18th century art comes to life through years-long digital project at UofSC

(November 14, 2019)

On Thursday night, the public is invited to see rare 18th century engravings come to virtual life in a project by students and staff at the University of South Carolina. They’ll be able to experience artwork by Italian illustrator Giovanni Piranesi in a new, digital way.

“We can really think about the different ways of interacting with this historical material through original media and through new technology,” said Jeanne Britton, project leader and curator at the UofSC Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

Piranesi (1720-1778) is known for his intricate engravings. Those were then printed, and a collection of those prints exists at UofSC.

“So what we have is an early 19th century printing of 18th century materials. What’s special is it’s complete,” said Britton.  The digital project has taken years, and Thursday’s unveiling is only the first step in the full process.

“With our new digital tools and technologies, we have the power to bring you into that type of artwork. And using something like virtual reality, you can put on a headset and go into the world the Piranesi created,” said Jason Porter with the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He oversaw the virtual technology component.

There will be several ways to view Piranesi’s work.  “We’re going to have the virtual headset, where you can walk inside his version of the Pantheon. We’re going to have some of these volumes behind me that we’re taking out of the vault in Rare Books, and sharing in a new environment. We’re also going to have some loose prints that have been framed,” said Britton.

More than a dozen students have been involved with the project, including the virtual reality components.  “They are building the model, they are writing the code, they are rendering out everything,” said Porter.

Merging 21st century technology with 18th century art, in a project that will continue for years to come.  “It’s showcasing material that’s rare and that’s truly special here in South Carolina,” said Britton.

‘The Digital Piranesi’ is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities Division of Preservation and Access.