Category Archives: history

Past present.

The Gothic Staircase: From Piranesi to Harry Potter

Of the many influences upon the progenitors of Gothic fiction —the German and British Romantics of the eighteenth century — was the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an artist known for etchings of Rome and labyrinthine “prisons” (Carceri d’Invenzione). With arches, vaults and staircases that lead nowhere, Piranesi’s prisons were visions of the impossible.  To the Romantics, he was a virtuoso of the imagination.

“I need to produce great ideas, and I believe that if I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would be mad enough to undertake it.” — Giovanni Battista Piranesi, as quoted by an early biographer

Plate 14 of Piranesi's Prisons
Plate 14 of Piranesi’s Prisons

The first edition of Carceri d’Invenzione was published in 1750; a decade later, Piranesi would return to his imaginary prisons, revising the existing and adding two more (click here to see all 14 of the original Carceri in order). By the late eighteenth century, his work was known throughout Europe.

Writing in his Italian Journey: 1786-1788, Goethe confesses that his visit to the ruins of Rome had failed to measure up to Piranesi’s images of them. Horace Walpole — author of the Castle of Otranto (1764), generally agreed upon by critics as one of the first Gothic novels —  urged his fellow artists to “study [Piranesi’s] sublime dreams.”

Coleridge was well aware of Piranesi; Thomas De Quincey in his Confessions of An Opium Eater (1821) reminisces

“Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi’s 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. 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, &c.&c. expressive of enormous power put forth and resistance overccome. Creeping 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.” 

Again and again, De Quincey comes back to the image of the staircase to the point where Piranesi’s labors are likened to unfinished stairs.

It is as if in the staircase itself, De Quincey and by extension, Coleridge (if the recollection is accurate) find in Piranesi’s etchings a potent symbol for the imagination itself. And for the authors of the Gothic novel, that symbol, consciously or not, plays out again and again.

Emily St. Aubert, the heroine Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) encounters many a supernatural terror on the staircase in a gloomy castle. In his Monk: A Romance (1796), Matthew Gregory “Monk” Lewis similarly situates his paranormal happenings on the stairs when in Voume II, Chapter I he writes “Occasional gleams of brightness darted from the Staircase
windows as the lovely Ghost past by them.” The aforementioned Castle of Otranto finds many a dastardly deed tied to the castle’s stairs. And as late into the nineteenth century in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the titular Count leads an unsuspecting Jonathan Harker “up a great and winding stair.” So prevalent is the image from Dracula that it is repeated again and again in film adaptations of the novel, from Carl Laemmle’s 1931 version with Bela Lugosi to Francis Ford Coppola’s with Gary Oldman (in 1992).

The stairwell in Dracula (1931)
The stairwell in Dracula (1931)

“Winding” “dizzying” “narrow” and “great” are just a few of the adjectives tied to the Gothic staircase. More than a means of moving from point A to point B, they are a mystery within the mysterious. They are architectural ruminations of at once possibilities and simultaneously dead ends. To the writer, they are ready made for metaphor.

No surprise then, Freud states that “staircases, ladders, and flights of stairs, or climbing on these, either upwards or downwards, are symbolic representations of the sexual act.” (Dream Psychology: Psychoanalysis for Beginners.  1921. Chapter 5). But Freud stops short of fully exploring the nature of the staircase as metaphor in the same way that the Judeo-Christian tradition mistakes original sin as some type of sexual awakening — when it is indeed all knowledge that the forbidden fruit affords.

Knowledge then, as it emerges from the path of imagination, is at the end of the staircase. Something Jung might see as Hermetic knowledge and light from darkness.

Winchester House and the stairs to nowhere
Winchester House and the stairs to nowhere

Sometimes it is knowledge of a truth one does not want to confront as in the curious case of the Sarah Winchester’s “Mystery” House in San Jose, California. Plagued by thoughts of the horrors her husband’s rifle had wrought, the widow Winchester spent the years following her husband’s death building a mansion with doors, windows and stairs to nowhere as a means, or so she thought, to confuse potentially vengeful spirits or hold off death itself. Hundreds of rooms with no sense or reason. An attempt to ease a guilty conscience.

