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Giuseppe Galli Bibiena (1696-1756), Italian

The Prison of a Palace, 18th Century

Pen and brown ink, with grey wash

La Salle University Art Museum, 73-D-36

Giuseppe Galli Bibiena was one of the most famous members of a family of Italian stage designers who served in the courts of Europe throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. None of his stage sets, however, have survived. We know of them through prints and drawings.

Characteristic of Bibiena’s work is the scena per angolo, a method of creating the illusion of deep space on a shallow stage. Instead of one central vanishing point, as in a linear perspective construction, the scena per angola has two or more vanishing points, producing the effect that the space recedes deeply and mysteriously into the corners of the stage set.

This drawing imagines a private prison in a palace. The prison as stage set is typical of theatrical events of the day. The architecture is grand and formidable, with an eclectic combination of heavy architectural elements: Egyptian capitals on the columns in the foreground, short banded columns typical of Mannerism, and a Romanesque barrel vault over the largest space. Gigantic pullies, small grated windows, and heavy chains help secure the prison.

The image is not what an actual prison in 18th-century Italy looked like. Unlike Enlightened nations such as Great Britain, Italy did not standardize and modernize the criminal justice system until the late 19th century. Nonetheless, in the fantasy world of 18th-century theater, Bibiena’s prison exhibits some of the characteristics of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, designed to surveil and reform incarcerated criminals. Throughout Bibiena’s space are many balconies from which prisoners can be monitored.

Susan Dixon, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Art History, and Chair, Department of Art

Broader Identity

  • 1. Understanding Diverse Perspectives

Expanded Literacies

  • 4. Critical Analysis and Reasoning

Effective Expression

  • 9. Creative and Artistic Expression

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