Piranesi: A Contextual View of His Work

By: Ahmed Altunisi

The dark brain of Piranesi

Is a gaping furnace

Where the ark and sky mingle

The staircase

The tower

The column

Where belief, rising, swells and bubbles, The incommensurable babel.

– Les Contemplations, Victor Hugo, 1856


The “Dark Brain” as Victor Hugo describes it, belongs to the 18th Century Venetian architect, archaeologist, and artist named Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778). Renowned for his engravings, his pieces remain a hallmark of the Baroque era, combining impressively scaled landscapes with scientifically accurate architectural designs that enrapture those who view his works. However, his works are mostly seen from that fantastical perspective without much consideration of the context in which they were engraved, let alone in relation to other developments during the Baroque era such as Cesare Beccaria’s legal reforms. Beccaria’s reforms came during a time when cities such as Rome functioned without a penal code or a unified judicial system, leading to corruption and cruelty. As Piranesi lived in Rome during the 18th century, it must stand that his work would reflect that context in some way. A likely candidate for this is his own Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons) which, on the surface level, depicts subterranean prisons with almost impossible architecture, leading to enrapturing views.

This article explores these engravings with said contexts in mind and comments on the connection between Piranesi’s Carceri d’invenzione and Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishment. While both works are in different mediums, both explore the themes of Law and judicial punishment during the Baroque era.

Piranesi and His Works

While Piranesi has the title of an architect, his own temperament paired with the conditions of 18th-century Rome led to him being responsible for one building, the restoration of the Church of Santa Maria Aventina. It however highlights Piranesi’s proclivities. The church’s façade gives the appearance of a supporting column through the fluted pilasters towards its edge, which is an element commonly used in ancient Rome before regaining popularity during the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

St. Mary on the Aventine 

Unable to express himself through edifices, he found solace through his burin as he engraved the views and antiquities of Rome on sheets of copper. The results are as follows:

View of the Mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian (Roman Views)
Part of a spacious and magnificent Harbor for the use of the ancient Romans opening onto a large market square…

While I lack a formal background in both Art and Architecture, it is quite evident that Piranesi excels at manipulating perspectives to exaggerate his pieces. Humans are minuscule compared to the edifices he engraves. The background is usually much lighter and airy compared to the foreground; in turn, they look farther away. It is this balance between light and dark that heightens the size and scale of his works. In a sense, this highlights his aforementioned Venetian eccentricities and love of Roman architecture, which came at the expense of tourists who found the views and ruins of Rome to be much more modest in scale.

However, despite Piranesi’s usage of exaggeration, there is even greater depth in his engravings. As he could not practice being an a, he sought to use these engravings as a means of applying his knowledge. Despite the scale of each building, they are all structurally viable and documented with scientific accuracy. But the question still remains, why choose to engrave the views and antiquities of Rome with such detail? A valid argument could be to simply study the techniques used by the Romans. However, if one considers the state in which the ruins of Rome were found, engraving them is a form of preservation. To study the very marble that composed those buildings, and provide a means for its story to be communicated to the future.

“When I realized that in Rome the majority of the ancient monuments were lying forsaken in fields or gardens, or even now serving as a quarry for new structures, I resolved to preserve their memory with the help of my engravings. I have therefore attempted to exercise the greatest possible exactitude”

– Giovanni Battista Piranesi

While it was these engravings that popularized Piranesi, what we in the modern era associate him the most with is his Carceri d’invenzione series of engravings:

Title Plate
Plate II: The Man on The Rack

The Imaginary Prisons and The Law

It has been said that the engraver started to compose these pieces in 1742 at the age of 22 while suffering from a bout of Malaria. His delirium perhaps scattering him into his work. But as Margarite Yourcenar in her essay, The Dark Brain of Piranesi, points out, associating these pieces with a delirious mind does them a disservice.

“Fever did not open for Piranesi the doors to a world of mental confusion, but to realms dangerously vaster and more complex than then young engraver had hitherto lived in… The dreams of a builder drunk on pure volumes, pure space”

– Margarite Yourcenar

It should be noted that while these pieces were initially composed in the 1740s, they would not be published until 1750, before receiving a reprint in the following year alongside another set Della Magnificenze ed Architettura de’ Romani. The pairing of the two is odd at first glance as Della Magnificenze acted as more of a response to the Greco-Roman controversy of the time where he posited that Roman society was superior to the Greeks. However, if we were to observe select plates from Carceri, we find that his thoughts extend to the very law.

