Tag Archives: piranesi

Of Fake, Fiction and Misreading

I started with what was the oldest recon choice and, ever since then, a big question mark has been hovering above the work – how does Piranesi remain relevant today and, most importantly, why through looking at the relationship between the fake and the fact?


Piranesi’s work is embedded with a degree of narrative, of movement, it almost scripts out the passing through space. Perhaps this comes from his set-design background and is certainly the reason why most of his readers are themselves fiction makers – from the literary, with Poe, to the cinematic, with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Bladerunner.


Piranesi’s forgeries, his unclassifiable fake antique artefacts, were the physical manifestation of paraphernalia that he populated his partially fictitious renderings of ancient Rome. He attempts a 1700s response to authentic documentation of his pathological obsession with excavation – one embedded with his own authorship and interpretation. Here, an inadvertent accident happens – today’s readers believe in the authenticity of the excavation etching, the factual accuracy of the plan. Thus, these fictitious moments of an imagined ancient Rome are misread as real, including for many, the fiction of Campo Marzio. The two later Carceri additions, finished at the same time as the Campo Marzio series, open towards an imagined ancient Rome. Piranesi almost anchors his Carceri by the means of these wormholes looking into a fictionalised version of a space – from fake temples to a fake St. Peters. In other words, we misread Piranesi’s fiction as real through forgeries.


In the case of Piranesi, it is the way that we read the project, through these forgeries, that accidentally builds a very material alternate fiction in our minds, much in the way that we purpousfuly read the Unbuilt projects of today. I’ll return for a second to the recon example timeline, which start with a very early Piranesi, almost immediately jump into the early 20th century and abruptly stop in the 1970. The reason for this abrupt stop rests, I believe, in the medium. In the past decade we have again started to read the Unbuilt through forgeries, much like we misread Piranesi’s body of work. We live in a world that functions on the copy-paste, a world in which we so often find ourselves asking “Is it real?”. Fakes create alternate fictions within our very lives every day, from boob jobs to CGI to fake architecture in China to photoshopped images that we are inundated with online. This cornucopia of fakes has made us both incredibly accepting of it but also more attune to the fake itself – we are aware that anything we see could be a fake. The way that the Unbuilt is represented today has become, consequently, almost the selling of a fiction through a series of constructed fake paraphernalia, much as I have been doing during my recon, with the artefacts that support the fiction of the excavation of the Carceri. The line that separates the photograph of the built from the render of the Unbuilt has dissolved to such a degree that it almost always requires a double-take. The weightlessness and immediateness of the fake appeal to the digital reader. The fictions of today’s Unbuilt require forged paraphernalia to support its existence.


We have almost come full cycle, from Piranesi’s 1700s to 2013. We started off with misreading Piranesi’s fiction as reality and arrived to the necessity of reading today’s unbuilt through a similar process, only this time on purpose. We have an inherit wish to believe, to emerge ourselves in these alternate realities of Unbuilt. Here lies the paradox of the digital reader – the more he is saturated with fakes, the more he wishes to believe in them.


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My name is Ioana Iliesiu and I will present the exclusive original folios from the recents Carceri Excavations that have split the streets of Rome. During the past two summers I have been part of the team of archeologists to unearth Piranesi’s Carceri from their depth. The Carceri, a labyrinthine prison that worms its way underneath Rome, were thought, until recently, to have been, like most of Piranesi’s work, a paper project, a capriccio. But the recent discoveries have transformed the 16 plates from paper vedutte to real pockets of space that fill the gaps in Rome’s sections. They exist, in perfect darkness, in the voids between buried basilicas, entombed Mithraic temples and fossilised Roman villas, forming a labyrinthine underbelly, a subversive mirror image of the plan of the city above.  I have brought with me several articles from the initial period of excavation, as well as several analytical X-rays of found artefacts and their detail sheets.


The discovery of the Carceri was made on the 12th of May 2012, when during construction works by Termini Station, a sinkhole was formed. During deep-depth drilling, a pocket of air was hit and a sinkhole formed, opening a wormhole from Termini’s parking lot to the hidden vaulted antechamber of the Carceri. A team of archeologists was called in, who discovered the now famous Carcer slate, a monumental slab (approximately 3.6m by 5m) with the inscription “Carceri Invenzione, G. Battista Piranesi, Architect Veneziano”. The inscription was the key to the discovery of the magnitude of the entire Carceri project.


