on piranesi
9 February 2017

December 2016 

“The whole visible world is only an imperceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it…It is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere…imagination loses itself in that thought.” [1]

The series of sixteen prints Carceri d’invenzione by the eighteenth century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 – 1778) is among the most studied works of imagination in the history of Western architecture. The etchings, first published in 1745 and reissued in the early 1760s marked a pivotal moment in architectural representation. A visual manifesto attacking classical architecture, the Carceri series explodes the linear perspectival world in the hope of discovering new spatial depths. The strength of the series relies on distortion and misalignment, exploring the temporality of heterogeneous spaces through the depiction of an imaginary prison constructed with disparate points of view.

Numerous interpretations have been written about the Carceri, ranging from technical analyses of drawing techniques to psychoanalytic commentaries on the artist himself. Archaeologist Susan Dixon categorizes these capricci as multi-informational images.[2] The unearthing of layers and juxtapositions reveals the impossibility of architectural construction in the three-dimensional reality. Teresa Stoppani sees the rejection of the laws of perspective in the superimpositions of space, unsettling the classical sense of order to allow nonexistent events and structure appear to be real.[3] Aldous Huxley argues that the Carceri is the magnum opus of man dwarfed and imprisoned by his own inventions in the age of Scientific Revolution. The relationship between the spectator and the object is intentionally deconstructed, denying any reassurance of stability from a definitive scenic frame.[4] Racing through the frenetic optical journeys captured in the compositions, Patricia May Sekler in her analysis of the etchings returns to the perennial question: what mean the hints?[5]

Acknowledging these previous interpretations, this study is interested in constructing a new reading of the Piranesian space by analyzing and comparing two essays written about the etchings: one by the Soviet avant-garde filmmaker Sergei M. Eisenstein in his “Piranesi, or the Fluidity of Forms,” and the other by art historian Yves-Alain Bois in his “A Picturesque Stroll around ‘Clara-Clara’”. The two approaches will be categorized as the sequence and the stroll respectively, analyzed with the aid from studies on the effects of nonlinear drawing techniques applied in the series.

The first interpretation comes from the Soviet filmmaker Sergei M. Eisenstein (1898 – 1948), who employs the Carceri to give his theory of montage an institutional sense of historicity. An eclecticist at heart, Eisenstein was known for deducing his theory of film from “unlikely juxtapositions.”[6] In the essay “Piranesi, or the Fluidity of Forms,” he draws affinity between the filmic shot and the fragmentation of composition found in the Carceri as series of disparate objects in series of montage. Alluding to a sense of expectation, the filmmaker compares the accumulation of disparate perspectives as the sequential unfolding of objects in what he considers one and the same narrative: “Piranesi’s second etching is actually the first one exploding in ecstatic flight.”[7] The transfiguration of events is captured in the time-structure of successive frames.[8] With its dramatic play on light and atmosphere, it is easy to label the Carceri “cinematic.” This analysis will take a more critical stance in regards to the etchings’ applicability and relevance to their proto-cinematic associations as identified by Eisenstein.
One obvious proposition invoked by Eisenstein focuses on the etchings’ inclination for the angular over the frontal perspective to accentuate a sense of sequential motion essential in filmic representation. Such multiplicity of vanishing points may be interpreted in relation to the scenographic inventions of earlier Baroque artists such as Filippo Juvarra, Ferdinando Bibiena and Giuseppe Valeriani, and evident in Eisenstein’s cinematic works.[9] The anticipated transformation of compositional elements carries the eye through a hierarchical reading of space. But such comparison soon reveals to be limiting, for there exists a stark contrast between Piranesi’s etchings and the Bibienesque scena per angolo in the plates of Prima Parte (Figure XVII – XIX).[10] Unlike the Prima Parte, the Carceri makes no attempt to distinguish clearly foreground or background: “What is forward can be read as what is back and what is back comes forward.”[11] The result is the flattening of composition, localizing each distorted architectural element as hints for independent interpretations.

In discussing the employed drawing techniques, Sekler observes:

“…the distance between (the depicted compositional forms) is not measurable according to surrounding elements but fluctuates with the various continuities in which the elements are read. Reading the space, attempting to force it to become measurable, become a game of ‘if…then’ situations.” [12]

The search for a constructed sequence across the plates through analyzing perspectival techniques, motifs and composition appears to suggest instead a collage of variations on a theme. Techniques and objects are revisited with no specific hierarchy or order. The sense of energy implicit in the rapid individual strokes is isolated within disparate perspectives of separate forms. As suggested by Sekler, for instance, plates III, VIII, and XIV are similar in style and subject matter while plates XII, XIII and XVI resemble in the use of line and scale of the enclosed space.[13] While it is possible to discern a logical production order among the etchings, it is unrealistic to suggest an inherent correlation of events across the compositions. Each episode seems to exist independently from one another. This lack of order is perhaps no more than a series of provocations for the artist’s own speculative thought.

