Imaginary Prisons

My encounter with Le Carceri, the imaginary prisons of Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

I stood in front of the etchings, and it seemed as if I was standing in front of windows, glimpsing at a faraway world stretching far behind into the wall. The images possessed just enough detail to firmly establish Piranesi’s vision of his architecture.

Where the etching did not fill in, my mind embellished, and it did so with overwhelming intensity. The etchings came to life before my eyes. They were truly windows into another world that was animated and moving. I stood up close to the picture frames and allowed the entire image to fill my vision – it not only did that, but completely engulfed my other senses. Objects and people moved across the foreground; light and shadow flickered; but most compellingly, I heard the world in motion. The creak of wooden drawbridges, clatter and grinding of chains, rumble of a turning wheel, sinister moaning and sighing of wind moving through the vaults and ceiling beams, monotonous drip of water, soft murmur of human voices, the occasional anguished cry.

The prison was alive! Perilously so. Deep inside something cried and reached out, yearning and violently straining to climb through the picture frame. And if I dropped my eyelids and let my eyes unfocus, seeing nothing but the image, I think my soul would’ve abandoned my body and this existence, and instantly disappeared into this world beyond the frame.

I have seen lots of compelling world-building art, pictures that have made me wish that I could enter those worlds and see more. But Piranesi’s imaginary prisons… they not only beckoned, they were the entryway. Indeed, visions of the deeper prison, farther away from the window, were already appearing in my mind. It was as easy as letting go. Sure, it is just a fancy – but what if it wasn’t, what if I disappeared forever? That was the frightening notion. Trapped in an etching. It would be prison indeed.

What worlds do I truly want to live in, with all my heart and being? Once, Tolkien’s Arda. Once, New Crobuzon of China Miéville’s imaginings. No more. I want to live in Piranesi’s endless imaginary prisons: live there forever in eternal solitude and forsakenness. A prison indeed: an austere cold one, a glorious one.

…but at the end of the day, it is just a fancy. And that something deep inside laments Alas! because it is only an etching, a window that I can never climb through, save in dreaming.

I dearly hope that I will dream them, in waking or sleeping.

Written after visiting the “Imaginary Prisons” exhibit at the NGV, 29 April, 2007.