More often, the staircase can be seen as a retreat or escape. A Jacob’s Ladder of sorts. A movement toward reward. It is interesting, for example, that a radical form of psychotherapy called Emergence Therapy uses the staircase as a metaphor. The patient ascends from darkness to light. Even in popular music, we find stairways to heaven. Where a “piper will lead us to reason.”

Piranesi’s etchings were born out of an Age of Reason. Knowledge, the promise of the Enlightenment, was believed within reach by men of science in the mid seventeenth century — providing the man of reason stayed the course and used a scientific mind to stay on point. But as Piranesi’s mind-boggling prisons reveal,  the imagination — the creative yet too often cruel tool of the inquisitive mind that was championed as much as reason by poets and philosophers of the early nineteenth century — can obfuscate more than enlighten. Or perhaps better put: enlighten through the challenge of obfuscation.

Stripped of its many layers of metaphor, it becomes clear that the staircase is the mind. Up into the light. Down into the dark. Knowledge. Fear of the unknown.

Hogwart's Grand Staircase (courtesy of
Hogwart’s Grand Staircase (courtesy of

It has been reported that among the many influences for J.K. Rowling’s depiction of the Grand-Staircase at Hogwart’s was a bookshop in Portugal called Livraria Lello. In its beauty and grandeur, one can see a model for Hogwart’s in Livraria Lello, but it is not until one really considers the bewildering movement and plot points served by Piranesi-like staircase at Hogwart’s that the real foundation for Rowling lay somewhere in the Gothic.

Not only is there an impressive architectural style in Hogwart’s, but also, even more so, a movement of the mind therein — from darkness to light. It is this very movement that for Harry Potter and company literally reveals hidden [i.e., occult] knowledge again and again across the novels each time the Grand Staircase comes into play, placing Rowling’s work (and the eerily reminiscent prisons of Piranesi) firmly within the Gothic tradition.

Heap of Dust: A Brief History of Birthdays

For much of human history, celebrating birthdays was more than egotistical; to many, it was a sin of pride.

To the ancients, only the Gods or their physical manifestations on earth — Pharaoh (as noted in Genesis 40:20), or, much later, the Emperors of civilizations as diverse as Rome and Japan — were important enough to have the date of their birth honored.

6th century B.C. Assyrian Planisphere
6th century B.C. Assyrian Planisphere (British Museum)

Still, some four-hundred years before the birth of Christ, the people of modern-day Iran and Iraq apparently decided the average man’s birthday was worth noting. The practice of astrology — begun in a primitive form as early as the third millennium  — became more sophisticated under the Babylonians by the second millennium. And with astrology came a better method of recording exact dates of birth — even for mere mortals (though usually those of royal birth who could afford the services of an astrologer).

Horoscopes elevated the importance of birthdays (the earliest of which can be traced to April 29, 410 B.C. near what is now Baghdad). Herodotus, in his On the Customs of Persians (430 B.C.), observed that “Of all the days in the year, the one which [Persians] celebrate most is their birthday.”

Birthday celebrations were slow, however, to catch on among Jews (as evident in the writings of Josephus in the first century A.D.), and later,  Christians.

Writing in 245 A.D., Origen of Alexandria in a homily on Leviticus (viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) commented that “none of the saints can be found who ever held a feast or a banquet upon his birthday, or rejoiced on the day when his son or daughter was born. But sinners rejoice and make merry on such days.”

Party pooper.

Oddly enough, it’s likely that the celebration of Christ’s birth was what opened the doors to the common man recognizing his own birthday and those of his family without guilt. Though the date of December 25 took many years and much debate upon which to be settled, it is in the years following celebrations of the birth of Christ that we begin to see Church records noting the births, baptisms and/or the naming of common folk.

