The hunt for the origin of eighteenth-century Romanticism, Kenneth Clark wrote, is “a favourite sport among art historians.” Is it the dark and stormy night in June 1764 when Horace Walpole dreams that he is in the hall of an ancient castle, sees a giant armored hand on the topmost banister of the staircase, then wakes up and starts writing The Castle of Otranto? Or is it the months between the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 and the publication of Burke’s inquiry into the fearful Origins of the Sublime in 1756?

Clark proposed Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione, mostly designed in 1745, and first published in 1750. The Imaginary Prisons, Clark wrote, are “an extraordinary prelude” to the Romantic “imagery of fear.” There is, however, an...

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