Skip to Content

Center forDigital Humanities

  • Banner Image

Digital Humanities Projects

The Digital Piranesi

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) was an innovative graphic artist most known for his architectural studies of Rome and imaginary prisons. “The Digital Piranesi” aims to make this rare material accessible in a complete digital collection and, in an enhanced, interactive digital edition, to make it 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. 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.

To see the pre-recorded session with the Piranesi@300 conference, click here.

The Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina holds a rare complete set of Piranesi’s posthumous Opere (1837-9), whose twenty-nine elephant-folio volumes include over 1000 images and assemble all of his individual publications. His earliest works were individual engravings of Roman ruins marketed towards visitors on the grand tour. He soon began producing architectural fantasies and increasingly larger views and he not only added engraved textual keys to these views but also supplied typeset indices, prefaces, and essays in his published volumes. Pushing against the limits not only of the page but also of the 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. Individually, his publications, especially the well-known “Carceri d’invenzione” [“Imaginary Prisons”] (1750) and Vedute di Roma [Views of Rome] (1748), are significant works in the fields of art and architectural history as well as the cultural eras of neoclassicism, enlightenment, and romanticism. Collectively, as they are presented in USC’s complete, bound collection, his works entail elaborate interconnections that are rarely seen.

His works constitute a colossal corpus with expansive pedagogical and scholarly potential, but they pose significant problems of access, both practically and intellectually. These problems are the primary motivation of this project. His texts are often difficult to read and have never been fully translated. Our project will include translations of his texts, provide access to high-quality image reproductions, and produce a comprehensive searchable index of this material. These goals will be met by the project’s two open-access components: (1) a digital collection and (2) an interactive digital project. Through page-level metadata, transcriptions of original languages, and English translations, “The Digital Piranesi” will provide a searchable, historical collection that has applications across several disciplines in scholarship, teaching, and new media.

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” will heed 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. In Piranesi’s case, the digital environment, although it is unable to reproduce the materiality of his original works, offers a way of experiencing them that is complementary to his original vision.

Recent Presentations





March 2019

“Image, Index, and Interface in Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Views and Maps of Rome”

Jeanne Britton

American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Denver, CO

Oct 2018

“Architectural History and Digital Assembly”

Jessica Atkins

International Conference on Romanticism (Greenville, SC)

Oct 2018

“Reassembling 2D Art in 3D Environments”

Chris Terry

International Conference on Romanticism (Greenville, SC)

Oct 2018

“Piranesi’s Printed and Digital Spaces”

Mike Gavin

International Conference on Romanticism (Greenville, SC)

Oct 2018

“Piranesi’s System between Enlightenment and Romanticism”

Jeanne Britton

International Conference on Romanticism (Greenville, SC)

June 2018

Piranesi's Views of Rome: Cartographic Measure and Referential Excess

Jeanne Britton

Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies International Conference, Rome, Italy 

Generously funded by a Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities Division of Preservation and Access, an ASPIRE II grant from USC’s Office of the Vice President for Research, the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, and the Magellan Scholars Program.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.