“Piranesi and Romanticism: Architecture and the Literary Imagination.”

The University of South Carolina is one of six institutions worldwide to own a complete twenty-nine volume set of the works of the eighteenth-century architectural illustrator Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778). He is known for his meticulous and fanciful engravings of Roman architecture, ancient and modern, as well as his “imaginary prisons.” In his engravings, lush vines hang over classical ruins, eighteenth-century scholars cast light in the shadows of long-hidden family crypts, and faceless prisoners climb endless staircases past skulls and bones. Piranesi’s works reveal significant transitions in archaeology, aesthetics, architecture, engraving, and print, and they inspired many of the great names of nineteenth-century literature. In Spring 2017 I taught an honors college seminar that met in Rare Books and Special Collections called “Piranesi and Romanticism: Architecture and the Literary Imagination.”

Born in Venice, Piranesi made his professional and cultural home in Rome, where his works were sold individually and bound in publications including Antichità romane [Roman Antiquities] (1756), Vedute di Roma [Views of Rome] (1748), and Carceri d’invenzione [Imaginary Prisons] (1750). In this seminar, Piranesi’s visual meditations on the lost glories, shadowy corners, and persistent beauty of ancient Roman architecture served to introduce students to the literary and cultural period of Romanticism. Piranesi’s works straddle the boundary between neoclassicism’s emphasis on order and the classical ideal and Romanticism’s emphasis on the imagination and the individual.  The range of his artistic productions—from objective architectural plans to elaborate architectural fantasies, from urban scenes of eighteenth-century Rome to imaginary scenes of subterranean torture—demonstrate visually many of the thematic tensions that animate literary works of the following decades.

Opere, v. 8, image 70 (“Pianta di ampio magnifico Collegio” [plan of a large and magnificent college])

Opere, v. 2, image 4 (Antichità romane, frontispiece)

Opere, v. 16, image 58 (Vedute di Roma, “Veduta della Basilica di S. Paolo” [View of the Basilica of San Paolo])

Opere, v. 8, image 136 (Carceri, plate VII)

Piranesi’s works were frequently acquired and highly prized by wealthy British and Northern European travelers on the “grand tour,” and some writers describe their disappointment at seeing Rome itself after having first seen it through Piranesi’s vision. Students in this course also used Piranesi’s vision as an introduction—to poetry and prose of European Romanticism—and were challenged and encouraged, rather than disappointed, by having seen through Piranesi’s vision. His engravings present not only the literal views of Rome that were the subject of student presentations early in the semester but also more abstract perspectives on historical time, individual creativity, architectural space, and the power of nature that continued to guide our discussions about works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Victor Hugo, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas De Quincey, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, John Keats, and Charles Baudelaire throughout the term.

Opere, v. 16, image 388 (Vedute di Roma, “Veduta della fonte e delle Spelonche d’Egeria” [View of the fountain and grotto of Egeria])

Opere, v. 16, image 376 (Vedute di Roma, “Veduta interna dell’antico Tempio di Bacco” [Interior view of the Temple of Bacchus])

Jeanne M. Britton
Curator, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
University of South Carolina

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Highlights from the Ron Rash Archive now on display in the Irvin Department Gallery

The Irvin Department’s current exhibit, “More than a Southern Author: Influences and Impact in the Works of Ron Rash,” explores the newly acquired Ron Rash Archive by highlighting the author’s allusions and references to other literary classics within his works.  Drawing from the Irvin Department’s holdings, this exhibit pairs Rash’s manuscripts with works of other authors, from handwritten manuscript by Pat Conroy to Shakespeare’s 2nd Folio from 1632.

The Ron Rash Archive, the comprehensive collection of award-winning, internationally bestselling contemporary author Ron Rash, has found a home in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

Ron Rash, 2016

Rash is a triple threat– writing and publishing poetry, short stories and novels. Rash’s intensely regional works reveal deep universal truths.  Among his numerous awards, three of his novels have been New York Times Best Sellers, he was twice nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2010 and this year Rash was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction.  Rash’s recent popular success comes as no surprise to those familiar with his decades long career. Rash has written seven novels, four poetry compilations and six short story anthologies beginning with The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth in 1994. His most recent work of fiction, The Risen, was published in late 2016. His first published work, a short story titled “Turtle Meat” was published in 1978.

Born in Chester, South Carolina and raised in western North Carolina, Rash’s works are grounded in the American South and are informed by his family’s history and the history of the region. His grandparents moved to Buncombe County, North Carolina to work at Eureka Cotton Mill and his mother and father met while employed at the mill. Rash would title his first book of poetry, Eureka Mill.

 However, Rash is much more than a southern author. Rash admires and is often compared to William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor but his works also show his connection to the works of a myriad of authors from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Walt Whitman. Works from all of these authors and others are included in this exhibit, drawing direct parallels between the works and Rash’s personal history and influences using archival material from the Ron Rash Archive.

Ron Rash tours the exhibit at the announcement of the acquisition of his archive by USC with his wife Ann and Irvin Department Archivist Jessica Crouch

The exhibit is on display in the Brittain Gallery and the Irvin Department Gallery in The Hollings Special Collections Library until July 31.  An audio tour is available as a compliment to the exhibit at the Reading Room desk. 

Rash (middle) with Dean of USC Libraries Tom McNally (left) and South Carolina Historian Walter Edgar (right) at the announcement of the acquisition of the Ron Rash Archive, April 27, 2017

Jessica Crouch, Archivist

Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections

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