Aldous Huxley on Piranesi’s Prisons


I scanned this essay years ago from a library copy of a 1949 edition of Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione (Trianon Press, London). It’s worth reproducing here since it’s still one of the best analyses I’ve read of these fascinating and enigmatic drawings. Online reproduction quality of Piranesi’s work is dismayingly low for the most part. And nothing matches seeing these etchings in their original printed state, of course. But you can start here then search around for more.

AT THE TOP OF THE MAIN STAIRCASE in University College, London, there stands a box-like structure of varnished wood. Somewhat bigger than a telephone booth, somewhat smaller than an outdoor privy. When the door of this miniature house is opened, a light goes on inside, and those who stand upon the threshold find themselves confronted by a little old gentleman sitting bolt upright in a chair and smiling benevolently into space. His hair is grey and hangs almost to his shoulders; his wide-brimmed straw hat is like something out of the illustrations to an early edition of Paul et Virginie ; he wears a cutaway coat (green, if I remember rightly, with metal buttons) and pantaloons of white cotton, discreetly striped. This little old gentleman is Jeremy Bentham, or at least what remains of Jeremy Bentham after the dissection ordered in his will—a skeleton with hands and face of wax, dressed in the clothes that once belonged to the first of utilitarians.

To this odd shrine (so characteristic, in its excessive unpretentiousness, of that nook-shotten isle of Albion) I paid my visit of curiosity in company with one of the most extraordinary, one of the most admirable men of our time, Albert Schweitzer. Many years have passed since then; but I remember very clearly the expression of affectionate amusement that appeared on Schweitzer’s face, as he looked at the mummy. “Dear Bentham!” he said at last. “I like him so much better than Hegel. He was responsible for so much less harm.” And of course Schweitzer was perfectly right. The German philosopher was proud of being tief, but lacked the humility which is the necessary condition of the ultimate profundity. That was why he ended up as the idolater of the Prussian state, as the spiritual father of those Marxian dogmas of history, in terms of which it is possible to justify every atrocity on the part of true believers, and to condemn every good or reasonable act performed by infidels. Bentham, on the contrary, had no pretensions to tiefness. Shallow with the kindly, sensible shallowness of the eighteenth century, he thought of individuals as real people, not as trivial bubbles on the surface of the river of History, not as mere cells in the brawn and bone of a social organism, whose soul is the State. From Hegel’s depths have sprung tyranny, war and persecution; from the shallows of Bentham, a host of unpretentious but real benefits—the repeal of antiquated laws, the introduction of sewage systems, the reform of municipal government, almost everything sensible and humane in the civilisation of the nineteenth century. Only in one field did Bentham ever sow the teeth of dragons. He had the logician’s passion for order and consistency; and he wanted to impose his ideas of tidiness not only on thoughts and words, but also on things and institutions. Now tidiness is undeniably a good—but a good of which it is easily possible to have too much and at too high a price. The love of tidiness has often figured, along with the love of power, as a motive to tyranny. In human affairs the extreme of messiness is anarchy, the extreme of tidiness, an army or a penitentiary. Anarchy is the enemy of liberty and, at its highest pitch, so is mechanical efficiency. The good life can be lived only in a society in which tidiness is preached and practised, but not too fanatically, and where efficiency is always haloed, as it were, by a tolerated margin of mess. Bentham himself was no tyrant and no worshipper of the all-efficient, ubiquitous and providential State. But he loved tidiness and inculcated the kind of social efficiency which has been and is being made an excuse for the concentration of power in the hands of a few experts and the regimentation of the masses. And meanwhile we have to remember the strange and rather alarming fact that Bentham devoted about twenty five years of his long life to the elaboration in minutest detail of the plans for a perfectly efficient prison. The panopticon, as he called it, was to be a circular building, so constructed that every convict should pass his life in perpetual solitude, while remaining perpetually under the surveillance of a warder posted at the centre. (Significantly enough, Jeremy Bentham borrowed the idea of the panopticon from his brother, Sir Samuel, the naval architect, who, while employed by Catherine the Great to build ships for Russia, had designed, a factory along panoptical lines, for the purpose of getting more and better work out of the industrialised mujiks.) Bentham’s plan for a totalitarian housing project was never executed. To console him for his disappointment, the philosopher was granted, by Act of Parliament, twenty-three thousand pounds from the public funds.

