Plate 12 from Carceri d'Invenzione

The Sawhorse, c. 1761


The Martha T. Wallace Memorial Fund, 1930expand_more  P.11,336

Not on Viewexpand_more

The timeless, gloomy Prisons are entirely man-made. Hewn from stone and timber and fitted out with rope and iron, they exclude the outside world. Not even time exerts its influence here.

In Clarel, the longest American poem, Herman Melville captures the impression that the Prisons made on Romantic artists:

In Piranesi’s rarer prints,
Interiors measurelessly strange,
Where the distrustful thought may range
Misgiving still—what mean the hints'
Stairs upon stairs which dim ascend
In series from plunged Bastilles drear—
Pit under pit; long tier on tier
Of shadowed galleries which impend
Over cloisters, cloisters without end;
The height, the depth—the far, the near;
Ring-bolts to pillars in vaulted lanes,
And dragging Rhadamanthine*
These less of wizard influence lend
Than some allusive chambers closed.

bastilles (n.) fortress prisons
rhadamanthine (adj.) hellishly severe

These two etchings were printed from the same copper plate. As a young man Piranesi had emphasized his freedom of invention with rapid, slashing strokes and airy spaces, but twelve years later, his sensibility had changed. His experience making dozens of large, intricately detailed etchings of ancient and modern structures profoundly deepened his understanding of Rome’s architectural fabric. The clarity and concrete presence of these studies outstripped all others until the invention of photography (see illustration). In rethinking the Prisons, he applied the methods of shading and delineation that he had learned in his documentary work to increase the materiality of his fictive architecture, such as the towering mass at the left or the complex structure in the middle distance.

The Sawhorse
Artist Life
Italian, 1720–1778
Accession Number
Erbach-Erbach family, Schloss Erbach Hofbibliothek, Erbach (Odenwald), Germany. F. H. Bresler Gallery, Milwaukee, Wisc.
Catalogue Raisonne
Hind prisons 12 ii/iii, F.35, Robison 38 v/vi
Curator Approved

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Plate 12 from Carceri d'Invenzione