Statues of Piranesi


After finishing Piranesi, my thoughts and attention have been captured by the influences of its setting. In particular, the marble statues that fill Piranesi’s residence, the House.

The classical influence on Piranesi is just shy of being explicitly stated—not only is the House is referred to as “the Labyrinth” by several characters, but its entrance hall is flanked by statues of Minotaurs. Both of these details suggest a relationship to the heroic tale of Theseus.

The story begins with Poseidon punishing the greedy King of Crete, King Minos, by enticing his wife with a beautiful bull. The end result of that relationship is the half-man, half-bull offspring known as the Minotaur.

Ashamed of this creature who had a penchant for devouring human beings, King Minos hires Daedalus to construct the Labyrinth that serves as the Minotaur’s prison. What follows is a war with Athens, the ritual sacrificing of fourteen children every year, and the slaying of the Minotaur thanks Athen’s favorite tag-team duo Theseus and Ariadne.

With this general connection to Greek myth established, I can now turn to the statues that continue the trend.

The statue of the Woman with the beehive is perhaps my favorite. After reading Piranesi’s description, my mind immediately turned towards one of the most famous similes in the Aeneid,

Like bees in spring across the blossoming land, Busy beneath the sun, leading their offspring, Full grown now, from the hive, or loading cells Until they swell with honey and sweet nectar, Or taking shipments in, or lining up To guard the fodder from the lazy drones; The teeming work breathes thyme and fragrant honey. (Aeneid I.430-6)

Virgil describes the industriousness of Carthage, comparing its cohesive citizens to that of bees in a hive. The simile is especially apt because bees work in service to their queen as the citizens of Carthage work in service to Queen Dido.

In Piranesi, the protagonist gives a strikingly similar interpretation of the statue.

It occurred to me–it was no more than an idle thought – that both these Statues might be said to represent Industriousness. The Gardener is old and bent, and yet he digs faithfully in his garden. The Woman is pursuing her profession of beekeeping and the Beehive that she carries is full of bees who are also patiently carrying out their tasks. (Piranesi p. 40)

Since the book does not shy away from its references to Greek and Roman mythology, I think there’s a strong case for the statue as a direct reference to Dido and the people of Carthage.

Another statue of interest is Piranesi’s personal favorite, that of the Faun holding his finger to his lips.

By appearance alone, this could easily be a reference to Pan. More interestingly, perhaps, is that Pan is described as a master in impromptus music, a style of free-form musical composition. Although Piranesi is only briefly a musician (via a hand-crafted flute), he seems to embody the impromptus ideology in his everyday existence, coexisting with the House without questioning its meaning.

I realised that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery. (Piranesi p. 60)

Piranesi is resolute in his goal of living in the moment, acting under the guiding principles of the impromptus. When he comes to this realization, his character is cemented as a foil to the Other.

I don’t think every statue in the story necessarily relates to Greek or Roman mythology. Rather, I think they generally pull from powerful symbols or themes that are recognizable and interpretable by people in general, archetypes that Joseph Campbell would’ve described as universal to the human experience.

Following this interpretation, the House is sort of a collective unconscious, filled with archetypes common to the human experience.

The Labyrinth is the human mind, and Piranesi its chronicler.

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