A second argument to search for cinematography in Piranesi’s etchings lies in Eisenstein’s fascination with fragmentation. In inscribing time and sequence to a static image, Eisenstein attempts to invent a new category of aesthetic perception that draws heavily from both painting and cinema: montage, or the collision between disparate pictorial objects.[14] Using diagrams to explain the order of distortion, Eisenstein demonstrates the exponential disintegration of compositional elements:

“The concreteness has…’flown apart.’” [15]

“The madness consists only in the piling up, in the juxtapositions that explode the very foundation of the objects’ customary ‘possibility,’ a madness that groups objects into a system of arches that ‘go out of themselves’ in sequence, ejecting new arches from their bowels; a system of staircases exploding in a flight of new passages of staircases; a system of vaults that continue their leaps from each other into eternity.” [16]

The result is the “montage of attractions” comparable to the filmic shift of perspective and reframing of a shot, encouraging the eye to construct a new reality out of the barrage of colliding, fragmentary, and obsolete information. Eisenstein sees these disjointed fragments in a single linear explosion. But the endless discontinuity of architectural elements interminably denies the spectator any “truthful” representation of space.[17] A bridge may collide head on with an archway while the background staircase morphs into the foregrounding stone pier. The seemingly arbitrary application of perspectival lines contradicts any rational and hierarchical ordering of space, simultaneously inviting and rejecting the viewer from the infinite reduction and expansion of a complex labyrinth. The ambiguous and infinite universe allows the architecture to collapse onto itself in search for infinity, leaving the viewer lost in the vacuum with no beginnings or ends.

Sequentiality alone is an insufficient prerequisite for cinematism in architecture. The idea of sequence is inherent in any piece of cinematic work, be it the narrative or repetitive framing of the same shot. Uncritically applying cinematism to all kinds of series and successions of views of buildings is but a futile preoccupation with the legitimation crises undergone by many forms of external cultural production to the field of architecture. In addition, the Soviet filmmaker is only willing to take the comparison so far as “successive shocks of spaces” in interruptions only to be resumed in perpetuity. The cinema is different from the act of drawing, it is a fundamentally realist practice, and as such maintains certain limitations.[18] Manfredo Tafuri sees the comparison as a reactionary justification of Eisenstein’s own compromise between representation and form:

“The formal distortions, the dialectic between order and chaos, the technique of estrangement, are shown to be in the transition from Piranesi to Eisenstein, merely ‘materials,’ and completely disposable ones at that.” [19]

To force a set of loosely suggestive drawings to come to terms with the presumed political duties of film is to paralyze any readings for further potentiality. Recalling the repeated motif of the character Kerensky ascending a marble staircase in the Winter Palace “at infinitum” in Eisenstein’s October (1928), the montage of fragments is presented in “one and the same shot” that leads to a suggested path of visuality.[20] But such sequential reading can only be made with a preconceived bias of perspectival positioning, a technique frequently employed in the filmmaker’s works. In the Carceri, however, one observes from outside the frame as the omniscient spectator, looking into aerial snapshot of static images within disjointed perspectives. There seems to exist a leap of interpretation in Eisenstein’s construing of a Piranesian parallel. The etchings may be considered an inspiration for Eisenstein’s avant-garde practices, but they are hardly precursors of film. The assertion of sequentiality ignores an inherent peripatetic quality of engaging space in the etchings. An alternate theory is needed to better understand the heterogenous space without coming to terms with the architectural elements as mere disposable materials of explosions.

“…the picturesque park is not the transcription on the land of a compositional pattern previously fixed in the mind, that its effects cannot be determined a priori, that it presupposes a stroller, someone who trusts more in the real movement of his legs than in the fictive movement of his gaze.” [21]

An essay by Yves-Alain Bois (1952 – ) provides countering insight to Eisenstein’s analogy of the sequential cinematic space. Discussing Richard Serra’s monumental sculpture (1983) in “A Picturesque Stroll around Clara-Clara,” Bois analyzes the play of parallax, a stroll of movement determined by the constant displacement of the apparent position of a body due to a change of position of the observer (Petit Robert dictionary). Such shifting sense of perception is experienced while walking between the two sprawling sheets of steel in Clara-Clara, where the spectator can never maintain a comprehensive understanding of the scope of the work. Referring to the beholder’s assimilation of Serra’s work, Bois contends:

