Piranesi's etchings of imaginary prisons held a hypnotic fascination for later Romantic writers, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Edgar Allen Poe. The immensity of the architecture seems to embody the workings of a great supernatural power. Below, diminutive figures appear doomed to climb endless staircases without hope of release. The sinister machinery of cables, pulleys, and levers suggest awful horrors.
Piranesi etched his first set of 14 plates in Rome during the late 1740s. They belong to a Venetian tradition of capricci, or imaginary subjects, which also feature in the etchings of Tiepolo and Canaletto. The ambitious size and theatrical perspective of the Carceri mark them out as something new.
Ten years later Piranesi radically reworked the same plates and added two new ones. He greatly increased the dramatic contrasts between the lit spaces and the deep shadows, as is apparent in this example. He made the architectural forms even more elaborate, as in the complex shapes of the arch that swings over our heads from the left. Beyond the arches and bridge in the middle ground, Piranesi has introduced a new sequence of vaults, arches, and stairs that recede indefinitely. Their precise detailing and silvery tones are in sharp contrast to his loose drawing style in the first edition. It is for these later plates of the Carceri that Piranesi is best known today.