Passionate about ancient architecture and theater sets, this Venetian-born artist is famous for his monumental engraved plates of ancient Rome. In 1745, he published his first series of Imaginary Prisons (« Invenzioni capricciose di Carceri »), consisting of fourteen plates meant to be seen as architectural caprices, never intended to be built in reality. The engraver's genius creates a total spatial illusion based on imposing stone masonry.
Reworked in 1761, the series, now darker and expanded by two plates, achieves a colossal new power and a terrifying solemnity. The comparison of the two series, the focus of the film, sheds light on Piranesi's process.
As an echo to the vertiginous universe of the Prisons, Erik Desmazières, a great admirer of Piranesi's, engraves with etching and aquatint the empty stacks of the Labrouste reading room at the French National Library, two and a half centuries later.