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Serendipity: Dreams of Prisons

One of Giambattista Piranesi’s Carceri Prints

One of Giambattista Piranesi’s Carceri, or Prison Etchings

I am currently reading Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822). Although I remember starting it some twenty years ago, I never finished it. Turning to it once again, I am delighted by his elegant prose combined with his large-scale surrealistic dreams as a result of ingesting opium. At the same time, I love what he has to say about Giambattista Piranesi (1720-1778), whose etchings of vast imagined prisons are among my favorite prints.

When I started at UCLA in 1967 as a graduate student in the film program, I rented one of the originals of the above print for three months as part of a special program. (I can’t imagine anything so valuable being rented out to students under present circumstances.)

Here is what De Quincey wrote:

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, called his Dreams, and 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) represented vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, &c. &c., 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 and abrupt termination without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who had reached the extremity except into the depths below.  Whatever is to become of poor Piranesi, you suppose at least that his labours must in some way terminate here.  But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher, on which again Piranesi is perceived, but this time standing on the very brink of the abyss.  Again elevate your eye, and a still more aërial flight of stairs is beheld, and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labours; and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall.  With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams.  In the early stage of my malady the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural; and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye unless in the clouds.  From a great modern poet I cite part of a passage which describes, as an appearance actually beheld in the clouds, what in many of its circumstances I saw frequently in sleep:

The appearance, instantaneously disclosed,
Was of a mighty city—boldly say
A wilderness of building, sinking far
And self-withdrawn into a wondrous depth,
Far sinking into splendour—without end!
Fabric it seem’d of diamond, and of gold,
With alabaster domes, and silver spires,
And blazing terrace upon terrace, high
Uplifted; here, serene pavilions bright
In avenues disposed; there towers begirt
With battlements that on their restless fronts
Bore stars—illumination of all gems!
By earthly nature had the effect been wrought
Upon the dark materials of the storm
Now pacified; on them, and on the coves,
And mountain-steeps and summits, whereunto
The vapours had receded,—taking there
Their station under a cerulean sky.  &c. &c.

The quoted poem is from William Wordsworth’s “The Excursion.”