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Giovanni Battista Piranesi, The Gothic Arch

The Gothic Arch, early 1770s

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 - 1778)

RA Collection: Art

First appeared around 1745 the Carceri (the Prisons) was regarded as a private and highly experimental work. Not conceived for strict commercial purposes - as suggested by the absence of any indication of the authorship on the frontispiece and on most of the plate - they provided an outlet for Piranesi fervent imagination. After fifteenth years, in 1761 Piranesi perfected this series of prints substantially reworking the plates, and adding two more. He then elaborated more cluttered composition enriching it with a series of instruments of torture 'many of them infuse with a sense of decay through endless use.'

These elements contributed to confer to the composition a prison imagery. Yet, the vastness of the space represented has little to do with the confined and claustrophobic tiny chambers of an eighteenth century prison. The inventiveness of the architecture is the result of Piranesi own interpretation of his imaginary dreamlike prison.

These impossible spaces produced by the fantasy of the artist deliberately defy any rule of architecture. In these paradoxically irrational spatial constructions, gothic arches are supported by piers disposed in the same plane, staircases intersect incongruently other architectural elements, focal points multiply while repetition of forms increase the ambiguity of the space.

The whimsical nature of the Carceri is has been explained with Piranesi's education as a stage designer. He spent his formative years between the native Venice where he worked as an apprenticed architect and scenographer, and in Rome learning his first technical rudiments of etchings, as topographical engraver. He developed his interest toward a classical architecture, assimilating in particular the ruins imagery from the engravings of Marco Ricci. At the time of his second staying in Venice, the encounter with the graphic work of Tiepolo, particularly the Capricci and the Scherzi di Fantasia, played a substantial role in maturing a new etching technique based on hastily sketched lines and broad area of tonal contrast.

Object details

The Gothic Arch
Published by
G.B. Piranesi, Carceri, pl. XIV (2nd edition, 3rd issue)
early 1770s
Object type
Place of Publication
Etching with engraving

415 mm x 547 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
This image is from a book

Carceri D'Invenzione Di G. Battista Piranesi Archit Vene - [Roma]: [early 1770s].

Click here to view the book

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