In Helen B.K Marodin’s thesis, “Unlocking Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons”, she posits that during the Greco-Roman controversy, “law and architecture were two sides of the same token” and through the Imaginary Prisons, Piranesi sought to promote lex romana (Roman Law) in lieu of his frustrations with the law which, during his time, was chaotic because Rome lacked both a unified judicial system and penal codes. Therefore, in Piranesi’s eyes, the formulation of a law system as fair as the system the Romans developed, is a sign of a developed sense of morals and fine culture. Therefore, the Romans were not only better than the Greeks but their law system should be studied as a result. Proto-nationalism aside, this view adds a needed context to the Prisons especially when deciphering the engravings.

As an example, let us explore plate 16 from the Prisons. Plate 16 of the Prisons starts with the phrase Impietati et malis artibus at the center of the engraving which is Latin for “Impiety and Bad Arts”. Marodin posits that it was a criticism of the era he lived in which lacked a proper/reasonable judicial system. This is then juxtaposed to the column above which states “infame sceivss … ri infelci suspe” or “Hung him on a barren tree”. “Him” in this sentence would refer to Horatius who, under the rule of King Tullus Hostilius, was spared the death sentence because of his bravery when conquering Alba Longa. Instead of the Death Sentence, King Tullus sought the wisdom of the people to decide Horatius’s fate. The people decided to symbolically punish him by passing his neck through a wooden beam. No doubt that the juxtaposition was meant to highlight the sophistication of the Roman regime but as most of the wooden beams in The Prisons are filled with spikes, Piranesi is claiming that during his time, a sophisticated system was an impossibility.

Plate 16: The Pier with Chains

While Piranesi sought to promote lex romana, it was only a few years later that Cesare Beccaria would publish his pamphlet On Crimes and Punishment in 1764. A revolutionary work, it sought to dismantle and denounce the criminal justice of the time and replace it. Using the philosophical notion of a Social Contract, Beccaria was able to argue that while punishments are a necessary evil, they must be free of any intrinsic virtue and that their sufferings and restrictions must be applied to the smallest possible extent. Through his work, Beccaria was able to establish the fundamental tenets of the modern penal code.

On the surface level, both Beccaria and Piranesi wanted reforms to the legal structures in place, however, their approaches greatly differ. Where Beccaria used his philosophical background to argue for a complete reform, Piranesi took a proto-nationalist approach by solely focusing on the strengths of lex Romana. However, Piranesi’s creative freedom through the visual medium allowed viewers to experience what Beccaria and Piranesi argued against. This is mostly done through Piranesi’s usage of torture and other horrible machinations as a metaphor for the severity of the law. Piranesi uses the juxtaposition of those metaphors with allusions to historical events to communicate to the viewer the cruelty of the law in its current state.


Piranesi’s engravings are able to communicate much more than the views of the past. Within each etch lies a deeper tale behind the man or behind the society he engraves. Through his engravings of Rome, he was capable of preserving not only its past, but the Rome of his time and techniques used to construct those monuments. Through his Imaginary Prisons, he was capable of preserving the emotions, or rather the constructs that defined the lackluster judicial structure of the time, and using the medium to tell a narrative across 16 engravings to promote reform. While he failed to be an instrumental force in the legal reforms of his times, his works aid us in visualizing what influential individuals such as Cesare Beccaria fought for and why they sought to do it. It is only by this action of studying art within the context of its time that allows us to visualize the narratives and experiences of the past, allowing us to fully understand the intent behind each work.

Works Cited

  • Audegean, P. (2017). Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments: the meaning and Genesis of a Jurispolitical pamphlet. History of European Ideas43(8), 884–897. https://doi.org/10.1080/01916599.2016.1256591
  • “Reading Pictures: Piranesi and Carceral Landscapes”, Carrabine, E.Fleetwood, J.Presser, L.Sandberg, S. and Ugelvik, T. (Ed.) The Emerald Handbook of Narrative Criminology, Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 197-216. https://doi.org/10.1108/978-1-78769-005-920191019
  • Marodin, H. B. . (2018). Unlocking Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
  • Yourcenar, Marguerite. The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays / Marguerite Yourcenar; Translated by Richard Howard in Collaboration with the Author. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984. Print.

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