists and with his mouth tears him limb from limb.
Piranesi’s work is relevant in this context for a different reason. Trained in Venice as an architect, his work occupies an intriguing place in the development of the cityscape. He studied with leading printmakers of the day and settled permanently in Rome in 1745. He created about 2,000 plates in his lifetime and there are two distinct aspects to his work. First there is the series of etchings of imaginary prisons, and secondly there are his famous views of Rome. His collection of Vedute di Roma (Views of Rome) features 135 perspectives on the ruins of the Eternal City in all its decayed glory. Piranesi captured an imaginary cityscape based on real architectural elements assembled in fantastical ways.
Eighteenth-century European writers and philosophers routinely compared the social order to a prison. During the eighteenth century penal institutions such as London’s Newgate Prison and the Bastille in Paris were imposing structures that developed into powerful symbols of oppression. In England, the Bloody Code referred to a system of laws and punishments that was in use from 1400 to 1850. By the early nineteenth century there were more than 200 offences carrying the death penalty. Crimes that were punishable by execution included stealing anything worth more than five shillings, stealing horses or sheep, right through to arson, treason and murder.
The century also gave rise to the notion of the Panoptikon (or Inspection House). Jeremy Bentham developed the idea of creating a more effective mode of reforming convicts. Prison was to remain a place of detention, but at the same time it had to become a workshop, in which inmates were to be employed in various trades. Part of the system consisted in placing prisoners under constant surveillance. From a room in the centre of the building, wardens could observe all parts of the prison. A reflecting apparatus enabled them to watch the prisoners in their cells at night. The design was invoked by Michel Foucault as metaphor for modern ‘disciplinary’ societies and its pervasive inclination to control and normalize.
Rome’s most famous prison was the underground Carcere Mamertino (Mamertine prison; the medieval name is most likely a reference to a nearby temple of Mars), known in antiquity as Tullanium, located on the northeastern slope of the Capitoline Hill. It consisted of a vast network of dungeons under the city’s main sewer system connected to the surface via a grand entranceway. Corridors and chambers descended downward, and were marked by the symbol of an upside-down cross. These vaults of horror would have been an inspiration to young Piranesi’s wild and macabre imagination.
Piranesi, a stonemason and builder’s son, arrived in Rome in 1740 as part of the entourage of Marco Foscarini, the Venetian ambassador to the new pope, Benedict XIV. He was trained in architecture and stage design, and had acquired knowledge of the techniques of perspective which are essential to both disciplines. As early as 1741 he was producing small Roman views for inclusion in popular guide books and almost immediately he seemed to be searching for a new and more personal mode of urban representation. His career as an architect went nowhere. The lack of commissions was a bitter blow and made him unsure about the direction to take, that of the architect or that of the artist/engraver. The ambivalence can be traced throughout his career.
From 1745 onwards he produced fourteen of his most disturbing prints, the Carceri d’invenzione or ‘Imaginary Prisons’ which show the interior of vast prisons, littered with arches, stairways, pulleys, ropes and various relics of classical antiquity. The spaces of the Carceri, simultaneously vast and claustrophobic, are clearly based on the vaults of antiquity, but the parts have been jumbled: stairs and drawbridges go nowhere, arches pile up to form an inescapable labyrinth. Using his theatrical set experience and knowledge of architecture, these images are well ordered yet menacingly chaotic, realistic and dreamlike. The ultimate inspiration for these works was not dissimilar from Goya’s experience. Supposedly based on a malarial fever-dream, the Carceri suggest a descent into the subconscious, an extraordinarily detailed nightmare. The particulars are drawn from the vocabulary of ancient Rome. The emotional atmosphere speaks to universal anxieties. Ten years later Piranesi radically reworked the same plates and added two new ones.
