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Piranesi and the infinite prisons

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For more content, see Multisensory Research and Seeing and Perceiving.

Piranesi was an extraordinarily talented artist who came to be considered the best known engraver and etcher of the 18th century. He spent his lifetime recording the magnificent buildings and ruins of ancient Rome. In his earlier work, he developed architectural fantasies and dark visions of imaginary prisons, the Carceri d'Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), which have fascinated people ever since they first appeared. They also made an impact in later artistic and literary contexts.

Today they are considered the best expression of bewilderment, of the world's massive oppression of man. How did Piranesi generate such a powerful source of meaning? I have reviewed a number of contributions by art essayists in the search for what lies behind the fascination of the 'Carceri'. Analysis of these texts provides a rich set of aesthetic and psychological attributes as well as detailed indications of where to seek the source of the meanings. I suggest here a fruitful integration of this analysis, developed by considering various particular perceptual and geometric cues. I discuss three possible sources of meaning: the combination of architectural elements out of proportion; the difficulty of building a unitary space; and the 'bottom perspective' that gives rise to a sensation of floating.

Affiliations: 1: Dipartimento di Psicologia Generale, Università di Padova, Via Venezia 8, Italy


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