The architecture of modern prisons lacks the logical perfection that characterised the panopticon; but its inspiration is that same passion for a more than human tidiness which moved the Bentham brothers and which, we may add, has been from time out of mind the inspiration of martinets and dictators. Before the days of Howard and Bentham and the Philadelphia Quakers, nobody, for some odd reason, seems ever to have thought of making prisons orderly and efficient. The gaols to which Elizabeth Fry brought her inexhaustible treasures of charity and common sense were like the embodiments of a criminal delirium. Passing these doors, the prisoner found himself condemned to an existence resembling that of Hobbes’s theoretical state of nature. Behind the facade of Newgate—a facade which its architect, uninhibited by the tiresome necessity of finding a place for windows, had been able to make consummately elegant there existed, not a world of men and women, not even a world of animals, but a chaos, a pandemonium.

The artist whose work most faithfully reflects the nature of this hell is Hogarth—not the Hogarth of the harmoniously coloured paintings, but he of the engravings, he of the hard insensitive line, the ruthless delineator of evil and chaotic misery, as well within the Fleet and Newgate and Bedlam as outside, in those other prisons, those other asylums, the dram-shops of Gin Alley, the brothels and gaming rooms of Covent Garden, the suburban playgrounds, where children torture their dogs and birds with scarcely imaginable refinements of cruelty and obscenity.

Within a space of thirty or forty years the Prison Discipline Society accomplished an extraordinary reformation. From being sub-humanly anarchical, prisons became sub-humanly mechanical. Ever since Sir Joshua Jebb erected his model gaol at Pentonville, the consciousness of being inside a machine, inside a realised ideal of absolute tidiness and perfect regimentation, has been a principal part of the punishment of convicts. Even in the Nazi concentration camps hell on earth was not of the old Hogarthian kind, but thoroughly neat and scientific. Seen from the air, Belsen is said to have looked like an atomic research station or a well-designed motion picture studio. The Bentham brothers have been dead these hundred years and more; but the spirit of the panopticon, the spirit of Sir Samuel’s mujik-compelling workhouse, has gone marching along to strange and horrible destinations.

Today every efficient office, every up-to-date factory is a panoptical prison, in which the worker suffers (more or less, according to the character of the warders and the degree of his native sensibility) from the consciousness of being inside a machine. It is, I think, only in literature that there has been anything like an adequate artistic rendering of this consciousness. De Vigny for example, has said fine things about the soldier’s enslavement to an ideal of absolute tidiness; and in War and Peace there is a memorable chapter on the way in which the impersonal forces of Orders from Above, of High Policy expressing itself through the workings of a System, transforms Pierre’s kindly French gaolers into insensitive and pitiless automata. But in the twentieth century an army is only one among many panopticons. There are also the regiments of Industry, the regiments of bookkeeping and administration. These have evoked a good deal of plaintive or truculent writing, but not much, and nothing very satisfactory, in the way of pictorial art. There were, it is true, certain Cubists who liked to paint machines or to represent human figures as though they were the parts of machines. But a machine, after all, is itself a work of art, much more subtle, much more interesting from a formal point of view, than any representation of a machine can be. In other words, a machine is its own highest artistic expression, and merely loses by being simplified and quintessentialized in a symbolic representation. As for the representation of human beings in mechanomorphic groups—this is effective only to a certain point. For the real horror of the situation in an industrial or administrative panopticon is not that human beings are transformed into machines (if they could be so transformed, they would be perfectly happy in their prisons); no, the horror consists precisely in the fact that they are not machines, but freedom-loving animals, far-ranging minds and God-like spirits, who find themselves subordinated to machines and constrained to live, if they can be said to live, within the issueless tunnel of an arbitrary and inhuman system.