He made the architectural forms more elaborate, and introduced new sequence of vaults, arches, and stairs that recede indefinitely. The imagery speaks of a grey world of stone and ritual in which the human factor is utterly insignificant. Tiny figures struggle in these huge interiors, including, according to Thomas de Quincey inConfessions of an English Opium Eater Piranesi himself: ‘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’. The immensity of the architecture seems to embody the workings of an evil supernatural power. The machinery of cables and levers suggests awful horrors. Piranesi’s etchings of imaginary prisons held a hypnotic fascination for later Romantic writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Edgar Allen Poe (his story ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ is a transcription of the world of Piranesi’s prisons) and artists such as Charles Meryon in his haunting visions of Paris. They had a huge influence on the development of the Gothic novel and the creation of the Gothicscape. Reacting against the Enlightenment idea that society is founded upon rational thought processes, the Romantics injected the drug of dreams and nightmares instead.
Piranesi’s prisons not only recall Rome’s Mamertine, but also medieval ways of physical punishment. Grates, hooks and pulleys suggest a hellish mechanism in which the prisoner is subjected to the various instruments of torture. In literary terms such images date back to medieval vision literature which initially consisted of stories handed down by word of mouth. The stories describe experiences of people who allegedly had been taken to hell. A famous example is the ‘Vision of Tundale’, an Irish knight who had been in a coma for three days from which he returned to urge others to repent. The tale dates from the middle of the twelfth century (over 150 years before Dante’s Inferno) and was written in Latin by a Benedictine monk. His experiences are divided into ten Passus or ’paces’ (a division of parts in medieval narrative) which are a neatly arranged as a catalogue of sins in which every crime has a ‘fitting’ punishment. The worst the sin, the more severe is the pain. Piranesi offers an elaborate and corresponding set of torture instruments in his images. A wheel with spikes around its circumference; a post with more spikes; a kind of chandelier suspended from a beam ringed with meathooks, etc. The act of torture does not take place in these prints, but Piranesi is a master of suggestion. There are just glimpses of the damned, a couple of men digging a grave in the middle of the prison, a person being pulled on a rack, or naked figures chained to posts. While prisoners undergo mysterious torments, luckier souls pass by on parapets or bridges that in the context of the image have no logic or necessity. Piranesi seems less interested in the plight of the prisoners than in an unsettling fantasy of space. His prison is a place without limits, the interiors have no outer walls, and each vista is cut off only by the frame of the image itself. They may not even be interiors because they are integrated into a cityscape where – even if certain settings are recognizable – interior and exterior are no longer definable.
Although these prison scenes were produced in Rome, they belong to a Venetian tradition. The capriccio was developed as an art form in early eighteenth century Venice. Influenced by Italian theatre, the genre grew as a result of the Grand Tour when capricci were offered as an addition or alternative to the townscape. Piranesi built on the work of two other Venetians, on Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s playful Capricci and on the set designs of Ferdinando Galli Bibiena, a master of Baroque scenography and founder of a dynasty of stage designers. In painting, capricci are a playful mixture of architectural and sculptural elements – both real and fictional – in which tombs and urns, pillars and pyramids, are decorated with inscriptions. Locations are rearranged and peopled by mythological beings and symbolic animals. Such scenographic presentation perfectly suited the theatrical character of Rome’s public spaces, but Piranesi’s series of etchings of imaginary prisons remain Venetian in spirit. He could never free himself from his native city’s air of decline. In the haunting visions of a doomed city one recognizes the source of his gloomy inspiration. He produced a cityscape in which Kafka seems to embrace Escher.
The Romans created a vast network of roads across the Empire, initially to move troops to trouble spots, but also for speedy communication and ease of travel. Roman viae were the arteries of the military system. The Via Appia was the ‘queen of long roads’ (‘Appia teritur regina longarum viarum’), stretching across southern Italy and joining Rome with Brindisi at the Adriatic coast. It was named after Appius Claudius Caecus, the Roman censor who completed the first section as a military road to the south in 312 BC during the Samnite War. In one of the frontispieces in the four-volume Le antichità Romane (1756), Piranesi’s vision of the intersection of the Via Appia and the Via Ardeatina is piled high with mausoleums, gravestones, marble busts and body parts, and a stone she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus.
