Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hey Piranesi!

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) No, not the wrestler Batista, the Italian artist, engraver and creator of one of the most memorable Megadungeons of all time The Prisons (Carceri d'invenzione).  This amazing work of fantastical underworld designs was issued in 1745 and reissued, with alterations, in 1761. It remains an impressive and highly influential bit of work that has impacted any number of RPG designers, including Professor M. A. R. Barker who was inspired by Piranesi's fantastical etchings in his own design work on the infamous Underworlds of Tekumel.  You can see a complete set of Piranesi's Carceri at the CGFA site.  Another great place to locate Piranesi's images is the New York Public Library.

The Gothic arch. Digital ID: 1694244. New York Public Library

A Few Good Piranesi Links
The round tower. Digital ID: 1694238. New York Public Library

Piranesi as a Negative Visionary
(With a Quick Detour in Respect to Theodore Gericault & Aldous Huxley)

Piranesi has been referred to as a 'Negative Visionary.' This term might have been first coined by Aldous Huxley who explained his conception of a Negative Visionary in one of the appendices to Heaven and Hell (1956) in a section concerning Théodore Géricault, the Romantic painter who created the famous The Raft of the Medusa which was painted in 1819 and was later used on the cover of the Pogues' Rum, Sodomy & The Lash. Good times.

Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa
Huxley had this to say about Gericault:
"Géricault was a negative visionary; for though his art was almost obsessively true to nature, it was true to a nature that had been magically transfigured, in his perceiving and rendering of it, for the worse. 'I start to paint a woman,' he once said, 'but it always ends up as a lion.' More often, indeed, it ended up as something a good deal less amiable than a lion—as a corpse, for example, or a demon. His masterpiece, the prodigious Raft of the Medusa, was painted not from life but from dissolution and decay—from bits of cadavers supplied by medical students, from the emaciated torso and jaundiced face of a friend who was suffering from a disease of the liver. Even the waves on which the raft is floating, even the over-arching sky are corpse colored. It is as though the entire universe had become a dissecting room."
"From the accounts which his friends have left of him it is evident that Géricault habitually saw the world about him as a succession of apocalypses. The prancing horse of his early Officer de Chasseurs was seen one morning on the road to Saint-Cloud, in a dusty glare of summer sunshine, rearing and plunging between the shafts of an omnibus. The personages in the Raft of the Medusa were painted in finished detail, one by one, on the virgin canvas. There was no outline drawing of the whole composition, no gradual building up of an over-all harmony of tones and hues. Each particular revelation—of a body in decay, of a sick man in the ghastly extremity of hepatitis—was fully rendered as it was seen and artistically realized. By a miracle of genius, every successive apocalypse was made to fit, prophetically, into a harmonious composition which existed, when the first of the appalling visions was transferred to canvas, only in the artist's imagination."
Take a look at Gericault's painting above or via one of the handy links.  The original painting is 193.3 inches × 282.3 inches.  That's over 16 feet tall by over 23 feet wide.  The guy painted this thing without drawing any sort of outline first. He just did it.  Wow.

So, according to Huxley's interpretation, a Negative Visionary would be someone whose '...art was almost obsessively true to nature ... true to a nature that had been magically transfigured, in his perceiving and rendering of, for the worse.'

Negative Visionary is definitely going into the sorcerous lexicon & repertoire of Riskail. Sorcerer-artists who paint portraits of people who are then transfigured by the artwork, becoming bestial parodies, bizarre abnormalities and/or freakish alternative versions of themselves as depicted and magically deranged by the artist's sorcerous re-interpretation of them.  This is so very Riskail.  Rallu will have to run into one of these sorts of artists early-on in his career as a critic. Definitely.

To get back to Piranesi, here's a quote from the Savoy link mentioned above:
“The most disquietingly obvious fact about all these dungeons is the perfect pointlessness which reigns throughout. Their architecture is colossal and magnificent. One is made to feel that the genius of great artists and the labor of innumerable slaves have gone into the creation of these monuments, every detail of which is completely without a purpose. Yes, without a purpose: for the staircases lead nowhere, the vaults support nothing but their own weight and enclose vast spaces that are never truly rooms, but only ante-rooms, lumber-rooms, vestibules, outhouses. And this magnificence of Cyclopean stone is everywhere made squalid by wooden ladders, by flimsy gangways and cat-walks. And the squalor is for squalor's sake, since all these rickety roads through space are manifestly without destination. Below them, on the floor, stand great machines incapable of doing anything in particular, and from the arches overhead hang ropes that carry nothing except a sickening suggestion of torture. Some of the Prisons are lighted only by narrow windows. Others are half open to the sky, with hints of yet other vaults and walls in the distance. But even where the enclosure is more or less complete, Piranesi always contrives to give the impression that this colossal pointlessness goes on indefinitely, and is co-extensive with the universe. Engaged in no recognizable activity, paying no attention to one another, a few small, faceless figures haunt the shadows. Their insignificant presence merely emphasizes the fact that there is nobody at home.”
Cool. Talk about a "...Huge Ruined Pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses...".  Piranesi designed the ultimate Megadungeon hundreds of years before D&D was even a glimmer in the eye of some guy in Wisconsin.  Huxley's paragraph above could be the blurb on the back of a Megadungeon box-set and it'd sell like hot-cakes.  Just take a look at some more samples of Piranesi's mind-blowing art:



Incredible stuff.  Amazing stuff.  And Piranesi drew all of these by hand. By hand. The sheer amount of detail that he managed to squeeze into each of these images is simply astounding, and humbling. Mapping Piranesi Carceri/Prisons would be an incredible project.  There probably aren't enough Geomorphs in the world to do it justice.  Yet.


  1. Amazing.

    Excellent post - many thanks for the links.

    Gonna have to bookmark this one!

  2. Very, very nice. Pretty much with Scottz here.

  3. 'I start to paint a woman,' he once said, 'but it always ends up as a lion.'

    because I am, like, 8, this reminded me of Ice T--"When I tried to write about parties, someone almost died, when I tried to write happy, I knew I lied"

    anyway Piranesi is the original dungeon master & it's excellent to see he's remembered in gaming circles

  4. Thanks from me too. You set the material off very well.

  5. Thanks for the kind words everyone--glad it might prove useful or a spark to your creative efforts. I especially like Zak's very quotable "Piranesi is the original dungeon master." You bet! I've always wondered why no one did a module based on these drawings...but now that I'm cranking out geomorphs, I don't wonder quite so much. What a nightmare...


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