Beyond the real, historical prisons of too much tidiness and those where anarchy engenders the hell of physical and moral chaos there lie yet other prisons, no less terrible for being fantastic and unembodied—the metaphysical prisons, whose seat is within the mind, whose walls are made of nightmare and incomprehension, whose chains are anxiety and their racks a sense of personal and even generic guilt. De Quincey’s Oxford Street and the road in which he had his vision of sudden death were prisons of this kind. So was the luxurious inferno described by Beckford in Vathek. So were the castles, the court-rooms, the penal colonies inhabited by the personages of Kafka’s novels. And, passing from the world of words to that of forms, we find these same metaphysical prisons delineated with incomparable force in the strangest and in some ways the most beautiful of Piranesi’s etchings.

Historical generalisations are delightful to make and thrilling to read. But how much, I wonder, do they contribute to our understanding of the past? The question is one which I will not venture to answer except with a series of other questions. For example, if, as we are told, the art of a period reflects the life of that period, in what way precisely do Perugino’s paintings express the age whose history is written in The Prince of Machiavelli? Again, modern historians affirm that the thirteenth century was the Age of Faith and a period of Progress. Then why should the men who actually lived during the thirteenth century have regarded it as a time of decadence and why should its liveliest chronicler, Salimbene, depict for us a society that behaves as though it had never even heard of Christian morals? Or take the fourth century in Constantinople. At this time and place, we are assured by certain historians of religion, men were wholly preoccupied with problems of theology. If this was the case, why did the professional moralists who were contemporary with those men complain that they lived only for the chariot races? And finally why should Voltaire and Hume be regarded as more typical of the eighteenth century than Bach and Wesley? Why have I myself, in an earlier paragraph, spoken of the “kindly shallowness of the eighteenth century,” when that century gave birth to Blake and Piranesi as well as to Helvétius and Bentham? The truth is, of course, that every variety of human being exists at every period. In religion, for example, every generation has its fetishists, its revivalists, its legalists, its rationaIists, and its mystics. And, whatever the prevailing fashions in art may happen to be, every age has its congenital romantics and natural classicists. True, at any period the prevailing fashions in art, in religion, in modes of thought and feeling are more or less rigid. It is therefore hard for those, whose temperaments are at odds with the fashion, to express themselves in any but an oblique and inhibited way. Any given work of art may be represented as the diagonal in a parallelogram of forces—a parallelogram, of which the base is the prevailing tradition and the socially important events of the time, and the upright is the artist’s temperament and, his private life. In some works the base is longer than the upright; in others, the upright is longer than the base.