The Via Appia typifies his Roman views that became as much a tourist attraction as the city’s sights themselves. In the early fifteenth century, Flavio Biondo created a guide to the ruins and topography of ancient Rome for which he has been called an early founder of archaeology. However, it was only during the eighteenthth century that the systematic study of the past through its physical remains began to be carried out. The excavations of Pompeï and Herculaneum during the late 1730s and 1740s made an impact throughout Europe. By the time Piranesi arrived in Rome nevertheless, the city’s ancient temples and arches were used as cheap sources of raw materials. Over a period of time the Colosseum had been stripped of usable stone. Maffeo Barberini, who reigned as Pope Urban VIII, had carted off the bronze of the Pantheon. Rome was either plundered or neglected – the Roman Forum was known as the Campo Vaccino (the cow field). Piranesi, the Venetian, found his calling in Rome’s ruins. He was outraged by the city’s decay. Regretting that the ancient buildings were gradually reduced by vandalists who used ancient rubble to built modern houses, he decided to preserve their memory in art. While ancient Roman urban planners introduced the rational grid to cities across the Empire, the city of Rome itself remained topographically a chaotic assemblage of spaces that were shaped haphazardly against the background of its seven hills. The artist took delight in the city’s irrationality. In the Vedute di Roma and Antichità he captured the ruins in all their decrepit glory. Piranesi the antiquarian was shocked by the state of ancient Rome. Piranesi the salesman explored and exploited the potential of a newly discovered art market. Few works can match his Vedute for artistic influence, commercial success and political impact. He was also a polemicist who claimed Roman sovereignty in ancient architecture. In works such as Della magnificenzo ed archetettura de’ Romani (1761) he opposed fashionable Grecophilia that was inspired by Winckelmann’s aesthetic theories.
Piranesi’s powerful prints were produced in large quantities and, just like Canaletto’s paintings, conceived as souvenirs. This mass distribution inspired the ‘ruin lust’ that gripped European art and literature in the eighteenth century and reached its height in the romantic period. Piranesi’s business enterprise also included dealing in antiquities and publishing ‘pattern books’ such as Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcophagi (1778), an artifact catalogue, and Diverse maniere d’adornare i cammini (1769), decorative schemes based on pastiches of antique styles. In Diverse maniere Piranesi gave prominence to the design (sixty-one in total) for chimney-pieces. This form of interior feature did not have a precedent in antiquity. He applied the ancient Roman approach to design to contemporary demands which allowed his flamboyant fantasy to run free.
Egyptian and Etruscan elements merge with the myths of antiquity and the Renaissance. These works had widespread influence on eighteenth-century design. Not in the least on Scottish architect and decorator Robert Adam who spent five years in Rome studying with him. The latter went on to become a principal exponent of British and European Neoclassicism. Horace Walpole was attracted to his work. John Soane, an extremely successful neoclassical architect, was also an admirer of Piranesi, acquiring fifteen drawings of the Italian master which are now part of the rich collection of Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. What was the specific appeal of his work? From a stylistic and technical point of view his engravings were highly original. Piranesi created images by etching with a stylus on a waxed copper plate after which this plate was set in an acid bath where the sharp lines would be etched away. This method gives his prints a hand-drawn look. He worked exclusively in black-and-white, but he was a master of re-creating the effects of shadow, sunlight, and the movement of clouds. Just as important was the psychological effect of his images. During the first half of the eighteenth century Rococo was at its height. Piranesi’s work is a reaction to the soft elegance and sugary optimism of Rococo art. Instead of images of ideal forms, he shed light on the débris of a doomed metropolis. Ruins register both the termination and the survival of matter. These fragments of the urban past symbolize transience and durability, dissolution and survival. Piranesi produced etchings of Roman ruins and deliberately enlarged them suggesting both the might of ancient civilization and the inevitable fate of human hubris in the face of a remorseless cosmos. The Roman views of Giovanni Battista Piranesi have lost none of their power over the centuries. Because he was depicting the city before proper excavations were undertaken, his Roman cityscape was genuinely ancient. His craftsmanship made his images transcend their immediate circumstances to become evocative expressions of the grandeur that once was Rome.