Etching of a tower with many sets of stairs and bridges

In Review

Ways of Knowing, Ethics of Care in Piranesi’s Labyrinth

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, “The Round Tower,” from Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons). Etching, engraving, sulphur tint, and burnishing in black on ivory laid paper. (ca. 1749–50). Met Museum 37.45.3(27), Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1937

By Courtney Sender

Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is set in “an infinite series of classical buildings knitted together” (179), a labyrinthine otherworld filled with an endless plenitude of classical statuary. Called the “House” by our narrator, it is a cross between the labyrinth of Greek myth and the Garden of Eden, in which the only two people in the world wander endlessly through the Middle Halls (“the Domain of birds and men”) situated between the firmaments of the Lower Halls (“the Domain of the Tides”) and the Upper Halls (“The Domain of the Clouds”) (6–7).

It is a hybrid set of worlds that would surely fail in lesser hands. But this is Clarke’s first outing as a novelist since her 1,000-page, multimillion-copy bestseller Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, published in 2004, and her prowess has only grown. Piranesi is a tour de force at a comparatively slim 245 pages, and it is a hybrid not only in setting but in genre: simultaneously patient philosophical meditation, action-adventure with heart-pounding action sequences, edge-of-your-seat unfolding mystery, and scientific/religious quest.

The novel is the story of a man called Piranesi—not his real name, at least not as far as he can remember. He meets once weekly with the only other person alive, referred to simply as the Other, and is otherwise left to occupy himself alone. He spends his days gathering seaweed, curing fish skins, caring for the skeletons of all the dead people who can be known to have existed (15 in number), and recording everything he can observe about his world in his notebooks. “I have begun a Catalogue,” he explains, “in which I intend to record the Position, Size and Subject of each Statue, and any other points of interest [in the House]. . . . The enormity of this task sometimes makes me feel a little dizzy, but as a scientist and explorer I have a duty to bear witness to the Splendours of the World” (6).

The book we are reading is Piranesi’s notebooks, so our understanding of this world is both delightfully filtered through and frighteningly limited by his uncanny ingenuousness and idiosyncratic voice. He has his own peculiar system of labeling his entries, as in “the seventh day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the south-western halls.” He is a lively narrator, often quite funny, endlessly charming—above all, a true innocent. He believes wholeheartedly in his oft-repeated refrain, “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite” (5).

But is this true? What does Piranesi—so alone—really know about his world? And, crucially, how does he come to know it?

These are the epistemological questions that dominate the novel. Through them, we readers are always led to ask: Well, what do we truly know about our own world? And how do we know it? And what does the novel Piranesi think is the right way to know the world?


Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke. Bloomsbury, 2020, 245 pages, $17.

We readers are always led to ask: Well, what do we truly know about our own world? And how do we know it?

In offering potential answers, Clarke creates characters who are each guided by a different type of knowledge source. The Other believes that the ancients—only vaguely suggested, never specified—were closer to some “Great and Secret Knowledge,” and he intends to perform “ceremonial magic by which . . . to free [it] from whatever holds it captive in the world” (43). The Other’s obsession with the lost wisdom of some ancient magical past recalls Mircea Eliade’s idea that “sacred time” belongs to the ancients and their world.1

Piranesi has a different answer. Considering another species, he hypothesizes that “the wisdom of birds resides, not in the individual, but in the flock, the congregation” (41). But he has no flock. In its absence, he methodically makes lists based on empirical evidence of what he can observe in the labyrinth. How many people can be known to have lived, which Halls of the House are flooded by the tides and at what times, which statues exist in which part of the labyrinth. He is attempting a post-Enlightenment kind of scientific observation in a clearly pre-Enlightenment setting. The reader is left asking: What is this scientific empirical rationalism doing in such a setting? Can empiricism function in a world of myth? What is objectivity when there are only two people in the world: when you’re in a snow globe and you can’t see the hand shaking you?

As the book goes on, the limited nature of what Piranesi can see grows ever more apparent. Our narrator tells us that he is in his 30s—but he has the purity and guilelessness of a child, no apparent cynicism or distrust or suspicion of the Other, almost no sexuality at all. (Though not entirely none; I’ll return to this later.)

It’s disquieting—a feeling that becomes the reader’s prevailing emotion as the pages turn. Trapped as we are in Piranesi’s perception, the reader nonetheless starts to see around him: enough to know that Piranesi is often wrong to trust the knowledge sources he has; not enough to know what other source he might latch onto instead.

