Detail. Obsessive detail.
That’s the first description you get when you ask those familiar with Giovanni Piranesi about his artwork.
Obsessive detail can be seen throughout the 18th-century Italian illustrator’s works from the painstaking drawing of acanthus leaves on a Corinthian column to the shading on a beam of light streaming into a ruined building. It can be seen in all manner of ropes and chains and pulleys in a series of imaginary prisons and the numerous notations, indices, references and cross references that appear in his architectural etchings. So obsessive was his focus on Trajan’s Column in Rome that an entire volume of his work is devoted to it.
There’s often a combination of text and image in his etchings, which were produced from engravings on copper plates. In most cases, his notes and textual keys include factual information such as the circumference of a column or details about historic restoration. In other cases, Piranesi’s notes resemble lengthy essays on aesthetics and the role of the artist.
“Piranesi is inviting but also challenging. The pictures are so beautiful but also inaccessible and difficult to navigate in ways that I think he was very well aware of,” says Jeanne Britton, curator at the University of South Carolina’s Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. “I think he wanted to challenge his viewers, but one of the consequences is that his works aren’t as studied as they deserve to be.”
To make Piranesi (1720-78) more user-friendly, Britton is leading a project called “The Digital Piranesi,” which aims to make this rare material accessible in an enhanced, interactive digital collection and make it visible, legible and searchable in ways that the original works are not.
The project was inspired by Britton’s personal affinity for Piranesi but more importantly by University Libraries’ rare complete set of his works, the Opere, held by fewer than 10 institutions in the world. Published in the 1830s after Piranesi’s death, the 29 elephant-folio volumes assemble all of his individual publications and include more than 1,000 images printed from the original engraved copper plates. Although there is no documentation about the university’s acquisition of the Piranesi volumes, Britton has found evidence it was sometime between their publication and the 1870s.
“Aside from being included in a few library exhibits over the years, the volumes have rarely been used. We have this amazing complete set, and I started to think about how to make it accessible for researchers, art historians and anyone interested in Piranesi,” Britton says.
All of the volumes were scanned in University Libraries’ Digital Collections at very high resolution and are online in a digital collection, but Britton had a larger vision. She applied for and received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to build “The Digital Piranesi,” an interactive website that will digitally represent not only Piranesi’s images but also their interconnections, composite layers and verbal references through the use of hyperlinks and searchable data. The project also aims to provide translations of Piranesi’s texts, which include Italian as well as Latin, French and Greek. It’s the only digital collection of its kind in the world.