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