Monday, April 21, 2014

Primo Copy Of Piranese's Imaginary Prisons $270,000-$400,000 At Christie's

by Stephen J. Gertz

"I need to produce great ideas, and I believe that if I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would be mad enough to undertake it" (Piranese).

A magnificent copy of the scarce first edition of Italian artist and printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranese's (1720-1778) celebrated suite of designs for an imaginary prison, Invenzioni Capric di Carceri (Rome: Giovanni Bouchard, n.d. [c. 1750]) - which has had an enormous influence upon literature - is being offered by Christie's-Paris in its Importants livres anciens, livres d'artistes & manuscrits sale, April 30, 2014.

With all of its fourteen beautifully designed and etched plates in their first impression, second state (except one), before numbering and retouching, on un-watermarked paper, and in excellent condition, it is estimated to sell for $270,000-$400,000.

The plates depict fanciful subterranean vaults and machines somewhat Kafkaesque in nature, with surreal distortion later found in the work of M.C. Escher, featuring bizarre, labyrinthine structures that are chemerical mash-ups of monumental architecture, epic caprices depicting "ancient Roman or Baroque ruins converted into fantastic, visionary dungeons filled with mysterious scaffolding and instruments of torture" (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Only the engravings of Goya and William Blake have inspired writers as much as those of Piranesi's Carceri.  Their roots lie in the theatrical dioramas that Piranese designed for the Galli da Bibiena family of stage set designers in Bologna as well as those for his father, a stonemason.

The rare second edition, later published by Piranese himself with the plates reworked, contains an extra two plates yet here "in Bouchard's edition the plates are more lightly etched throughout with none of the strong contrasts of light and shade seen in the later edition. There is a wonderful simplicity in the design in the early states, and none shows this quality in greater beauty than plate four of the series" ( Hind ).

The haunting, dream-like quality to the plates fired the imagination of the Romantics.

"The fascination of Piranese's Imaginary Prisons for the literary mind is attested by transmutations in story, poem, and essay. In a recent attempt to explain the appeal, Aldous Huxley remarks that the etchings express obscure psychological truths: they represent 'metaphysical prisons, whose seat is within the mind, whose walls are made of nightmare and incomprehension, whose chains are anxiety and their racks a sense of personal and even generic guilt.' Whatever the explanation may be, the influence of the Prisons on writers of the last two centuries, particularly on the Romantics, will one day make a chapter of literary history which will include the names of Walpole, Beckford, Coleridge, De Quincey, Balzac, Gautier, Baudelaire, and doubtless many others" (Paul F. Jamieson. Musset, de Quincey, and Piranese. Modern Language Notes, Vol. 71, No. 2, Feb. 1956).

"Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi's Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist...which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever: some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr. Coleridge's account) representing vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, etc., etc., expressive of enormous power put forth, and resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls, you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further, and you perceive it come to a sudden abrupt termination, without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him" (Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater).

The Plates:

I - Title
II - The Round Tower
III - The Grand Piazza
IV - The Smoking Fire
V - The Drawbridge
VI - The Staircase with Trophies
VII - The Giant Wheel
VIII - Prisoners on a Projecting Platform
IX - The Arch with a Shell Ornament
X - The Sawhorse
XI - The Well
XII - The Gothic Arch
XIII - The Pier with a Lamp
XIV - The Pier with Chains

"One of the greatest printmakers of the eighteenth century, Piranesi always considered himself an architect. The son of a stonemason and master builder, he received practical training in structural and hydraulic engineering from a maternal uncle who was employed by the Venetian waterworks, while his brother, a Carthusian monk, fired the aspiring architect with enthusiasm for the history and achievements of the ancient Romans. Piranesi also received a thorough background in perspective construction and stage design. Although he had limited success in attracting architectural commissions, this diverse training served him well in the profession that would establish his fame" (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

This copy, formerly in the collection of the National Gallery of Art (with small stamp on the back of each plate with stamp cancellation), was last seen at Christie's-London July 2, 2003 when it sold for $140, 506 (£83,650; €101,704).

Grégoire Dupond created the below animated film for Factum Arte, based upon Piranesi's engravings for Invenzioni Capric di Carceri, as a walk through the artist's amazing spaces:


Images courtesy of Christie's, with our thanks.

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