Due to the chaotic master plan of the Carceri, whose spaces overlap, and expand without any apparent logic, the archeologists had to construct a map of the excavation points based on the clues that Piranesi leaves in the second state of the Carceri prints, which at this point were thought of as being a sort of cheat sheet to the discovery of the project. At that point, two versions of Piranesi’s Prints existed. The fist, sketchier version (1748) and the second, done 13 years later, at the same time as Piranesi was drawing his Campo Marzio project. While 14 originals from the first state are simply re-etched, two new plates are added. By analysing these plates, one can detect the limits of the carceri proper. If the Termini excavations reveal the antechamber, the excavations by the Mamertine prison reveal the entrance to the project. Plate II is radically different from the plates in State I – it cracks an opening in the infinitely expanding spaces but doesn’t open the carceri to a Rome of the 1700s, as one would expect, but to an imagined view of ancient Rome. Specialists are now beginning to think that this plate is the bridge to the Campo Marzio project, published at the same time. Why? It is this detail that is the clue – the Carceri begin at the edge of the Campo Marzio map. (I show the maps while talking about this)


The next spatial clue that archeologists worked with, is plate 4, which positions the next wormhole of the Carceri underneath St. Peter’s Square. The excavations in St. Peter’s square were widely portrayed in the media. Due to the nature of the site itself, the excavations, which took place over 3 and a half moths, were split into four phases of excavations.

By following an underground passage from the St. Peter’s excavation, two more important artefacts were unearthed – what was thought of as original Roman and Egyptian artefacts – part of an architrave and three fragments of an obelisk. These fake artefacts are placed in the project by Piranesi, who had a passion for excavating, documenting, collecting but also creating fake mutations artefacts and selling them as real.

The archaeological team was, by this point, uncertain about the nature of the project. Was Piranesi creating a project by excavating pockets of space buried deep underneath Rome and recontextualizing them, joining spaces them together, bridging in the gaps of disparate fossilised chambers and inhabiting them with mutant facsimiles? Was Piranesi, the Venetian architect, as he signs the Carceri, a master of the spatial collage, or was he constructing an underbelly master plan of a Rome he hated, design to look like a set, incorporating disparate architectural fragments, facsimiles and archeological paraphernalia, as he was doing when drawing the plan of Campo Marzio.


The last phase of the excavations took place at the Trinita Dei Monti site, indicated in a caption at the bottom of plate 5 – Piranesi’s studio on Strada Felice, near Trinita Dei Monti church. The house above the approximate location of the studio was sealed off and the media prepared for the monumental discoveries predicted by out team of archeologists. In the studio, we predicted we would discover the key to the Carceri – an elaborate bridging of found spaces or a stage set constructed from Piranes’s antiquity fakes. X-ray of the deep underground levels helped our team navigate through the layers of earth and pockets of space underneath the street level.

The chamber that we reached at 32.5 m underground revealed a small dark chamber, a fossil of a 1700s studio. Un the table, partially unfinished, was a print, which, with great care, I will reveal to you know. Please bare with me while I unseal the print.


This print, which we have now catalogued as the lost Carceri print, is plate 17, of the Third State. This print is a sort of Alice’s mirror which subverts the project. At its lowest level, it shows the studio, which morphs into a view of an underground Carceri. Through a gap in the floor, a via apia composed of facsimiles of ancient artefacts. The etching converges towards the top, where it passes a layer of underground pipes and modern foundations, and bursts, through a sinkhole, into the street above. This print both closes the loop, spatially returning the project to the sinkhole at Termini, where our journey began, but also shattering the reality of the excavation itself. It reverts a built and/or found project back to paper. The Venitian Architect who signs the slate becomes a fantasy of a disgruntled Venetian draftsman and the paraphernalia that Piranesi embeds in the project disperses. His fake archives, his lions, his tortures, his prisoners, his smoke and mirrors, are replaced by the paraphernalia of the excavation, transforming the reality of the x-ray and newsprint to fantasy, confusing the very image of the central figure, the Architect.

If all was a fake, who is the Architect of the project. Was it Piranesi who, in his Third state was designing a scenario of a future excavation of his built project, or was it I, inhabiting Piranesi’s project and adding new layer of fake paraphernalia, who becomes the architect?

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Speculative Excavations Of Piranesi’s Carceri d’Inventione. Ioana vs Piranesi

“I arrive at Termini in Rome and find the city is cracked. The excavations split the streets and allow glimpses of the layers and pockets of space below. I fall off the sidewalk and into the depths of the excavations of Piranesi’s Carceri.
Armed with Piranesi’s a map that I have constructed I discover the impossible unraveling of the buried carceri. As I go deeper into the carceri, I discover that the carceri is either built on or merges with another Piranesian capriccio, the ruins of the Campo Marzio. I pass by underground ghost fields and ruined basilicas, under super-scaled arches and duck under lowered architraves. I hear the Tiber, sometimes above, sometimes deep underneath. My only reference points are fragments of present-day Rome and a white sky seen through the excavation holes. I have the feeling that I am constantly being followed. At one point I startle when I catch a glimpsed of moving white but realize it was simply an oversized statue.
At one point, the I pass under an oddly seventies-looking carved arch flanked by bits of Roman ruin and stone lions and enter a fossilized circus. In a frozen explosion of stone, monoliths that half-remind me of something align.


