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Echoes through Emptiness: The Sound of Piranesi's Carceri

Published on
March 23

What happens when you combine an 17th century composer, an 18th century architect, and 21st century technology? You get a surprisingly unified and powerful film about the timelessness of loneliness and the intersection of beauty and terror within the human soul. 

I had the opportunity to see a screening of The Sound of the Carceri at The Morgan Library & Museum, in conjunction with their new exhibition Piranesi and the Temples of Paestum: Drawings from Sir John Soane’s Museum. I was enticed by the promise of hearing Yo-Yo Ma play Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2, and I was intrigued by the idea of performing music in a digitally-created environment, but I had never heard of Piranesi before. Before the film began, I took the opportunity to view Piranesi’s drawings of the Temples of Paestum. These temples had been built by the Greeks in the 5th century B.C.E., and had been remarkably well preserved. To my uninformed eye, Piranesi’s drawings captured the nobility and grandeur of the temples in great detail, adding human and animal figures into the scene (one drawing even had faint remnants of pigs in it, which Piranesi evidentially decided to omit). Each drawing of the temple is from a different vantage point, and a diagram underneath the drawing shows the point of view in relation to the temple as a whole, further convincing me of Piranesi’s accuracy. After all, as an architect, you would expect Piranesi to make detailed and architecturally sound sketches as well.

The pre-film screening, delivered by curator John Marciari, provided me with a fascinating and much-needed context for understanding Piranesi and his works. Interestingly, although Piranesi described himself as an architect, he only had the opportunity to construct one building. Piranesi made most of his living and achieved most of his fame selling etchings and drawings of Rome. He was a “taste-maker” long before the concept of a taste-maker existed. Today, it is Piranesi’s work that provides the image of our idea of Rome – Piranesi’s Rome is the Rome that we see on paper placemats at pizza places all across America. Yet much of what Piranesi drew was not architecturally accurate. Piranesi valued visual immersion more highly. During the presentation, Mr. Marciari presented some of the drawings of the Temples of Paestum, and pointed out some of the inaccuracies in them. In one painting, Piranesi deliberately leaves out a pillar to allow for a wider and more dramatic view of the Temple. In others, two columns of pillars have different vanishing points, creating a more open view of the Temple. In still others, Piranesi relocates other ruins to make the environment seem even more built-up. In short, Piranesi was less concerned with being architecturally accurate in his drawings, and more concerned with capturing the feeling of the architecture, with drawing his audience into the imagined structure.

Piranesi takes the idea of imagined structures to the extreme in his series of sixteen prints, carceri d’invenzione (imaginary prisons), which play a vital role in the film. Although the carceri are not currently on display at the Morgan, Mr. Marciari shared images of them in his presentation. These prints are dramatically unlike any of Piranesi’s other work, or in fact anything that came before them. Myriad twisting staircases and drawbridges, shadowy torturous wheels, endless chambers and corridors, shadowy figures... the world of the carceri is vast, dark, and comfortless. Prisoners are not locked up in cells, but are “free” to roam throughout this hellish space, ultimately with no purpose and no escape. These prisons represent architecture gone out of control, to the point where it literally dwarfs the humans that created it. These prints are decades ahead of their time, anticipating (and inspiring) the surrealist movement and authors like Aldous Huxley. Indeed, as evidenced by the existence of the film we were preparing to see that night, the carceri continue to inspire and captivate people to this day.

The film The Sound of the Carceri is a unique attempt to combine architecture with music in exploration of the vast and lonely world of Piranesi’s prisons. Believe it or not, there are a number of similarities between architecture and music: both deal with issues of space, of proportion, of tension. In many ways, Bach’s Cello Suite no. 2 in D minor captures the same ideas of vast emptiness and loneliness that Piranesi points to in his work. The film alternates between Yo-Yo Ma’s virtual performance of the Second Suite inside the carceri, and a look at the process of making the performance a reality. The final recording was partially created by digitally altering the sound to make it seem to be in that space as well. But in addition to this, Yo-Yo Ma studied the drawings of the carceri and altered his own performance so that it would be similar to the way he would play that music if he were actually in the carceri. In this way, the line blurs between fiction and reality: although the prisons and even the performance are only imaginary, the total effect is quite real, and quite powerful. To further add to this blurring, the real-life scenes are shot in black in white, while the virtual images of the carceri are shot in color (though deliberately dull and muted tones). The digital recreations are quite detailed and realistic, and match perfectly with Piranesi’s original work – the film will often cut back and forth between the virtual world and corresponding details from the prints themselves.

How are we to make sense of this experience? Ultimately, the film itself represents a culmination of many different ideas from many different artistic and humanistic disciplines, all asking the same big questions about reality, beauty, and emptiness. The focus is not only on the art itself, but how humans can shape it (and how it can shape us). The final shot of the film is a slow pull away from Yo-Yo Ma, playing his cello in the endlessly vast and hopeless space, and becoming more and more distant himself, until he melts away into Piranesi’s print, Bach’s music echoing faintly in the cavernous prison.

Piranesi and the Temples of Paestum: Drawings from Sir John Soane’s Museum will remain on view until May 17th. 

Image Credits:

Top Right: Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Interior of the Temple of Neptune, Looking Southeast, ca. 1777-78.

Left: Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Untitled etching (called "The Drawbridge"), plate VII (of 16) from the series Le Carceri d'Invenzione, 1761.

Bottom Right: The Sound of the Carceri. Image courtesy of Bulldog Films.