Piranesi’s prints are well represented in the museum’s collection. Many of them were acquired through the generosity of the collector J.C.J. Bierens de Haan, who in 1936 donated ninety-seven sheets from the Vedute di Roma, a series of impressive views of monumental Roman ruins. At his death in 1951, the museum also received Bierens de Haan’s extensive collection of prints (26,000 sheets) and disposal over Stichting Lucas van Leyden, a trust established for the acquisition of graphic art. The following year, director Ebbinge Wubben used funds from the trust to buy two complete series of Piranesi’s renowned Carceri, both the rare first-state prints executed in 1750, and the second state of 1761.
Piranesi had studied architecture and his Carceri, the Prisons, are imaginative evocations of space. He created a nightmarish underworld of menacing caverns with a profusion of staircases, gates, bridges and chains. These architectural structures are composed of massive stone blocks arranged in rhythmic patterns, intersected by the diagonal lines of ladders, suspended cables and countless arches. The tiny figures wandering through them, some flailing their arms, signify man’s insignificance.