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Piranesi's images inspire works from Poe to video games

| Sunday, Dec. 28, 2008

If you are a fan of Vincent Price films like "Pit and The Pendulum" (1961) or the equally famous lithographs, woodcuts and drawings by the graphic artist M.C. Escher (1898-1972), you will most definitely enjoy the exhibition "Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Architecture and the Spaces of the Imagination" on display in Carnegie Museum's Works on Paper Gallery.

Approximately 45 works on paper created by Piranesi (1720-1788), his contemporaries and his followers that explore the idea of architecture as a subject in art are on display. Among those are prints from Piranesi's "Imaginary Prisons (Carceri d'invenzione)," a series of fantastical, haunting prints from the 1760s that are arresting in their scale, attention to detail, composition and texture.

The works depict cavernous, gloomy, sometimes ruined chambers, labyrinthine corridors and staircases filled with huge, unreal machines and enormous chains. Amanda Zehnder, Carnegie Museum of Art assistant curator of fine arts and organizer of the exhibition, says, "Escher was definitely aware of these prints, as was Edgar Allan Poe when he wrote 'The Pit and The Pendulum.' Even many different architects were aware of these."

Piranesi issued the "Imaginary Prisons" series in two editions. The first, published in 1750, included 14 images. For the second edition, of 1761, he entirely re-worked the copperplates and made two additional images. A dozen of the 13 "Prisons" prints on view here are from the second edition, in which Piranesi significantly darkened all the scenes, creating a grim atmosphere particularly suited to the nightmarish subject matter. The dark tone, visually and thematically, is one of the most famous aspects of this later edition.

As viewers will see via a side by side display of print number 11 from the series -- one being from the first issue of the series and the other from a later issue -- Piranesi reworked the plates numerous times, continuing to produce new and alternate states as his career progressed, often changing the scale of single objects to make them appear more imposing or visually intriguing. In this example, the later print is darker and has more contrast. Plus, Zehnder says, "He never inscribed titles to these, but he added a number, 'XI,' here."

But what may be most intriguing about these prints is not only do they encourage exploration of the history of prison architecture and 18th-century theoretical, psychological, and social debates about confinement, correction and punishment, but many of the issues presented in the works continue to have relevance today.

"Artists have bounced off of this particular series for a long time," Zehnder adds. "It's a starting point for a particular aesthetic that relates to today. Video games, digital reality and many different movies can all be traced back to these."

Also on display are a selection of prints from another of Piranesi's extensive and well-known series, "The Views of Rome (Vedute di Roma)," begun in 1747 and continued to his death.

The best example may well be "Veduta dell' anfiteatro Flavio ditto il Colosseo," (1776) which depicts a bird's eye view of the Colosseum in Rome. Zehnder says Piranesi applied his imagination to such architectural views as he did with his imaginary "Prisons" series. "When you think about it, there is no possible way in his lifetime to have ever seen this view of the Colosseum. There were no skyscrapers nearby, there were no airplanes, hot air balloons, or whatever. So, he had to have made this up, using his knowledge of the Colosseum and creating this new vantage point for it."

Additionally, one volume of architectural etchings from the William R. Oliver Special Collections Room of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is on display, showing the original format of many of Piranesi's works, which were bound in large folios.

"His 'Views of Rome' were his bread and butter," Zehnder says. "He made over 130 images of the views of Rome essentially from the beginning of his career until the day he died. He was very well known for these and sold them extensively."

Of particular interest to Pittsburghers will be photographs by legendary Pittsburgh photographer Clyde Hare from his 1981 series, "Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail." The twisting, turning staircases of these buildings exhibit elements of Piranesi's designs, giving evidence of his influence over architects worldwide. Hare's meticulously planned photographs bring the architectural details of the buildings to the forefront, making for an obvious connection to the Piranesi works.

Add to that several prints by Piranesi's contemporaries, Giovanni Antonio Canal, a.k.a. "Canaletto (1697"1768) and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696"1770), as well as a few others, and we have an overall delightful exhibit to enjoy this holiday season.

Additional Information:

'Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Architecture and the Spaces of the Imagination'

What: An exhibition of approximately 45 works on paper created by Piranesi (1720-1788), his contemporaries and his followers exploring the idea of architecture as a subject in art.

When: Through Feb. 15. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; Thursdays until 8 p.m.; noon-5 p.m. Sundays

Where: Carnegie Museum of Art , 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland

Admission: $15; $12 for senior citizens; $11 for children and students; free to museum members and children under 3

Details: 412-622-3131 or

Related event: 'Lunch & Learn: The Magnificent Piranesi' -- Bernie Schultz, dean of the College of Creative Arts and professor of art history at West Virginia University, will give an illustrated presentation on Piranesi and his remarkable artistic achievements. 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 14. Admission: $45; $36 for members. Details: 412-622-3288

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