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First edition of Piranesi's Carceri d'Invenzione 1623

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Item Number:  24534
Category:  Books > Miscellany

Set of thirteen (of fourteen, pl. X missing) etchings, on heavy laid paper, from the first edition, with margins, the usual central vertical fold, in excellent condition. Size: 405x550mm, overall size: 508x700mm.

Hind, p.24, Prisons I.A - First state (of three), with name spelt Buzard on title page (= "A" State). Before the major re-work and the signature.

The Prisons (Carceri d'Invenzione or "Imaginar Prisons"), is a series of prints that show enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and mighty machines. The series was started in 1745 and the first state prints were published in 1750 and consisted of 14 etchings, untitled and unnumbered, with a sketch-like look. For the second publishing in 1761, all the etchings were reworked and numbered I-XVI. Numbers II and V were new etchings to the series. Numbers I through IX were all done in portrait format, while X to XVI were landscape.

Thomas Penson De Quincey, an English essayist known for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), wrote about the Carceri, which he called "the Dreams":

"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 visions during the delirium of a fever. Some of them represented vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, etc., etc., 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 comes to a sudden, 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, by this time standing on the very brink of the abyss. Again elevate your eyes, 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 my dreams."

"Whether these wonderful plates of architectural fancy originated in the delirium of a fevered brain or not, they at least proceed from a genius at the fever heat of imagination. Many of the hundreds of Piranesi's architectural designs and views show a power of imagination far beyond the immediate demands of the subjects he handled, but nowhere except in the Carceri did he let his imagination have such unbounded play. In spite of the intrinsic horror of these dreams of prisons and torture chambers, there is a grandeur in the architectural setting which outweighs the more gruesome details and enables one to contemplate without distraction the whole ideal construction of Piranesi's designs." (Hind)

Though untitled, the conventional titles of the plates are:

I - Title Plate
II - The Man on the Rack (not in the first edition)
III - The Round Tower
IV - The Grand Piazza
V - The Lion Bas-Reliefs (not in the first edition)
VI - The Smoking Fire
VII - The Drawbridge
VIII - The Staircase with Trophies
IX - The Giant Wheel
X - Prisoners on a Projecting Platform (here missing)
XII - The Arch with a Shell Ornament
XIII - The Well
XIV - The Gothic Arch
XV - The Pier with a Lamp
XVI - The Pier with Chains