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Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Carceri D'Invenzione  Di G. Battista Piranesi Archit Vene

The Gothic Arch, early 1770s

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 - 1778)

RA Collection: Art

First appearing 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 - the etchings provided an outlet for Piranesi's fervent imagination. In 1761, Piranesi perfected this series of prints after 15 years during which he substantially reworked the plates and added two more. He created this cluttered composition, enriching it with a series of instruments of torture, 'many of them infused with a sense of decay through endless use.'

These elements gave the composition certain elements of prison imagery. Yet the vastness of the space represented has little to do with the confined and claustrophobic chambers of an eighteenth-century prison. The inventiveness of the architecture is the result of Piranesi's own interpretation of his imaginary dreamlike prison.

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

The whimsical nature of the Carceri has been explained through Piranesi's education as a stage designer. He spent his formative years between his native Venice, working as an apprenticed architect and scenographer, and Rome, learning his first technical rudiments of etchings as a topographical engraver. He developed an interest towards classical architecture, assimilating in particular the depiction of ruins from the engravings of Marco Ricci (1676-1730). At the time of his second stay in Venice, his encounter with the graphic work of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), 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 areas 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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