I climb a series of steep staircases towards a round opening high above. I attempt to count the steps but lose count. The hole is a threshold between the vast underground labyrinth and a small, dusty room. The room has no ceiling, only a grid of excavation strings. The unexcavated area of the floor is cluttered with dusty  artifacts – bits of Roman and Etruscan architecture, stained models, oxidized copper plates and yellowed prints. On the opposite wall, framed by bind windows, four large prints hang on the wall. I switch the light of the archeological tripod bulb and the room is flooded with light.
The first wall hanging I see myself falling into the excavations at Termini. I the second I see myself at the threshold of street and excavated carceri. In the third I am entering the circus of the unbuilt. I peer at the last one which shows the studio I am standing in. But I am falling back into the excavated hole. Suddenly I slip.”

“I fell into the carceri right after I arrived in Rome, in 1748 and, for 13 years, search for a way out from their labyrinth, a labyrinth that for me mirrored the Rome that I suddenly found myself in, chaotic, dirty and so far from the ordered marbles of the ancient city.
To escape the impossible spaces of the carceri I attempt to find the order of the ancient plan underneath them and I obsessively gutted out rome, excavate and document the old city. It took thirteen years to find an opening from the carceri into the old Rome. After my discovery, I buy back my original 14 plates from the Frenchman who had publish them and rework them. I add the depth and confusion of the spaces that I have been captive of. I then add two new plates that rip the surface of the carceri and open to a new and glorious ancient Rome, the rome of the Campo Marzio. These two plates are the gateways from 18th century Rome to ancient Rome and my Campo Marzio series which I publish shortly after the second state of the carceri.
So this is how I escaped the carceri, through creating the Campo Marzio. I never though I would revisit them again but I fell back when I got my first and only commission for built architecture – Santa Maria del Priorato. When the Pope commissioned it, I was wildly excited at first but then fell into a deep depression since the singularity and pressure on this one built work augment my displeasure with my position of paper architect catering to tourist guides.
I designed a view, a keyhole that acts as entryway to the third state of the carceri. Through several layers, the keyhole, the trimmed hedge passageway, an illusion occurs. One sees a facsimile of St Peter’s, an entrance to my third version of the carceri. It is a new kind of carceri, which I am imagining as built – possibly a response to my lack of building. They worm their way under a Rome of the future which will be excavated and gutted in order for my Carceri to be discovered, like an ancient relic. It looks as if this future Rome is bursting at the seams and my Carceri are opening up to the sky.
The carceri, especially in this last third state, I now realize, are a tome to the unbuilt architect. They are an underbelly of an underbelly of an underbelly, a deep labyrinth where Rome in different times collapses, where unbuilt projects are fossilized in stone monoliths.
I am in my studio, lost in this labyrinth of the third state, looking down onto the dusty artifacts that make up the carceri. Models, fakes, roman artifacts, prints. Maybe I’ll sell them to tourists tomorrow…”

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Plate XVI – Third State (set up)

Screen shot 2013-10-25 at 10.48.31 AM


Screen shot 2013-10-25 at 10.48.17 AM

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Piranesi the Gamemaster

piranesi metropolis 3

Adobe Photoshop PDF

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Carceri – The Escape

game piranesi

In 1748 Piranesi falls into the Carceri Labyrinth and, for 13 years, is unable to escape. It is a space of illusions, infinite and confining, torturous and languid which expands from the carceri cell to the city, slowly engulfing Rome. The city morphs into the carceri while the carceri inflate to urban scale, confusing the accidental prisoners through its games of impossible planes and scales.

But Piranesi attempts an escape. In 1761 he buys the copper plates from his publisher and reworks them, painting with a chisel the new depths, the chiaroscuro of the carceri but also, slyly, adding two new plates. These new plates break the laws of space and time and create cracks in the carceri that open towards a fantastical ancient Rome, a Rome where Etruscan ruins, collumnas, invented temples and centurions are glimpsed. These two new plates, Plates II and IV, are the key of the labyrinth, its exits and/or entrances.

mamertine martio

The Carceri are hidden underneath, amidst and above (!) an imagined Rome that exists on several time and spacial plans, but their core is real. It is the Mamertino Carceri, the ancient Roman prison that falls just outside the edges of the Campo Marzio plan, layed out by Piranesi at the same time that he was etching the two new plates and reworking the fourteen earlier ones.

The Carceri are the outskirts of the Campo Marzio, the ruins that fall off the map.

I will attempt to reconstruct these outskirts, stitch together this labyrinthine map and, under the game-master Piranesi, attempt an escape.

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