Reviewed February 2021
Kristen Sosinski, Archivist
Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress
The Digital Piranesi website is a project from the Center for Digital Humanities at the University of South Carolina, partially funded through a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. The project makes the engravings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) freely accessible through the digitization of a complete set of the posthumously published Opere [Works] (1837-9). This set was printed under the direction of his son Francesco by the Didot printing house in Paris and consists of twenty-nine volumes that include over 1000 images. The project aims to make Piranesi’s works “visible, legible, and searchable in ways that the original works are not.”
When a specific etching is selected for viewing, a high-resolution scan appears with a scholarly essay that includes links to related works by Piranesi or other artists. While the scholarly articles are brief, around 500 words, they are packed with contextual information. For example, in the essay for Piranesi’s map, “Pianta di Roma e del Campo Marzo” [Plan of Rome and the Campus Martius] draws attention to the fact that North appears at the bottom of the page. Additionally, the reader learns that Piranesi oriented an earlier map of Rome with north at the top of the page but also that “orientation, in the directional sense, was in flux during the eighteenth century’s Age of Reason, when the Christian tradition of pointing maps towards Jerusalem (and North appearing to the left of an image) gave way to the newer practice of positioning North at the top of a map.”
In additional to the scholarly essays, basic metadata and a link that points to the source file stored inthe Internet Archive, is available. One of the motivating factors behind this project is that Piranesi’s work often included annotations, keys, indices, foldouts, and cross references to other works. The site successfully employs the platform Scalar to highlight these often-overlooked features by drawing an unobtrusive text box around them and providing the referenced text or image by hovering. Annotations appear in Piranesi's original Italian, and translations can be found under "additional metadata.” The site also takes advantage of two display features that are not attainable with standard page turner software: stitching together images that span multiple pages and orienting each image to the viewer.
Users have access to a variety of ways to interact with the site: a search box; the “Volumes" page, which allows users to navigate through Piranesi's works in the same sequence in which they were published; and through the Index tab which lists different “paths.” These paths include thematically arranged sets of Piranesi’s work. For example, the user may elect to explore “frontispieces,” “maps” or “architecture” to view a selection of images that correlate to the each of those categories.
While navigation is smooth, the site can be disorienting. This could be solved by including introductory or help text to make it clear to the user the different modes of searching and how the site is organized. It would also be beneficial to inform users that they may view the same images and attain additional metadata using USC’s portal for digital collections. Similarly, a thumbnail gallery of each volume would help orient the user and offer another avenue for browsing.
A similar project at the University of Tokyo, Opere di Giovanni Baptista Piranesi – Advanced, was completed in 2019. This project transformed a pre-existing image database derived from scanned negatives of Giovanni Battista Piranesi's etchings from Opere di Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Francesco Piranesi e d'altri (published by Firmin Didot Freres, Paris, 1835-1839), which are held at the University of Tokyo into a dynamic website. Rather than being duplicative, The Digital Piranesi offers an alternative approach, leveraging the Scalar platform to enhance accessibility to the annotations and cross-references.
While content and features are still being added to the site, it promises to become a valuable resource for students, researchers, and scholars. Portions of the project outside the website such as a virtual reality component will undoubtedly attract an even wider audience, including those who may not be familiar with Piranesi.