Besides the dreamful and romantic graphic illustrations showing Roman ruins in peaceful settings that resurrect dreams of an ancient life before modernity and the modern industry, 18th century man Giovanni-Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) is no less known for his darker and more ghoulish graphic works depicting the cruel and murky insides of subterranean prisons. These insights he affords us into a nether world of gigantic vaults and heavy grids, risky parapets and labyrinthine corridor and stair constructions in midst uncanny Triton-faces and other strange architectural decoration, are marked out as ficticious places created entirely in the artist’s imagination and run under the name „Carceri d’Invenzione“ („Prison Inventions“). Although it’s true that Piranesi’s „Carceri“ don’t represent a physically existing place, never the less it stands to reason that they are in some way an imitation of life, perhaps not a very faithful one, but still anchored in realities and visual and architectural sources present to Piranesi’s eye, and upon which he expanded freely in his graphic designs.
William Hogarth’s contemporary, mid-18th century graphic drawings and paintings on moral subjects of the time such as alcoholism, gambling, or undue idleness, portray settings of actual places in London with a similar air of nightmareish confusion and subterranean oppression about them. For instance, the series titled „Beer Street and Gin Lane“ is inhabited by the same inebriated confusion of perspective that also possesses Piranesi’s prisons, and the last plate of „A Rake’s Progress“ (1735), a series of paintings showing the downfall of a young man with a gambling addiction, shows London’s infamous Bethlehem asylum, looking grim and intended as a deterrent to refractory behavior, just like the look of the city’s many prisons and workhouses.
Looking at the pictorial record of English workhouses, parallels soon emerge. Designed as a mixture of infirmary wards for the destitute, operating a prison-like system, half charitable institutions for the homeless, half profit-making industrial schemes where „the able-bodied unemployed“, hunger or poverty-stricken individuals could receive food and shelter in return for work on the workhouse premises, the exact purpose of workhouses never was quite clear. In part, this can be explained by the long history of workhouses since the early 17th century, even going back to the English Poor Law Act of 1388. In part the explanation lies in the multifariousness of the workhouses’ historical incarnations and purposes, in line with the pace of massive social change especially in the 18th and 19th century : from a charitable endeavour of churches and monasteries, to a cheap manufacture scheme of industrial dimensions, via the guise of public health and sanitation measures during times of epidemics in London, and as a general pillar of law enforcement against homelessness, the institution shifted shape many times.
Needless to say, these establishments attracted heated controversy in their own times already and, until their abolishment in the 1930s, continued to be the subject of legal, social and political debates. They underwent innumerable redevelopments and changes, even more so in the 19th century than in the 18th. In fact it is under these auspices that the radical thinker and designer Jeremy Bentham began to sketch plans for his very own „Prison Invention“, the Panopticon (in the 1790s). This prison is known for its conceptual design as a round structure in which every prisoner can be watched at all times by a central watchman, but being never certain whether or not they are being watched, the watching is relegated to the watched themselves. Panoptic prison construction works were started and aborted several times, much to the satisfaction of its early contestants who had been quick to realize and draw attention to the psychological cruelty of such a model, and the destructive view of human life upon which it was based.
An imaginary prison of the calibre of Bentham’s Panopticon seems nearly worse than existing prisons. Somewhere between nightmares and reality, the mental image of prisons is a disturbing one. Even today, it is only difficultly disentangled conceptually from its erstwhile identities, distant and not-so-distant cousins such as the homeless shelter, social rehabilitation space, or unfree labour industry. It’s possible to think that just as Piranesi deliberately marked his prisons out as places of fiction, our own idea of what a prison is or what it is supposed to be, is tied to one’s own view of what society is, or is supposed to be — where to find a common truth upon which everybody can agree, is next to impossible.