Piranesi’s Prisons are creations of the second kind. In them the personal, private and therefore everlasting upright is notably longer than the merely historical and social base. The proof of this is to be found in the fact that these extraordinary etchings have continued, through two centuries, to seem completely relevant and modern not merely in their formal aspects, but also as expressions of obscure psychological truths. To use a once popular religious phrase, they spoke to the condition of Coleridge and De Quincey at the height of the Romantic reaction; and they speak no less eloquently to the condition of twentieth century men and women brought up on the literature, imaginative or descriptive, of deep psychology. That which Piranesi represents is not subject to historical change. He is not, like Hogarth, recording the facts of contemporary social life. Nor is he trying, like Bentham, to design a mechanism that shall change the nature of such facts. His concern is with states of the soul—states that are largely independent of external circumstances, states that recur whenever Nature, at her everlasting game of chance, combines the hereditary factors of physique and temperament in certain patterns. In the past psychology was generally treated as a branch of ethics or theology. Thus, for St. Augustine the problem of human differences was the same as the problem of Grace and the mystery of God’s good pleasure. And it is only in very recent years that men have learnt to talk about the idiosyncrasies of individual behaviour in any terms but those of sin and virtue. The metaphysical prisons delineated by Piranesi and described by so many modern poets and novelists, were well known to our ancestors but well known, not as symptoms of disease or of some temperamental peculiarity, not as states to be analysed and expressed by lyric poets, but rather as moral imperfections, as criminal rebellions against God, as obstacles in the way of enlightenment. Thus the weltschmerz of which the German Romantics were so proud, the ennui, fruit de la morne incuriosité which was the theme of so many of Baudelaire’s most splendid verses, is nothing else than that acedia, for indulging in which the temperamentally bored and melancholy were plunged by Dante head over ears in the black mud of hell’s third circle. And this is what St. Catherine of Sienna had to say about the state of mind which is the very climate and atmosphere of all Kafka’s novels. “Confusion is a leprosy that dries up body and soul and binds the arms of holy desire. It makes the soul unendurable to itself, disposing the mind to conflicts and fantasies. It robs the soul of supernatural light and darkens its natural light. Let the demons of confusion be vanquished by living faith and holy desire.” To someone like St. Catherine, whose primary concern was union with God and the salvation of souls, even to someone whose preoccupation with Christianity was, like Dante’s, rather that of a philosopher than of a theocentric saint, the idea of treating spiritual confusion or acedia or any other kind of metaphysical prison as merely a subject for scientific research or artistic manipulation would have seemed a kind of criminal imbecility. The historical base, upon which mediaeval artists erected their personal uprights, was so long and so deeply rooted in traditional theology and ethics that it proved impossible for even Boccaccio—born story-teller and passionate humanist though he was—to pay more than the most perfunctory attention to psychology. In the Decameron even the outward appearance of the personages is hardly described; and the characterisation is confined to simple adjectives, such as gentle, courtly, avaricious, amorous, and the like. It required a greater genius and a profounder scepticism than Boccaccio’s to invent a psychology independent of ethics and theology. And let us remember that Chaucer—the Chaucer of the later Canterbury Tales—remained without any rival until the time of Shakespeare. In relation to its traditional base, his personal upright is one of the tallest on record. The resulting diagonal is a work of truly astounding originality.

In their much smaller way the Prisons of Piranesi are also startlingly original. No previous painter or draughtsman had ever done anything at all like them. Fantasists, of course, there had been before Piranesi’s day—even fantasists who expressed themselves in terms of architectural design, like the Bibienas. But the Bibienas were men of the theatre and their architectural inventions were intended primarily to astonish the groundlings, to express, not the subterranean workings of a tormented soul, but those thoroughly vulgar aspirations towards grandiosity which, throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, tormented the great ones of the earth, together with all who snobbishly wanted to be like them. Another more celebrated fantasist was Salvator Rosa—a man who, for reasons which are now entirely incomprehensible, was regarded by the critics of four and five generations ago as a great artist. But Salvator Rosa’s romanticism is pretty cheap and obvious. He is a melodramatist who never penetrates below the surface. If he were alive today, he would be known most probably as the indefatigable author of one of the more bloodthirsty and adventurous comic strips. Much more gifted was Magnasco, whose speciality was monks by candle-light and in a state of Grecoesque or Gothic elongation. His inventions are always pleasing, but always, one feels, without any deep or abiding significance—things created voluntarily on one of the higher levels of consciousness, somewhere near the top of a very whimsical and accomplished head. The fantasy of Piranesi’s Prisons is wholly different in quality from that displayed in the works of any of his immediate predecessors. All the plates in the series are self-evidently variations on a single symbol, whose reference is to things existing in the physical and metaphysical depths of human souls—to acedia and confusion, to nightmare and angst, to incomprehension and a panic bewilderment.

The most disquietingly obvious fact about all these dungeons is the perfect pointlessness which reigns throughout. Their architecture is colossal and magnificent. One is made to feel that the genius of great artists and the labour of innumerable slaves have gone into the creation of these monuments, every detail of which is completely without a purpose. Yes, without a purpose: for the staircases lead nowhere, the vaults support nothing but their own weight and enclose vast spaces that are never truly rooms, but only ante-rooms, lumber-rooms, vestibules, outhouses. And this magnificence of Cyclopaean stone is everywhere made squalid by wooden ladders, by flimsy gangways and cat-walks. And the squalor is for squalor’s sake, since all these rickety roads through space are manifestly without destination. Below them, on the floor, stand great machines incapable of doing anything in particular, and from the arches overhead hang ropes that carry nothing except a sickening suggestion of torture. Some of the Prisons are lighted only by narrow windows. Others are half open to the sky, with hints of yet other vaults and walls in the distance. But even where the enclosure is more or less complete, Piranesi always contrives to give the impression that this colossal pointlessness goes on indefinitely, and is co-extensive with the universe. Engaged in no recognisable activity, paying no attention to one another, a few small, faceless figures haunt the shadows. Their insignificant presence merely emphasises the fact that there is nobody at home.

