I’ve been working on a story about prisons. As I investigate the history of crime and punishment in Western society, I’m struck by the influence of G.B. Piranesi’s famous renderings: everybody refers to these, cites them, uses them in a frontispiece.
Le Carceri d’Invenzione was a fanciful perspectivist set of etchings from the 18th century, and in some ways they look more like dungeons than prisons. This fact certainly speaks to a strong current view about the nature and purpose of incarceration, but I suspect the influence of this artwork partly comes from modern analogues (e.g., M.C. Escher) that may in fact have been inspired by it. Beyond that, prisons retain a chilling mystique. In the artist’s time (and beyond), the humanist notion that architecture both shapes behavior and echoes the character of the people who inhabit it was even more powerful than today. The question is not what these old pictures of imaginary prisons tell us about 18th century Italy, but what our fascination with them tells us about ourselves– especially our fear and darker desires.