We perceive with immense discomfort, and not some terror, that the Other and Piranesi each seems to be part of a totally different world. The Other lives in a world of sneakers and bottles of multivitamins, while Piranesi lives in a world of dried seaweed and statues from antiquity. At various points in the book, I thought of Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Here though, I was put in mind of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince—not just in the utterly lovable innocence of our main character, but in the presentation of people from different planets with entirely disparate frames of reference, speaking to and yet past each other.

Occasionally, it does occur to Piranesi “to wonder why it is that the House gives a greater variety of objects to the Other than to me” (54), but he rarely pursues the thought. He believes with a kind of prelapsarian purity in the fairness and omnibenevolence of the House, seemingly unaware of its contradictions.

Thus, our narrator thinks he is telling the tale of his scientific observations about his world. But readers are increasingly picking up the story that he is being exploited, that there is something important he is missing.

It is a testament to the intricacy and sophistication of Clarke’s prose that we are able to see over the character’s head in this way. By the time Piranesi finds that his own notebooks used to be labeled with dates in the 2010s, we are not entirely surprised to learn that he once had a different name and lived in a world like our world, which exists and which the Other can travel to. He has, terrifyingly, forgotten his old self.

And so the central concern of the book shifts from the loss of ancient knowledge to a more quotidian, and yet more powerful, kind of loss of the past: the loss of our own past selves. In this supercharged magic, mythic, pre- and then postlapsarian environment, Clarke brilliantly shows that the forgetting we all face is a continuous forgetting of who we used to be.

The story of Piranesi, then, could be framed as the slow realization that this garden is already postlapsarian, a fact the Other knew from the start. It is the story of one person following the other to the forbidden fruit.

And yet he never quite arrives there. In the final third of the novel, Clarke takes on the problem of the integrated or unintegrated self. Piranesi has parents and sisters back in our world, we learn, who all along have been waiting for him to come home. It briefly seems as though the story might veer toward that of kidnap victim returning home, but Clarke steers clear. Instead, she handles Piranesi’s discovery of his lost identity in a way that is especially bold—indeed, transgressive—in our era of modern psychotherapy. Upon discovering his old identity, Piranesi avidly denies his family’s desire to have him integrate his past self with his present. He does not want to bring who he used to be to who he is now; neither is he repressing his past self, but he views it as entirely separate:

“You don’t think of yourself as Matthew Rose Sorenson?”
“No,” I said.
“But you have his face,” she said.
“And his hands.”
“And his feet and his body.”
“All that is true. But I haven’t got his mind and I haven’t got his memories. I don’t mean that he’s not here. He is here.” I touched my breast. “But I think he’s asleep. He’s fine. You mustn’t worry about him.” (212)

This to me is the most striking part of the book: Piranesi’s insistence on dealing with his past by holding it at a distance rather than including it in his current identity. Piranesi proposes that we can carry the selves we used to be, care for them, tell them not to be afraid—but we are not them. Sometimes they cry through our eyes, as Sorenson does through Piranesi’s. But Clarke omits the perspectives of Piranesi’s parents and sisters, the very people who might wish for a stronger integration of his selves. “Perhaps,” Piranesi thinks, “I should send them a message explaining that Matthew Rose Sorenson now lives inside me, that he is unconscious but perfectly safe, and that I am a strong and resourceful person who will care for him assiduously, exactly as I care for any others of the Dead” (217).

We are all, endlessly, leaving parts of ourselves behind—the people we were, the worlds we came from. This is what it is to grow from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to middle age to old age. It is also what it is for the world to grow from antiquity to the present.

And here the whole book deepens its beautiful central metaphor: we are all, endlessly, leaving parts of ourselves behind—the people we were, the worlds we came from. This is what it is to grow from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to middle age to old age. It is also what it is for the world to grow from antiquity to the present, or even from the decade in which one was born to the current day. The old worlds, too, progressed in some roughly linear fashion from one to the next, and yet they seem totally alien when we look back. Thus Piranesi and the Other, the self and not-self, come to be internalized by the end of the book: the other is within the self. The Other character can be dispatched on the page; who we are contains who we aren’t anymore, Clarke suggests, and we can handle the stranger within not via integration into our present identity but via an ethic of ongoing care.

In light of Piranesi’s discovery of his past, the novel seems to be both critique and defense of pure empiricism. After all, rigorous and fastidious record-keeping is what enabled Piranesi to find his old self again. But his empirical methodology led him astray, as well. So what, in the end, does the novel consider the right approach to acquiring knowledge?