Physiologically, every human being is always alone, suffering in solitude, enjoying in solitude, incapable of participating in the vital processes of his fellows. But, though self-contained, this island-organism is never self-sufficient. Each living solitude is dependent upon other living solitudes and, more completely still, upon the ocean of being from which it lifts its little reef of individuality. The realisation of this paradox of solitude in the midst of dependence, isolation accompanied by insufficiency, is one of the principal causes of confusion and acedia and anxiety. And in their turn, of course, confusion and acedia and anxiety intensify the sense of loneliness and make the human paradox seem yet more tragic. The occupants of Piranesi’s Prisons are the hopeless spectators of this pomp of worlds, this pain of birth—this magnificence without meaning, this incomprehensible misery without end and beyond the power of man to understand or to bear.

It is said that the first idea of the Prisons came to Piranesi in the delirium of fever. What is certain, however, is that this first idea was not the last; for some of the etchings exist in early states, in which many of the most characteristic and disquieting details of the Prisons we now know are lacking. From this it is to be inferred that the state of mind expressed by these etchings was, in Piranesi, chronic and in some sort normal. Fever may originally have suggested the Prisons; but in the years which elapsed between Piranesi’s first essays and the final publication of the plates, recurrent moods of confusion and acedia and angst must have been responsible for such obscure but, as we now see, indispensable symbols as the ropes, the aimless engines, the makeshift wooden stairs and bridges.

The plates of the Prisons were published while their author was still a young man, and during the remainder of his fairly long life Piranesi never returned to the theme which, in them, he had handled with such consummate mastery. Most of his work, thence-forward, was topographical and archaeological. His theme was always Rome; and this was true even when he abandoned the facts of ruins and baroque churches to undertake excursions into the world of fantasy. For what he liked to imagine was still Rome—Rome as it ought to have been, as it might have been if Augustus and his successors had possessed an inexhaustible treasury and an inexhaustible supply of manpower. It is fortunate that their resources were limited; for the hypothetical Rome of Piranesi’s fancy is a depressingly pretentious place.

In St. Catherine’s opinion, the demons of confusion are to be vanquished only by holy desire and faith in the Christian Revelation. But actually any sustained desire and any intense faith will win the battle. Piranesi, for example, seems to have been without any profound religious conviction or any mystical aspiration. Unlike his younger contemporary, Blake, he was granted no intimations of immortality, no visions, among the tempests and the lamentations, of God and transfigured souls and the Sons of the Morning. Piranesi’s faith was that of a renaissance humanist, his god was Roman antiquity and his motivating desire was a mixture of the artist’s will to beauty, the archaeologist’s will to historical truth and the poor man’s will to make a living. These, we must assume, were sufficient antidotes to acedia and spiritual confusion. At any rate he never gave a second expression to the state of mind which had inspired the Prisons.

Considered from a purely formal standpoint, the Prisons are remarkable as being the nearest eighteenth century approach to abstract art. The raw material of Piranesi’s designs consists of architectural forms; but, because the Prisons are images of confusion, because their essence is pointlessness, the combination of architectural forms never adds up to an architectural drawing, but remains a free design, untrammelled by any considerations of utility or even possibility, and limited only by the necessity of evoking the general idea of a building. In other words, Piranesi uses architectural forms to produce a series of beautifully intricate designs—designs which resemble the abstractions of the Cubists in being composed of geometrical elements, but which have the advantage of combining pure geometry with enough subject matter, enough literature, to express more forcibly than a mere pattern can do, the obscure and terrible states of spiritual confusion and acedia.

