Introduction to the Center for Digital Humanities’ Piranesi Project

By Mackenzie Anderson

Hello! My name is Mackenzie Anderson, I am a graduate student in Library and Information Science here at the University of South Carolina, and I am working on the Piranesi project.

The Piranesi project was created and is spearheaded by Dr. Jeanne Britton, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections curator and Department of English Language and Literature affiliate faculty. The project itself is executed by both the Center for Digital Humanities, located in UofSC’s Innovation Center, and the Digital Collections department, located in the Ernest F. Hollings Library. Awarded an NEH grant 2019-2021, “The Digital Piranesi” digitally enacts graphic features of Giovanni Piranesi’s innovative works in a comprehensive digital collection and an interactive digital edition.

Veduta dell’Avanzo del Mausoleo di S. Elena, madre di Constantino Imperatore… (View of the mausoleum of Saint Helena, Rome) from Piranesi, Opere, Vol. 3, Le Antichita romane, (part 3 of 4)
Veduta dell’Avanzo del Mausoleo di S. Elena, madre di Constantino Imperatore… (View of the mausoleum of Saint Helena, Rome) from Piranesi, Opere, Vol. 3, Le Antichita romane, (part 3 of 4)

Although the project regularly continues to expand as the Center for Digital Humanities discovers new, exciting possibilities for showcasing the wonders within Piranesi’s works, the current goal is to create an interactive, virtual exhibit of 29 volumes of Italian artist Giovanni Piranesi’s etchings. Piranesi was an eighteenth-century artist famous for his etchings of Rome and his fictitious prisons (or Carceri d’invenzione). His work is breathtakingly beautiful and astonishingly detailed. Although I had little exposure to visual art before I started working in Digital Collections, I have since become a huge fan of Piranesi’s work. My favorite part of my job is opening a new volume and exploring the etchings inside for the first time as I scan each of the pages. You never know what you’ll find!

My work consists of scanning the etchings volume by volume to create TIFF copies of the images. I then convert these files to JPEGs and subsequently use Photoshop to create cropped copies of the images for the Center for Digital Humanities to use. The biggest surprise I have encountered so far is how difficult and tedious the scanning process can be. The volumes I work with are bound so that there are big gaps between pages, and the heavy ink can cause the etchings to warp. My job is to get as perfect of a scan as possible. Usually this means invoking techniques such as positioning foam or fabric underneath the pages, using weights to prop up the spine, pulling pages tight with a ruler, and adjusting the pressure of the scanning beds against the book, all while exercising great caution not to damage the books or pages themselves.

Occasionally, when I encounter very difficult pages, I have to take over ten scans to get a usable image. It is tedious and highly detailed work, and it took me several weeks to become fully comfortable scanning independently. Nevertheless, I love my job, and I am very excited to get to be a part of the Piranesi project. I hope that those who view the Piranesi exhibit after its completion find his work as captivating and interesting as I do. To learn more about the project click here. To view our work to date, visit the Piranesi project website.

Veduta di un gran masso, avanzo del sepolcro della famiglia de' Metelli sulla via Appia ... (View of the remains of the tomb of the Metelli on the Via Appia) from Piranesi, Opere, Vol. 3, Le Antichita romane, (part 3 of 4)
Veduta di un gran masso, avanzo del sepolcro della famiglia de’ Metelli sulla via Appia … (View of the remains of the tomb of the Metelli on the Via Appia) from Piranesi, Opere, Vol. 3, Le Antichita romane, (part 3 of 4)