The application of the picturesque stresses a sense of material precedence that acts against the visual reduction of foreground and background.[22] The play of parallax in an English garden for instance is performed based on the meandering around constructed views and vistas of experience. In discussing the picturesque, nineteenth century theorist Auguste Choisy observes that the Greek temples on the Acropolis were arranged in a contingent manner on their sites for a peripatetic viewing.[23] To follow such postulation, one may see a modern comparison in the Corbusien promenade architecturale, a designed experience in which the user follows the itinerant unfolding of spatial events, an idea perhaps not far from the Eisensteinian explosion of filmic shots.[24] But what is essential to the stroll is the evasion of perceiving the totality, for it offers many destinations in no particular order of viewing. The seductive complexity of the Carceri is but a fragmentary instantiation of a whole that does not exist and thus becomes the essence of the series.[25]

What distinguishes the Carceri as a stroll in space is the recognition of the impossibility of a center, or alternatively, the multiplicity of centers. Bois observes the inherent dichotomy between the apprehension of a totality (which is infinite) and the comprehension of its very unattainability (the infinite is beyond where the imagination can go).[26] With every center a perspectival line leads to a compositional thoroughfare, a promenade of temporal movement where the stroller exists in a perpetual state of wandering.[27] As the centers multiply, thoroughfares displace and intersect, denying any continuous reading of spatial sequence. The result is the simultaneous expulsion and entrapment of the spectator in space. Prisoners plunge into a world of precarity, spinning around their own axes without any hope for release.

Similarly, Bois sees an unlikely comparison of Clara-Clara in Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye where the duplication of paths (the stair and the ramp) destabilizes the anticipated sequence of the original promenade.[28] Following such postulation, the Carceri is the play of parallax par excellence, for the viewer is unable to comprehend where each thoroughfare continues, taking on a different stroll with every gaze across the plates. In this context, looking in from the aerial view is perhaps no different than being trapped in space as the roaming prisoner. A distinction of the gaze and the movement offers little in the endless collage of contradictions, irregularities and asymmetries of potential readings. The picturesque stroll fractures identities by avoiding an order of viewing, countering the preconceived sequence by Eisenstein, which strives for continuity through an inevitable dissolution of forms only to approach its finality.

Accepting the limitations of the architectural parameters in the genius of Piranesi’s world, one may understand the reading of the stroll as a potential historical break from the architectural climate of the mid-eighteenth century Piranesi operated in. The architectural historian Vincent Scully identifies the Carceri as the rupture of modern architecture from past styles.[29] The presumption of totality in the Classical or the Neoclassical, which emphasizes unity of a hierarchical harmonious scheme is no less different than its Baroque counterpart. As Scully observes: 

“…the order [of the Baroque] is absolutely firm, but against it an illusion of freedom is played… [the architecture] is intended to enclose and shelter human beings in a psychic sense, to order them absolutely so that they can always find a known conclusion at the end of any journey, but finally to let them play at freedom and action all the while.” [30]

The rigid sequence in the Baroque space belies the appearance of disorientation: the distorted Classical plan leads to the emotional release of space in the guise of a confounding Rococo mirror salon. The Piranesian space, however, situates at the radical break of such tradition, and Bois returns to the comparison with the English picturesque garden. Designing with diametrically opposite intentions, practitioners of the picturesque were interested in spatial wanderings through the concealment of an overall concept to excite their spectators.[31] The oblique views are interposed with compositions of object in various directions, assuming a new figure at every movement of the stroll and as such is also the underlying logic of Piranesi’s creations. In short, if one embodies the “fictive movement of the gaze” for a stroll around the plates, one would realize that it is not the magnificent arrangement of spatial objects but the tragic proliferation of temporal events that distinguishes the Carceri in the post-Baroque age.[32] John Wilton-Ely suggests that in the etchings:

“…each plate no longer simply represents but is an architectural experience in itself…the spectator becomes inescapably involved in the creative process…As never before, the Western system of pictorial space is questioned with all its implications concerning the nature of perception.” [33]

But Piranesi’s art is also a rupture beyond the picturesque; his questioning of representational space is indicative of later avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century. Indeed, although a connection already challenged earlier, it is Eisenstein who likens the shadow-world of the etchings to the cinematic montage of shots. Perhaps it is plausible to end this trajectory with Cubism, whose destruction of the linear composition levels that in the Carceri.[34] Piranesi attacks the authority of architecture by empowering the viewer: spectators immerse themselves into individual fragments, searching through landscapes of disjointed hints for partial reconstructions. Inevitably, it is not the sequence but the stroll that offers a potential transgression for the aporia of architectural limitations imposed in the etchings. Admiring its unattainability, one realizes that creation lies in each distinct whole, and not between them.


