Re-imagining Piranesi


Award: Shortlisted for Arte Laguna Prize
Exhibited: NGV Triennial Voices 2017

Virtual Reality (VR) has exploded into mainstream media and is now being introduced into the design process of artists, architects and designers. This project questions the role of this emerging tool in spatial design and asks: how does this technology change the way we model objects and understand space? What aesthetics can be produced that have not yet been explored? The research presents time based modelling in an immersive virtual environment. This endeavor is explored through the modelling of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Le Carceri d’invenzione; prison of invention or more commonly known as; The Imaginary Prisons. This is a series of 16 Plates first published in 1750. Prints from these Plates are collated in a volume titled Opere Varie, published between 1804 – 1807 (Ficacci 2000); the first Paris edition volume is located at the University of Melbourne’s rare print collection.

The research team used Plate VII as the starting point for the project. Through 3 dimensional digital modelling of the print, the team reveals unseen spaces of Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons. Scholars have claimed that the spaces in the series are impossible and can only exist in paper (Mortensen 2017), however, our analytical discovery of the space reveals otherwise. Firstly, the space that Piranesi imagined on paper can exist in virtual reality; it is highly distorted, but remains possible in most instances. Secondly, through VR technology, we can experience hitherto unseen spaces of Plate VII. The research team discerns that Piranesi utilizes repeating architectural motifs in the same series of Plates, and because of this discovery, the team combined multiple plates into a singular space, including the title plate of Carceri d’invenzione and the vaulted roof of the prison from Plate VI. Lastly, the final model of Plate VII is “painted” in a 3 dimensional environment in VR. This allows the user to experience the etched texture of Piranesi’s print in a physical scale as a materiality. The model produces an anti-surface aesthetic which is unique to the VR modelling environment. Re-imagining Piranesi speculates on the use of VR as a potential design tool for the future.

The result examines the relationship between the body’s gestures and its physical manifestation; where each stroke and movement is translated into marks on the digital model. We will be capturing the interface between the physical and digital environment through Google Tilt Brush, recording it with digital film and the Xbox KinectTM to understand as well as explore these relationships. The project experiments with emerging design techniques where the physical act of the designer is placed in direct contest with the object we model; no longer are we bounded by the flatland of paper. For the NGV Triennial, we will compile a 2-3min video capturing the process and experience of the Carceri Plate VII and VI in 3-Dimensions.

Listen to the podcast and more detail on NGV website.


Ficacci, L.: 2000. Piranesi The complete etchings, Taschen, Italy.
Mortensen, C.: 2017. Piranesi's Carceri as Inconsistent. Available at: [Accessed 19 July 2017]