Name Day, a practice popular in the Middle Ages in Catholic and Orthodox countries, tied a individual (no matter how lowly) to a Saint for whom they were named; thus honoring a Saint’s Day became an acceptable way to celebrate one’s own name (and thus commemorate one’s very existence and, by extension, birth). No sin of pride, participating in the festivities of a Saint’s Day because of your given name was encouraged. In lives otherwise grim during the Middle Ages, Name Day was a rare opportunity for personal annual jollity.

But Saint’s Days (and thus Name Days) fell out of favor with the Protestant Reformation and dawn of the Renaissance. The former rejected practices deemed idolatrous and the latter led ultimately to an Age of Reason. But by the eighteenth century, notions of happiness and liberty finally made it acceptable to champion and thus celebrate the individual. And the best time to celebrate the individual? Their birthday.

“The highest of all holidays in the satanic tradition is the date of one’s own birth.” – Anton LaVey, The Satanic Bible

Poets begin elevating the birthday to heights of adoration by the early eighteenth century. Whether in pursuit of a woman — like Jonathan Swift in 1719 to his dearest Stella — or the recognition of a great man — as in Robert Burns’ 1794 Ode for General Washington’s Birthday — the celebration of birth was nascent in art and becoming widespread in culture. There was Kinderfeste in early nineteenth-century Germany. Birthday cards — though more of a formal greeting than an acknowledgement of one’s age — were known to be sent in Victorian England. Birthday cakes, likewise wished “Many Happy Returns on the Day.” And a little known ditty from 1893 called “Good Morning to All” morphed at some point into the ubiquitous “Happy Birthday to You” by 1912. By the 1920s, the birthday party had arrived; age-specific parties like the  “Sweet Sixteen,” a custom for girls in a burgeoning middle class, came into vogue.

Thus we arrive at the modern-day birthday party. From the understandably jubilant “Baby’s First” to the “wow, you’re still alive” centenarian’s final few, the birthday has transcended the individual and become an almost communal necessity — an industry unto itself. An office-interuptus excuse for cake. A click upon a Facebook wall.

In a matter of a few millennium, we have gone from believing few of us worthy to note their birth to an expectation that there is not only reason for a party, but an obligation to our family and friends to do so.

Still, for many, celebrating a birthday is a reminder of getting older.

“I grabbed a pile of dust, and holding it up, foolishly asked for as many birthdays as the grains of dust, I forgot to ask that they be years of youth.” — Ovid, Metamorphoses

With the passage of time, many of us now have “birthday blues.” In a culture that worships youth, many do not want to be reminded of the calendar. “Be happy,” says the world. And if you’re not? Something must be wrong with you. Science has shown that “birthdays are periods of increased risk for men aged 35 and older in the general population and in those receiving mental health care.” Perhaps we are all not meant to have happy birthdays.

Notions of aging are forced upon us. We are, no pun intended, born into them. There’s the innocence of childhood. The reckless days of youth. Conquering the world in our twenties. Settling down in our thirties. Looking back in our forties. New horizons in our fifties. Retirement, if we’re fortunate, in our sixties. The “golden years” of our seventies, eighties and, for a lucky few, nineties.

All are decades marked by expectation.

Satchel Paige (AP file photo)
Satchel Paige (AP file photo)

Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige, the oldest rookie to play in Major League Baseball at the age of 42, is quoted as saying two of the most profound statements about birthdays and aging that no psychologist, poet or philosopher could ever come close to expressing. There is his famous, oft-misquoted and widely adapted to suit many an occasion: “Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.” Even more insightful is his seeming challenge to all of us:

“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” — Satchel Paige

Age. Accomplishment. Entitlement. The “I” above all else. Self-doubt by way of selfism.

Birthdays and our expectations of them can often take us to dark places: arrogance, bitterness, pride. But the best of all celebrations are those that affirm life.

To be alive is precious at any age. And to commemorate birth? Pride, but not hubris. An honor that matters.