Of natural, as opposed to geometrical forms, Piranesi, in his Prisons, makes hardly any use. There is not a leaf or a blade of grass in the whole series, not a bird or an animal. Here and there, irrelevantly alive in the midst of the stony abstractions, stand a few human figures, dark, cloaked, featureless and impassive.

In the topographical etchings things are very different. Here Piranesi uses natural forms as a romantically decorative foil to the solid geometry of the monuments. The trees have an unkempt wildness; the personages in the foreground are either beggars, inconceivably ragged , or else fine ladies and gentlemen, no less inconceivably beribboned and bewigged, sometimes on foot, sometimes sitting in coaches carved into the likeness of wedding cakes or merry-go-rounds.

Everywhere the purpose is to set off the smoothness of hewn stone by juxtaposing the wavering, flame-like forms of plants and human beings. At the same time the figures serve another purpose, which is to magnify the size of the monuments. Men and women are reduced to the stature of small children; horses become little larger than mastiffs. Inside the basilicas, the pious reach up to the holy water fonts and, even on tiptoe, can hardly wet their fingers. Peopled by dwarfs, even the most modest of baroque buildings assumes heroic proportions; a little piece of classicism by Pietro da Cortona seems gravely portentous, and the delightful gimcrack of Borromini takes on the quality of something Cyclopean. This trick of increasing the apparent size of buildings by diminishing the known yardstick of the human figure was a favourite device among eighteenth-century artists. It was reduced to final absurdity in such pictures as the Belshazzar’s Feast of John Martin, where the ant-like king and his courtiers sit down to dinner in a hall about two miles long and fifteen hundred feet high.

In the Prisons there is no hint of this ingenuous and simple-minded theatricality. Such prisoners as there are exist for the purpose of emphasising, not the super-human grandeur of the buildings, but their inhuman vacancy, their sub-human pointlessness. They are, quite literally, lost souls, wandering—or not even wandering, but merely standing about—in a labyrinthine emptiness. It is interesting to compare them with the personages in Blake’s illustrations to the Inferno of Dante. These damned souls are so far from being lost that they seem to be perfectly at home among their flames and crags and morasses. In all the circles of Blake’s hell everybody is vaguely heroic in the corrupt classical manner of the late eighteenth century and everybody appears to take a lively interest in his fellows. How different is the state of affairs in the Prisons! Here there are no heroic muscles, no extroverted exhibitionism, not a trace of social life. Every man is clothed, muffled up, furtive and, even when in company, completely alone. Blake’s drawings are curious and sometimes beautiful; but never for a moment can we take them seriously as symbols of extremest suffering. Piranesi’s prisoners, on the other hand, are the inhabitants of a hell, which, though but one out of innumerable worst of all possible worlds, is completely credible and bears the stamp of an unquestionable authenticity.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The etching and engraving archive

10 thoughts on “Aldous Huxley on Piranesi’s Prisons”

  1. If you’ve not seen it, this presentation of Piranesi’s complete graphic works offers clear, good-sized scans.

  2. Hello, Please do forgive my broken english. Could you tell me what precisely was written by Huxley here up, about the Piranese’s prisons? I’d like to try to transalte the text for a friend, after looking if it already exists.
    Thank you very much for your help.

  3. Hi Lionel. All of the text above is Huxley’s, from the words “At the top of the main staircase…” onwards. I give the details of the book where the essay first appeared at the top of the posting.

  4. Many thanks!

    ” trick of increasing the apparent size of buildings by diminishing the known yardstick of the human figure”

    best expresses the genius of Albrecht Speer in his entrance hall to the bell tower at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin… or, for that matter, the whole ‘ensemble’ as viewed from the calculated ‘everyman’s’ point of arrival via S-Bahn train at the foot of a kilometer long 4% upgrade to a building [the stadium] without an identifiable ‘element of human scale’… pure genius!

  5. is this the entire essay… or am i being stupid and cannot see the button that says next page…
    found it very interesting and quite refreshing to hear an account of Piranesi that isn’t all about fact and no interpretation

Comments are closed.

Discover more from { feuilleton }

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading