Interior with Arches


Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Interior with arches and piers, ca. 1747–48
Pen and brown ink and wash, over black chalk
The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Junius S. Morgan and Gift of Henry S. Morgan; 1966.11:5


John Marciari: Around 1748, about five years after publishing his Prima parte, Piranesi conceived a new publication of imaginary architectural designs. Rather than buildings of many different types like the earlier work, however, this new publication would consist entirely of dark vaulted spaces, fourteen etchings that he entitled “Capricious Inventions of Prisons.” Imaginary prisons and subterranean crypts had long been a mainstay of theater set designs and architectural treatises—Piranesi had himself included one in the Prima parte—but a work consisting entirely of such spaces was something new, and it speaks to Piranesi’s tendency to embrace the most imaginative schemes.

The Carceri were published in 1749 or 1750, but in the preceding years, Piranesi had made many drawings of shadowy interiors viewed at oblique angles, perspectives that made the full scale of the spaces impossible to grasp, thus heightening a sense of drama and mystery. Only a handful of drawings correspond directly to the published prints, but many other sheets document his preliminary experiments with the idea, including the Interior Arches and the other drawings seen here.

Typically, Piranesi did not leave the idea of the prisons behind once he published the set. He continued making drawings of similar spaces, and in 1761, he reworked the etching plates, added two new prints, and republished the series with the new title Imaginary Prisons.