Whatever it is, it certainly isn’t to be found in that old knowledge center, the university. Throughout Piranesi, Clarke aims her rhetorical daggers at the university’s distaste for transgressive thinking and ideation. Piranesi’s index on the subject reads, “Embrace/Tolerate/Vilify/Destroy: How Academia treats Outsider ideas” (165). The Other, the character who traverses the House and our world, says: “I was an academic. Academia was never very welcoming to me. I had the wrong sort of ideas and the wrong sort of friends” (174).

Academia here is portrayed as fatally closed off to alternate ways of thinking, averse to wrongthink at the expense of truth. Clarke’s first novel also lampooned traditional scholars and scholarship, opening with a society of learned magicians who merely study magic in books but are against it in practice.2 Perhaps, then, Clarke is suggesting that academia is particularly unsuited to ideas that have a practical component—like the idea that scientists in twenty-first-century Britain could possibly find some portal to the otherworld that is Piranesi’s House.

Yet the very character who was so dissatisfied with academia goes on to commit another epistemological sin with which Piranesi is equally unimpressed: he limits the ideas Piranesi can access, believing that even hearing or reading the wrong idea could “infect” Piranesi. “If you listen to what 16 [a new visitor to the House] says,” he tells Piranesi, “then the consequences will be awful. Madness. Terror. . . . 16 can unravel your thoughts just by speaking to you. 16 can make you doubt everything you see. 16 can make you doubt me” (98).

Clarke here seems to be condemning a culture of thought proscription imposed by people clinging to hypotheses that are fundamentally weak. The Other is attempting to limit Piranesi’s access to outside sources of knowledge, rather than arguing for his own. This from the very man who was disgusted by academia’s unwillingness to entertain his own transgressive thinking. He wasn’t really in favor of a principle of open thought; he was only in favor of openness to his thought. And he is the villain of the story.

So academia in Piranesi has not bred the conditions for the right kind of thinking, and its apostates seem to fare no better. What are the right conditions, then?

Perhaps the way to truthfully know or engage the world is to find an epistemology that is coupled with care. Piranesi is profoundly alone in the labyrinth, flockless, and yet he is never alone; the world speaks back to him.

Perhaps, Piranesi seems to suggest, the way to truthfully know or engage the world is to find an epistemology that is coupled with care. Piranesi is profoundly alone in the labyrinth, flockless, and yet he is never alone; the world speaks back to him. The Wind “blew through the little voids and crevices of the Statues and caused them to sing and whistle” (28). At night, “the Moon and Stars were singing and I sang with them” (71). Sparrows “gathered on the Statues and Banisters and chattered at me in their different voices” (210).

Piranesi has a profound love of the world that occasions love from the world in return. Love, indeed, is an interesting pole to consider in this novel. Though the title character—through whose eyes we see the entire book—is essentially nonsexual, the question of sex and sexuality does arise in two significant places. These are, I think, evidence of Clarke’s extreme sophistication and subtlety as a writer, her ability to bury longings and yet make them manifest.

First, in Piranesi’s catalogue of “all the people who have ever lived and what is known of them” (7) there is a female skeleton about age seven, whom he calls the Folded-Up Child. In explaining her, he says: “There are living in the World (as I have already explained) only Myself and the Other; and we are both male. How will the world have an Inhabitant when we are dead? It is my belief that the World (or, if you will, the House, since the two are for all practical purposes identical) wishes an Inhabitant for Itself to be a witness to its Beauty and the recipient of its Mercies” (11–12).

This complicates the prelapsarian state in which Piranesi lives: his is a garden, not of fruitful and multiplying living things but of inert marble statues. And the only two people alive in it cannot reproduce with each other. What does Piranesi live for in a world in which no future people will come after him? In which there is no one to inherit his carefully collected knowledge?

Piranesi’s answer seems to lie in caring for the dead, for those who have passed through before, even if none will come after:

I have postulated that the House intended the Folded-Up Child to be my Wife, only something happened to prevent it. Ever since I had this thought it has seemed only right to share with her what I have.

I visit all the Dead, but particularly the Folded-Up Child. I bring them food, water and water lilies from the Drowned Halls. I speak to them, telling them what I have been doing and I describe any Wonders that I have seen in the House. In this way they know that they are not alone. (12)

It is one of the saddest passages in the novel, achingly illustrating Piranesi’s belief in the benevolence of the world. If I am alone, he believes, there was some force that wanted me to not be. That intended me to have a wife. The longing for another person is buried so deep in that first sentence above, but it is there: why else, we might ask, would Piranesi postulate such a thing? He is a man who otherwise confines himself to observable fact, who insists that he can list only 15 people because, though “possibly there have been more,” “I am a scientist and must proceed according to the evidence” (7). The postulation itself betrays the longing.

