Fantastic Inventions

Capriccios, fantasy scenes built from elements of the real world that extend the practice of set design in a wider context.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778)

Round tower
Round tower, 1749 – 1760, The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London


The Carceri do not depict real prisons – rather they are imagined architectural creations. Piranesi created powerful and nightmarish scenes in which staircases lead nowhere and bridges meet walls. They have been interpreted as dreams, as disturbing allegories of human life or even as visions Piranesi experienced during the delirium of a fever.
The low viewpoint and tiny figures make the architecture appear vast and towering, evoking feelings of insignificance and awe.






Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778)

Architectural capriccio - bridges
Architectural capriccio – bridges, The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London


The bold application of colour washes, rapid chalk lines and vivid, shadowy imagery suggest fantasy and the unreal in this imagined composition.
It is thought that the tiered, circular fortress emerging in the background was inspired by the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome. Other elements have been interpreted as having symbolic meanings: a procession of banners on the bridge indicates the triumph of war, and the smoke-filled sky highlights the destruction that war can bring.



Gaspare Galliari (1761- 1823)

Interior of a temple or palace with figures
Interior of a temple or palace with figures, The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

The V- shaped construction developed by the Bibiena’s can be seen here in a later, neo-classical setting. Neo-classicism included admiration for the perceived morality and discipline of the Ancient Romans. The soldiers and Herculean statues give this scene a militaristic air.

Gaspare was the last of the Galliari’s, another famous family of theatre designers from Bologna. They also produced many decorative paintings for palaces, such as frescoes and ceiling panels.