INSIDE COLERIDGE’S BRAIN ~ the best known description
As written by Thomas De Quincey in ‘Confessions of an Opium Eater’
Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi’s1 Antiquities of Rome, Mr Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist, called his Dreams, and which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever.2 Some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr Coleridge’s account) represented vast Gothic halls: on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, &. &. expressive of enormous power put forth and resistance overcome.
Creeping along the sides of the walls, you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further, and you perceive it come to a sudden abrupt termination, without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who had reached the extremity, except into the depths below. Whatever is to become of poor Piranesi, you suppose, at least, that his labours must in some way terminate here. But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher: on which again Piranesi is perceived, by this time standing on the very brink of the abyss. Again elevate your eye, and a still more aerial flight of stairs is beheld: and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labours: and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall.
1 Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78), engraver. The plates which De Quincey calls Piranasi’s ‘Dreams’ were in fact his ‘Carceri d’Invenzione’ (Imaginary Prisons), which show huge classical (not Gothic, as De Quincey thought) dungeons.
2 i.e. under the influence of opium.