The novel’s second instance of sexuality occurs about 20 pages later. This one is accomplished solely through the quality of Clarke’s language, and it is undeniably odd. Piranesi encounters an albatross flying toward him, and describes it thus:

. . . the strangest thought came to me: perhaps the albatross and I were destined to merge and the two of us would become another order of being entirely: an Angel! This thought both excited and frightened me, but still I remained, arms outstretched, mirroring the albatross’s flight. . . . My heart beat rapidly.

The moment he reached me—the moment that I thought we would collide like Planets and become one!—I gave out a sort of gasping cry—Aahhhh! In the same instant, I felt some sort of pent-up tension go out of me, a tension I did not know I had until that moment (30).

The language here is unabashedly sexual. And yet the bird flies on above Piranesi. It makes no attempt at mating with him; it mates with a fellow albatross, after which Piranesi brings them nesting materials that “approximated to three days’ fuel. This was no insignificant amount and I knew that I might be colder because I had given it away. But what is a few days of feeling cold compared to a new albatross in the World?” (32).

Thus, in the absence of one’s own future lineage, Piranesi couples an ethic of caring for the human dead with an ethic of caring for other species’ new life. So what if the soul is no longer animating the skeletons, or if the new life grows in a nest instead of a womb? Piranesi instinctively honors life that was and ushers in life that will be.

But why such sexualized language in his meeting with the bird? That language recurs nowhere else in the novel. Later, a human woman does show up—and though the Other worries that Piranesi might fall in love with her (143), the idea never crosses Piranesi’s mind. And yet. The entirety of Piranesi’s calendar system, the way he labels his journal entries before the reader even knows why, is “the year the albatross came to the south-western halls.” This was the moment of joy he couldn’t identify, of the doomed but thrilling possibility of merging to create a new, third being. It was important enough to be the name of the year, the name atop nearly every journal entry in the book. Clarke here shows the impact of this moment on Piranesi with immense subtlety, and it is a moving testament to the emotions he does not always explicitly reveal to us.

Indeed, Clarke displays stunning rhetorical flourishes throughout the book, evidence of a master storyteller and prose stylist at work. The novel is at times an action-adventure. One scene toward the end features a chase up the statues, heart-racing and blood-pounding. Clarke blocks action sequences with the skill of a movie director. She often writes an event in-scene, shows its external effects, then describes Piranesi’s thinking only after the effect has passed. (In one chapter, the Other outlines the conditions under which he would kill Piranesi, after which Piranesi performs his first act of defiance—he lies to the Other. It’s not until the next chapter that we hear his inner reaction.) This style marks a progression of sorts from the footnotes that populated Clarke’s first novel; here she keeps us in-scene, in-action, essentially footnoting the action of one chapter with the internality of a second.

Clarke did not publish another novel for 16 years after her first, limited as she was by chronic fatigue syndrome. “I was aware that I was a person cut off from the world,” she said in The Guardian,3 “bound in one place by illness. Piranesi considers himself very free, but he’s cut off from the rest of humanity.” This notion of being both bound and free appears in the novel when Piranesi, asked whether he was imprisoned, answers that he roamed for hundreds and thousands of kilometers (235). Clarke seems to want us to ask, How large a prison is still a prison? What about our own bodies, our own minds, our own lives here on earth?

The title adds even more dimensions to the question of imprisonment. It is an allusion to Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the eighteenth-century artist behind a series of prints called Carceri d’invenzione4—imaginary prisons. The Other is the one who names him this, as though Piranesi himself is the author of the prison that is the labyrinth. Later, Piranesi chooses to keep the name. Does he, after all, imprison himself?

It is a testament to Clarke that she offers no easy answers. Her hybrid landscape is all mirrors inside mirrors; her final lines open up to even greater mystery. Piranesi has come into enlightenment, the world as we know it. But if the House is like our own world, then how many nested worlds remain beyond it that we are too myopic to see? Are we all just Piranesi, innocent and good and lonely, limited and unaware, intuiting the right way to live as we are able, unable to access the bigger story outside our own perception? And if we are—well, perhaps a little innocence is not so bad.


  1. Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, trans. Willard R. Trask (Pantheon, 1954).
  2. Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Bloomsbury, 2004).
  3. Justine Jordan, “Susanna Clark: I Was Cut Off from the World, Bound in One Place by Illness,” The Guardian, September 12, 2020.
  4. See, e.g., “The Round Tower,” from Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), ca. 1749–50, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Courtney Sender, MTS ’18, is a writer based in Boston and a fellow of Yaddo and MacDowell. She holds an MFA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic and The New York Times, and her debut story collection is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press.

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