I/Eye: On Photography

Industria & Carceri

Posted in Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on March 5, 2010

The Drawbridge, Plate VII, Carceri, Giovanni Battista Piranesi

from Industria I © Vaclav Jirasek

Thomas De Quincey (‘The Pains of Opium’, Confessions of an English Opium Eater):

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…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) representing 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 come 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. […] 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 aerial flight of stairs is beheld: and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labors: and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall.

2 Responses

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  1. Silvio Levy said, on March 9, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    A truly striking image, reminiscent of Escher. And what an extraordinary passage: where did you run across it?


    • Sheila Newbery said, on March 10, 2010 at 10:43 pm

      It’s a classic, read it in grad school—though I’d since forgotten the reference to Piranesi. I agree about the echo of Escher (though of course it’s the other way around). Jirasek’s portraits of the men who work in the hulking interiors he shows in Industria I are also interesting—Dickensian in a way; but quite modern and abstract in the way he handles the figure, flattening it out with a full-on flash. And usually placing his subjects against a wall or other flat surface, pocked and splattered with the work at hand, so that the men look as though they’re somehow the exhausted emanations of that very surface…

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