Admirers of Roman antiquities know Giovanni Batista Piranesi (1720–1778) for his Vedute (Views) of the ruins of this mighty empire that ruled much of the known world in ancient times. We, in the criminal justice field, however, look to his Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons) for an almost surrealist, Kafkaesque view of the dread and terror of incarceration. Michel Foucault, in his flawed but seminal work on prisons, presented a view of the power and control of these institutions that became oh-so-fashionable among scholars. Piranesi, however, anticipated Foucault’s theory by over 150 years with his graphic fantastic descriptions of the horror of these monstrous, fantasy prisons. Opiumeater Thomas De Quincy aptly described the Carceri in 1820: prisons “representing vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults … expressive of enormous power put forth, and resistance overcome.”
Piranesi began his etchings of prisons in 1745 with a first slate of fourteen prints. In 1761 he reworked the etchings and added two new images. He finished with sixteen numbered plates, each 15” X 21.” These deeply disturbing views highlight the horror and vast fantastic spaces of prisons.
Piranesi’s prison etchings inspired the writer Aldous Huxley (Brave New World, a book often referenced but rarely read) and Jean Adhemar of the Bibliothèque nationale de France to write an essay and critical analysis of the sixteen prints in the Trianon Press’s edition of the work published in 1949. Trianon issued 212 copies signed by Huxley, with twelve of them “hors commerce” lettered A to L. The Sealy Library was fortunate to acquire one of the 12 special copies, the “G” issue, of this outstanding work. We have found only two from the regular edition in American libraries, and seven in foreign libraries. The Sealy Library’s special copy is the only one in an institution.
We greatly await the opening of our new Special Collections and Rare Book Room, expected by the end of the year, which will provide the housing our unique materials deserve.
Larry E. Sullivan
Read more from the Fall 2016 issue of Classified Information, the Library newsletter