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Photo © The Courtauld

Smoking fire, 1749-60

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778)

Beyond the threshold

  • Medium:
  • Dimensions:
    54.5 × 41.3 cm
  • Collection:
    The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)
  • Coll. No:

Click here to listen to short extracts from Susanna Clarke’s novel 'Piranesi' (2020) read by co-curator Margherita Dosi Delfini, and a commentary on how the novel informed the curators’ understanding of Piranesi’s 'Smoking Fire'.

'Piranesi' by Susanna Clarke, copyright © 2020. Published by Bloomsbury USA

This etching visualises a dizzying and monumental prison made up of arches, platforms and bridges. While the depth and precision of the tonal details trick the eye into perceiving a convincingly real space, the building is a fictitious structure, a product of the artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s imagination. Piranesi was an architectural draughtsman, renowned for his series of architectural fantasies, Invenzioni Capricci di Carceri (Imaginary Prisons). In this drawing from this series, Piranesi plays with the possibilities and limits of architecture, and pushes our understanding of construction and perspective in this transformative, labyrinthine structure.