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Melancholic Spaces

"Le carceri d’invenzione. No. VII." by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Piranesi, Giovanni Battista, 1720-1778
"Le carceri d’invenzione. No. VII"
In: [Opere di Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Francesco Piranesi e d'altri]
[Parigi, Firmin Didot, 1836-39]. Vol. 8.
1 double plate 77 cm
Starred Books Collection
That which Piranesi represents is not subject to historical change… His concern is with “states of the soul” — states that are largely independent of external circumstances, states that recur whenever Nature, at her everlasting game of chance, combines the hereditary factors of physique and temperament in certain patterns. In the past psychology was generally treated as a branch of ethics or theology. …And it is only in very recent years that men have learnt to talk about the idiosyncrasies of individual behaviour in any terms but those of sin and virtue. The “metaphysical prisons,” delineated by Piranesi and described by so many modern poets and novelists, were well known to our ancestors but well known, not as symptoms of disease or of some temperamental peculiarity, not as states to be analysed and expressed by lyric poets, but rather as moral imperfections, as criminal rebellions against God, as obstacles in the way of enlightenment. Thus the “weltschmerz” of which the German Romantics were so proud, the “ennui, fruit de la morne incuriosité,” which was the theme of so many of Baudelaire’s most splendid verses, is nothing else than that acedia, for indulging in which the temperamentally bored and melancholy were plunged by Dante head over ears in the black mud of hell’s third circle.

In his essay on Piranesi’s etchings Carceri, Adlous Huxley begins with a short history of prisons, in which he borrows largely from Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, written in the late 18th century. Huxley, however, focuses on the “artistic renderings of the consciousness of being inside a machine.” For him, Piranesi’s etchings embody a “metaphysical prison,” a “state of the soul.” They do not claim to be realistic; their architectural representations are pointlessly grandiose with scales that are out of proportion and extravagant, and stairs that lead nowhere. This display of this purposelessness is for Huxley the sign of a metaphysical meaning: these etchings do not describe an architectural reality, but a state of ennui, of acedia, a “pomp of worlds,” “without end,” and “without meaning.”

"Cinquième projet [de plan circulaire], comprenant soixante-dix huit cellules."

"Cinquième projet [de plan circulaire], comprenant soixante-dix huit cellules"
In : Instruction et programme pour la construction des maisons d'arrêt et de justice. Atlas de plans de prisons cellulaires / Ministère de l’intérieur.
Paris, 1841.
Starred Books Collection

In contrast to Piranesi’s etchings, the Instruction et programme pour la construction des maisons d’arrêt had a pragmatic architectural aim: in the introduction to the report, Duchatel explains that the plans for prison buildings reproduced in the volume are to be presented to the préfet. The report presents projects for prison buildings. The architectural plan showed here is one of the rare ones in the report to be circular. It has many characteristics that are similar to Bentham’s panopticon, that Foucault famously commented upon in his famous work Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

Duchatel states here that his aim is twofold:

Pour le prévenu la cellule doit être considérée, avant tout, comme un moyen de vivre seul et dans un état de liberté morale.

For the inmate, the cell must be considered, above all, as a means to live alone and in a state of moral freedom.

The cell both spares and deprives the prisoner of the others’ presence, in a very paradoxical “liberté morale.” On the other hand, Duchatel insists that the prisons should be built according to principles of “surveillance”: the prisoner needs to be seen at every moment of the day. The circular shape is ideal for this purpose, but, he says, has not been implemented because of its cost.

"Catacombs at Naples."
"Catacombs at Naples"
In: The beauties of nature and art displayed in a tour through the world.
2 ed.
London, G. Robinson, 1774-1775. Vol. 5.
Starred Books Collection

This small volume is a collection of descriptions of famous places in Europe, particularly in Portugal and Italy. As the author describes monuments and architectural marvels, he never fails to remind his reader of their fragility: for example, a whole section is dedicated to the ruins of Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake and some illustrations depict figures whose postures are reminiscent of melancholic poses. The book includes also a section on Mount Vesuvius and the Pompeii catastrophe, and on mount Etna in Sicily. The last illustration of the book is the one displayed above: it represents the catacombs of Naples, with, on the right hand corner, a figure in a melancholic pose surrounded by skeletons and skulls. The space of the catacombs provides a setting that is propitious to melancholy, and to a reflection about death and the meaning of life. The presence of the skulls is reminiscent of their role in painting, where they often evoke the vanity and the uselessness of earthly possessions, skills, and knowledge, all of which will be inevitably destroyed by death.

"Abris et tranchées."
"Abris et tranchées"
In: France. Ministère de la guerre. Section photographique de l'armée.
La guerre; documents de la Section photographique de l'armée (Ministère de la guerre)

[Paris] A. Colin [1916].
Starred Books Collection

In this World War I photograph the French Army officer displays a pose that is characteristic of a melancholic mood. Tranches represent both shelters and confined spaces similar to those of prisons. These are places in which one can retreat and find protection or be entrapped and find death.

"A EDGAR POE. Devant le noir soleil de la MÉLANCOLIE, Lénor apparait" by Odilon Redon

Redon, Odilon, 1840-1916
A Edgar Poe. Devant le noir soleil de la MÉLANCOLIE, Lénor apparait (1882)
In : Oeuvre graphique complet / Odilon Redon ; Artz & DeBois, éditeurs. Pl. 13.
La Haye : [G.J. Nieuwenhuizen Segaar, 1913]
Starred Books Collection

The title of this print created by Odilon Redon refers to Poe’s poem Lenor. The “Soleil noir” (a term borrowed from Gérard de Nerval), is an expression that refers to the planet of melancholy, Saturn. Théophile Gautier is erroneously referring to the “Soleil noir” in Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I. Later on, Baudelaire had a copy of Melencolia I printed as a frontispiece to his translation of Poe’s Tales of mysteries and imagination. Perhaps the connection in the frontispiece of the book led Redon to associate the figure of Lenor with melancholy, and to link its title with Nerval’s famous “soleil noir.” In Poe’s text, the poet laments Lenor’s death. In the print, the gate behind Lenor’s face, may refer to her grave, and functions like the “soleil noir” of the title: it is an inverted sun that gets darker in the center.

"DES ESSEINTES. Frontispice hors texte pour le livre de J.K. Huysmans  À Rebours" by Odilon Redon

Redon, Odilon, 1840-1916
DES ESSEINTES. Frontispice hors texte pour le livre de J.K. Huysmans « À Rebours » (1888)
In : Oeuvre graphique complet / Odilon Redon ; Artz & DeBois, éditeurs. Pl. 55.
La Haye : [G.J. Nieuwenhuizen Segaar, 1913]
Starred Books Collection

This print by Odilon Redon represents Des Esseintes, the hero of Huysmans’ famous novel, À rebours. The novel tells the story of a man that tries to live in complete autarcy from the exterior world, and retreats into a small house in the suburbs of Paris. Interestingly, the character of Des Esseintes depicted in À rebours holds an unconditional admiration for Redon, and is said to own several of his prints.

De Chirico, Giorgio, 1888-1978.
The Soothsayer’s Recompense. 1913.
Oil on canvas. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.
Image courtesy of Olga’s Gallery.
De Chirico, Giorgio, 1888-1978.
Piazza d’Italia. 1913.
Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada.
Image courtesy of Olga’s Gallery.
De Chirico, Giorgio, 1888-1978.
Mystery and Melancholy of a Street. 1914.
Oil on canvas. 88 x 72 cm. Private collection.
Image courtesy of Olga’s Gallery.

These three paintings by Giorgio de Chirico date from 1912-1914. During these years, de Chirico abandons his early style known as “Metaphysical painting.” Deeply affected by what he called “black melancholy” and “chronic sadness,” de Chirico created numerous images with the same obsessive themes: statues, trains, deserted piazzas, and arcades. One image that appears in a number of these urban landscapes of anguish and desolation is the statue of the mythological figure of Ariadne In the various interpretations that have been given to this series of paintings, some critics are considering the theme of the distorted memory in which each variation would represent an attempt to put shattered memories in some order; others are comparing the seriality of these paintings to a cinematic process.