The Digital Piranesi

Posted in fellowships, opportunities, resources by Editor on May 15, 2019

Along with highlighting the project generally, this posting also aims to publicize a related two-year post-doc position (May 31 is the application due date).

The Digital Piranesi is a developing digital humanities project that aims to provide an enhanced digital edition of the works of Italian illustrator Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778). This project aims to make Piranesi’s views, maps, and texts accessible in a complete digital collection and, in an interactive digital edition, to make them visible, legible, and searchable in ways that the original works are not. The scale and breadth of Piranesi’s works require innovative methods of presentation, discovery, and analysis. By digitally illuminating and enacting many of the graphic features of his designs, this project will provide new ways of seeing this rare and complex historical material.

The University of South Carolina is one of fewer than ten institutions to hold a complete set of Piranesi’s posthumous Opere (1837–39), a set of twenty-nine elephant-folio volumes, housed in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, that assembles all of his individual publications (such as Views of Rome and Imaginary Prisons). Alternatively historical and imaginative, Piranesi’s representations of ruins are exercises in rigorous archeological investigation as much as they are fanciful experiments in urban imagination. The Digital Piranesi aspires to appeal to these two elements of Piranesi’s own works—the historical and the imaginative—and to explore the ways that Piranesi’s works seem to predict many elements of digital design. His illustrations of ruins and crypts are immersive, his architectural studies often consist of multiple layered images, and his maps and ruins include detailed alphabetic keys. His indexed maps, annotated architectural studies, immersive interiors, and multi-image views push the limits of the printed page. While his earliest works were individual engravings of Roman ruins marketed towards visitors on the grand tour, he quickly began producing increasingly larger images and adding not only textual keys but also indices, prefaces, and dissertations. Pushing against the limits not only of the printed page but also of the bound book, his multi-plate engravings become elaborate foldouts in bound volumes, and the references in his maps and indices direct users through unnumbered pages and between different publications. His works are rare—his complete works are exceedingly so—and they constitute a colossal corpus with expansive pedagogical and scholarly potential lacking in any comprehensive searchable index. The Digital Piranesi aims to make the content and connections in this rich body of work easily accessible and searchable.

Piranesi’s architectural views and his referential networks require complex interactions with the spaces of the printed, illustrated book. These ways of interacting with print—tracing cross-references, ‘reading’ an image through its explanatory key—call for specific methods of preservation and display beyond producing digital images. The Digital Piranesi heeds this call by performing the links that Piranesi forges between maps, indices, and images; across unnumbered pages in multiple volumes; and within heavily-annotated engravings. Piranesi’s images are most frequently viewed individually, divorced from their original larger networks of cross-referencing. The digital environment, although it is unable to reproduce the materiality of his original works, offers a way of experiencing Piranesi’s works that is complementary to his vision. Digitally representing not only Piranesi’s images but also their interconnections, composite layers, and verbal references promises to reveal new insights about eighteenth-century Rome, the birth of art history as a discipline, and the graphical representation of knowledge.

With the support of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Division of Preservation and Access for 2019–21, the University of South Carolina is able to hire a postdoctoral fellow, who will contribute to the digital project’s ongoing development and assist in curating an exhibit to commemorate the tricentennial of Piranesi’s birth in the fall of 2020. The application deadline is 31 May 2019. More information is available here.