In 1819, Thomas Jefferson sketched plans for a frescoed planetarium spanning the dome of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda Library (see fig. 1). ‘The concave ceiling of the Rotunda,’ he wrote, ‘is proposed to be painted sky-blue and spangled with gilt stars in their position and magnitude copied exactly.’ As designed, the Rotunda’s ceiling would represent the night sky in real time: mock constellations (moved by an operator perched precariously on an elevated seat) would trace their annual progress across a wood-and-plaster firmament. Due to ballooning costs and delays in the Rotunda’s construction, however, Jefferson’s proposed celestial dome was deemed impractical and was never realized.

The Rotunda Planetarium (scheduled to open in November, 2019) fulfills this inaugural vision for the University of Virginia’s first library. An series of digital projectors mounted in the upper gallery of the Rotunda’s dome room will transform UVa’s architectural centerpiece into a vast Enlightenment planetarium. A paired exhibition, “Rotunda Planetarium: Science & Learning in the University of Virginia’s First Library,” will display books, instruments, specimens, and artifacts from the Rotunda’s early history. Arraying more than forty objects across three thematic sections, this interactive exhibition will bring to light the Rotunda’s original function as an interdisciplinary clearing-house for natural history, science, and the humanities.

In highlighting the Rotunda’s history as a lived space—rather than a ‘mere’ architectural marvel—our project brings renewed attention to the diversity of stories of those who built, worked, taught, and learned under its dome.

An allied digital humanities project, Rotunda Library Online (RLO), reconstructs the University of Virginia’s first collection of books and situates this collection within the Rotunda’s architecture. RLO is currently in early release and entering its final phase of development.

A scholarly symposium and weekend of public events will mark the launch of the Rotunda Planetarium (scheduled tentatively for November 1st and 2nd, 2019; details to follow). Regularly scheduled events will follow through summer 2020. We invite members of the University and the Charlottesville community to participate and attend. Contact us or follow along at our project Blog.

This project is supported by a major grant from the Jefferson Trust, an initiative of the University of Virginia Alumni Association. Organized in collaboration with Rare Book School; curated by Samuel V. Lemley, Neal D. Curtis, and Madeline Zehnder, PhD Candidates in the University of Virginia’s Department of English.

Join the discussion and share your experience on social media: #RotundaPlanetarium

Figure 1. Thomas Jefferson’s designs for the Rotunda Planetarium, ca. 1819.
Courtesy of Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library, UVa [MS 171].

Rotunda Planetarium Curators: Madeline Zehnder, Samuel V. Lemley, Neal D. Curtis (Photo: Adam Ewing)