Aldous Huxley's essay on Piranesi's Prisons

Huxley, Aldous, Prisons, (London:Trianon, 1949)

Library Call Number: HV8655.H89 1949

This collection of etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, titled Careri d'invenzione or Imaginary Prisons, is prefaced with an essay by Aldous Huxley.

A Venetian, Piranesi is best known for his etchings of ancient Roman ruins to which he added details to re-imagine them in the time of their glory. The prints in this collection fit within the long capriccio (caprice) tradition of placing together architectural elements in fictional and fantastic combination. Their influence extends to Romanticism and Surrealism, with parallels evident to the distorted worlds of M.C. Escher.

In his prefatory essay, Huxley compares Piranesi's prisons to the panopticism that pervades modern architecture. Every office and factory brings with it a banal tyranny of order and efficiency, reducing humanity to predictable process. Piranesi's etchings, however, show pointlessly elaborate industrial vaults with worn ladders, purposeless machines, and walkways leading infinitely nowhere. The semblance of order within the etching is the illusion of geometry. Within Piranesi's prions, shadowy lost souls labour without end. To Huxley, Piranesi's prisons anticipate a spiritual confusion characteristic of modernity.

Cover of Prisons with example of Piranesi's sketches