[1] Blaise Pascal, Thoughts, Letters, and Minor Works, New York, P. F. Collier & Son, 1910; p.26.

[2] Susan M. Dixon, “The Sources and Fortunes of Piranesi’s Archaeological Illustrations,” in Tracing Architecture: The Aesthetics of Antiquarianism, ed. D Arnold, S. Bending, Oxford, UK, Blackwell, 2003; p.49.

[3]  Teresa Stoppani, “Translucent and Fluid, Piranesi’s impossible plan,” in: From Models to Drawings: Imagination and Representation in Architecture, ed. Marco Frascari, Jonathan Hale, Bradley Starkey, London, Routledge, 2007; p.99.

[4] Aldous Huxley, Prisons, London, The Trianon Press, 1949; pp.18-21.

[5] Patricia May Sekler, “Notes on Old and Modern Drawings, Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Carceri Etchings and Related Drawings,” in: Art Quarterly, Winter, 1962; p.332.

[6] Anne Nesbet, Savage Junctures: Sergei Eisenstein and the Shape of Thinking, London, Tauris Books, 2003; p.1.

[7] Sergei M. Eisenstein, “Piranesi, or the Fluidity of Forms,” in Manfredo Tafuri, The Sphere and the Labyrinth: Avant-Gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1990; p.71.

[8] Steven Jacobs, “Eisenstein’s Piranesi and Cinematic Space,” in Aspects of Piranesi, Essays on History, Criticism and Invention, ed. Dirk De Meyer, Bart Verschaffel, Pieter-Jan Cierkens, Gent, A&S/books, 2015; p.146.

[9] Nicolas Penny, Piranesi, London, Bloomsbury Books, 1978; p.5.

[10] John Wilton-Ely, The Mind and Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, London, Thames and Hudson, 1978; p.83.

[11] Sekler 1962: 339.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., pp.349 – 357. See full analysis of all plates.

[14] Yve-Alain Bois, “Introduction” to Eisenstein’s essay on “Montage and Architecture,” in: Assemblage 10, December 1989; p.113.

[15] Sergei M. Eisenstein, “Piranesi, or the Fluidity of Forms,” in Tafuri 1990: 74.

[16] Ibid., p.75.

[17] Reinhold Martins, “Borges and Piranesi,” in: Oz, Vol. 14, 1992; p.12.

[18] Stan Allen, “Piranesi Campo Marzio: Reader’s Guide,” in: The Imagined and Real Landscapes of Piranesi: Critical Writings in America, ed. Joseph Rosa, New York, Columbia Books of Architecture, 1992; p.10.

[19] Manfredo Tafuri, “The Historicity of the Avant-Garde: Piranesi and Eisenstein,” in: The Sphere and the Labyrinth: Avant-Gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1990; pp.62-63.

[20] Sergei M. Eisenstein, “Piranesi, or the Fluidity of Forms,” in Tafuri 1990: 105-106.

[21] Yve-Alain Bois, “A Picturesque Stroll Around Clara-Clara,” in: October 29, Summer 1984; p.36. A detailed analysis on the play of parallax and Robert Smithson’s “journalistic gestalt” effect can be found in the first part of the analysis.

[22] Ibid., p.37. Quotation by René-Louis de Girardin, De la composition des paysages (1777), Editions du Champ urbain, 1979; p.19.

[23] Auguste Choisy, Histoire de l’Architecture, vol. I, 1899.

[24] Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Œuvre complete Volume 1, 1910 – 1929, Zurich, Les Editions d’Architecture, 1995; p.60. Originally published in 1937.

[25] See the concept of “appearance” proposed by Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, New York, Vintage Books, 1974; p.58. For further musings on the architectural metaphor of the labyrinth see Jonah Rowen, “The Limit and the Labyrinth,” in: inter·punct vol. 1 para·meter, 2013; p.45.

[26] Bois 1984: 60.

[27] Bois 1984: 50.

[28] For full analysis on the Villa Savoye in Bois 1984: 56-58.

[29] Vincent Scully Jr., Modern Architecture, New York, Braziller, 1965; p.10.

[30] Bois 1984: 44. Quotation by Scully 1965; p.11.

[31] Ibid., p.43.

[32] Lars Spuybroek, “The Acrobatics of the Figure: Piranesi and Magnificence,” in: Archescape. On The Tracks of Piranesi, ed. Gijs Wallis De Vries, Amsterdam, Duizend & Een, 2015; p.11.

[33] Wilton-Ely 1978: 85.

[34] See comparison to Picasso’s Guernica in Sergei M. Eisenstein, “Piranesi, or the Fluidity of Forms,” in Tafuri 1990: pp.76-77, and Tafuri 1990: 62-63