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Renaissance Studies, Digital Humanities and the Library

Demmy Verbeke

Aletheia, a system for ground truthing.

Looking for patterns through digital mechanisms.

[1] To me, personally, Renaissance Studies has always been a multidisciplinary affair. Renaissance Studies are mostly defined by time (i.e. the various possible meanings of ‘Renaissance’) sometimes in combination with spatial boundaries (e.g. ‘the Italian Renaissance’ or ‘the Northern Renaissance’, as is the case with the journal associated to this blog), but never by object. Literary texts, archival documents, pieces of art, musical compositions, … are all studied in Renaissance Studies, so they bring together elements from literary studies, linguistics, history, musicology, art history, and many more. I admitted a couple of years ago (Verbeke 2009) that few of us can boast competence in enough fields to call ourselves a true Renaissance scholar, since we tend to specialize in one or a limited number of sub-disciplines. But I do not see this is as a real problem, as long as we also draw on outside expertise when confronted with the multidisciplinary reality of our field of research.

[2] It will then also come as no surprise that Renaissance Studies have been relatively quick in welcoming the Digital Humanities. Not only can the methodology of Digital Humanities help to grasp the diversity of the research field known as Renaissance Studies, but the scholarly tradition of this field of research tends to be as multidisciplinary and collaborative as the Digital Humanities are. This is easily illustrated in an array of well-known or lesser-known projects which might not all call themselves ‘Digital Humanities projects’, but which others might thus qualify, such as Architectura (http://architectura.cesr.univ-tours.fr), the Map of London (http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/index.htm), the Medici Archive Project (http://www.medici.org), Mesolore (http://www.mesolore.org), Renaissance Cultural Crossroads (http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/rcc) or the Venice Time Machine (in which the Renaissance is only one of the timeframes treated, http://vtm.epfl.ch).

[3] What we see in a lot of these projects is driven by the multidisciplinary nature of the research field, which occasions the collaboration which we notice in most successful Digital Humanities projects. And this collaboration is not just academics working together with other academics, but also academics working together with IT people and with the people working in the institutions which house the objects studied, such as libraries, archives and museums. I defend such a collaboration not only because experience teaches that it tends to yield the best results, but also because it helps to position the institution again at the centre of research (Verbeke 2014, Truyen and Verbeke 2015). This would imply incorporating elements from research & development within the workings of the institution in question. In my opinion, R&D and service are complementary, rather than exclusive, in such a setting. Researchers frequently turn to, e.g., their university’s library for support in digital scholarship. If academic librarians want to avoid having to turn away these requests, then they need to proactively garner competence, develop workflows, and prepare an (at the very least basic) digital infrastructure. Obviously, few institutions have money and staff to spare to fully prepare for requests which are not even expressed yet, but good will (both from an institution’s administration and from the researchers themselves) goes a long way to providing a context in which the staff of a library, an archive or a museum feels encouraged and empowered to get actively involved in research projects by accepting responsibility for work packages devoted to tasks which are traditionally expected of them anyway, such as preservation, curation, discovery, dissemination and/or digitization (Showers 2012).

[4] One example in this context is Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and Named Entity Recognition (NER) for non-mainstream materials such as manuscripts and early printed books. Renaissance scholars turning to a library or archive for the provision of Renaissance texts typically want one of two things. Either they want the original documents (e.g. because these documents have not been digitized yet or because they do a type of research which is still not obvious in a digital world, such as studying Renaissance watermarks or book bindings), or they want a fully digitized corpus which they can search and/or manipulate as they see fit. Full digitization starts with captioning the original document in high-quality, but goes further than that, e.g. by providing an automated transcription of the text through OCR (so that it also becomes fully searchable) or by automatically recognizing all names of individuals, places or organisations through NER (which also enables building automated indices). The problem is that the technology does not yet follow the desire of Renaissance scholars in the sense that both OCR and NER for books in non-mainstream typefaces (such as early printed books) or non-mainstream languages (such as Neo-Latin or Renaissance French) – let alone OCR and NER for manuscripts of a similar nature – are not developed enough yet. However, this does not mean that this has to remain so: several teams are working in several places on the problem of OCR and  NER for non-mainstream materials, and the results yielded, for instance, by the Early Modern OCR Project (http://emop.tamu.edu) prove that we might be closer to a solution than originally thought.

[5] The European Union in its turn also recognizes the need for mass digitisation of textual material which would benefit researchers and thus also, amongst others, Renaissance scholars. One of the initiatives taken was the support action succeed (http://www.succeed-project.eu), initiated to promote the take-up and validation of research results in mass digitisation, e.g. by assisting libraries which test, evaluate and integrate digitisation tools. One of these libraries is the University Library of the KU Leuven, which tested a range of OCR- and NER-tools for rare prints in (old) Dutch in 2013-14. The results of this project were presented at library conferences such as ELAG2014 (Bath, 10-13 June 2014), Digital Humanities conferences such as DH2014 (Lausanne, 8-12 July 2014) and the closing conference devoted to Succeed in Digitisation. Spreading Excellence (Paris, 28 November 2014); but perhaps more important is the fact that this project provided an opportunity to further develop OCR and NER for non-mainstream materials and to integrate OCR and NER in the digitisation workflow at the University Library of KU Leuven. The problem of OCR and NER for Renaissance texts might still be far from solved, but the fulfilment of the desires of Renaissance scholars has become a tiny bit closer in Leuven.

KU Leuven, April 2015

Texts cited

Showers 2012 = . Ben Showers, ‘Does the Library Have a Role to Play in the Digital Humanities?’ [http://infteam.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2012/02/23/does-the-library-have-a-role-to-play-in-the-digital-humanities].

Truyen and Verbeke 2015 = Fred Truyen and Demmy Verbeke, ‘The library as a valued partner in Digital Humanities projects: The example of EuropeanaPhotography’, accepted for publication in Art Libraries Journal (2015), 28-33.

Verbeke 2009 = Demmy Verbeke, ‘The need for Latin textual scholarship in Renaissance musicology’, Music and Letters 90 (2009), 205-214 [doi: 10.1093/ml/gcn091]

Verbeke 2014 = Demmy Verbeke, ‘The opportunistic librarian’, dh+lib [http://acrl.ala.org/dh/2014/08/06/opportunistic-librarian]

About the author

Since 2012, Demmy Verbeke has been working as head librarian at KU Leuven (first of the Faculty of Arts and since 2015 of Artes), where he also teaches Heuristics and Methodology. He is the author of Latin Letters and Poems in Motet Collections by Franco-Flemish Composers (c. 1550 – c. 1600) (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2010) and produced numerous articles and chapters discussing the history of the book, Renaissance humanism (especially in the Low Countries and England) and the Classical Tradition. His current research focuses on the history and future of the book, library management (particularly in the field of research/academic libraries) and scholarly communication.

Carl Van de Velde (ed.), Classical Mythology in the Netherlands in the Age of Renaissance and Baroque – La mythologie classique aux temps de la Renaissance et du Baroque dans les Pays-Bas (Peeters, 2009)

Carl Van de Velde (ed.). Classical Mythology in the Netherlands in the Age of Renaissance and Baroque – La mythologie classique aux temps de la Renaissance et du Baroque dans les Pays-Bas. Travaux de l’Institut Interuniversitaire pour l’Étude de la Renaissance et de l’Humanisme, 14. Leuven – Paris – Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2009. ISBN: 978-90-429-2052-1, 394 pp., b/w ill., € 65.

Reviewed by Demmy Verbeke

[1]  The essays collected in this book form the proceedings of an international conference which took place in Antwerp from 19 to 21 May 2005. Its international character is reflected in the languages used: the book contains nine contributions written in English, six written in French, and an introduction switching between Dutch, French and English. It is important to realize at the outset that the conference was organised by the Institut Interuniversitaire pour l’Étude de la Renaissance et de l’Humanisme (Brussels) in collaboration with the Museum Plantin-Moretus (Antwerp) and the Rubenianum (Antwerp), i.e. the specialist documentation centre and library focusing on the study of Flemish art, in particular that of its golden age from Pieter Bruegel to Peter Paul Rubens. As a result, no fewer than six out of fourteen contributions (not counting the introduction and the conclusions) are most relevant for art historians; and five of these are partly or wholly devoted to Rubens.

[2]  The collection opens with what seems to be the literal transcription of the opening speech pronounced at the conference by the editor of these proceedings. Besides a brief discussion of the theme and the organizational background of the meeting, this introduction treats a number of mythological engravings and the Latin inscriptions accompanying them. In the first real article, Eric-Jan Sluijter offers an analysis of various portrayals of Andromeda by Netherlandish painters of the seventeenth century, and rightfully stresses the ‘truly diverging approaches [and] the fascinating variations in usage, functions and attitudes’ towards the heritage of classical antiquity. The next couple of essays focus on literary topics: Rudolf De Smet discusses mythological figures as argumentative elements in the correspondence of Erasmus and Claudio Gigante treats mythological figures in Italian Renaissance poetry. Karolien De Clippel then zooms in on Rubens’s Bacchus and contrasts it with his Andromeda, arguing that the diverse manners of execution (and especially the brushwork) were connected with the mythological themes and their interpretations. Marie Geraerts follows with a discussion of attitudes towards nudity at the Spanish court on the basis of Rubens’s Judgment of Paris for Philip IV. The richest and perhaps the only truly transdisciplinary contribution to the volume is Bert Schepers’s article about poetic commentaries on pictures by Rubens. Another highlight is Nicolette Brout’s piece about the dialogue De prisca religione diisque gentium of the Antwerp Jesuit André Schott, which illustrates the critical distance maintained by some Renaissance and Early Modern intellectuals versus antiquity in general and classical mythology in particular. Related to this is Karl Enenkel’s discussion of Georgius Pictorius’s Theologia Mythologica and Julien de Havrech’s De cognominibus deorum gentilium, two theoretical treatises devoted to the description and the interpretation of the myths of classical antiquity (of which, in fact, only one has a clear link with the Netherlands). This is followed by a discussion by Thomas Berns of the use of mythological material, and especially the reference to a Golden Age or the Age of Saturn, in the work of Hugo Grotius. In the next essay, Monique Mund-Dopchie observes the longevity of the ancient representation of the world and its periphery as well as the almost accidental use of mythological references in cosmographical works from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. An example of the attempt to reconcile the Iudaeo-Christian tradition with Graeco-Roman mythology is found in Jeanine De Landtsheer’s analysis of an obscure reference by Justus Lipsius to the eccentric work of Goropius Becanus. Elizabeth McGrath traces the sources of mythological themes in the work of Netherlandish artists to their reading and discusses their book collections. Jan Bloemendal addresses the interesting fact that the visual arts might abound with figures from classical mythology during the period under discussion, but few of them seem to appear on the theatrical stage, and offers an account of the relevant dispute between Daniel Heinsius and Jean Louis Guez, seigneur de Balzac. Fiona Healy, finally, discusses allegorical adaptations of the judgment of Paris. The volume closes with a rather polemical conclusion written by Wouter Bracke, who rightfully points out that a lot of research remains to be done concerning the use of classical mythology in Netherlandish culture during the age of Renaissance and Baroque. He also takes philologists, and especially neo-latinists, to task for being too superficial in their study of mythological material in poetry.

[3]  The volume would have benefited from a stricter editorial hand. There are a number of regrettable but perhaps forgivable issues, such as the inconsistent treatment of Latin, Italian or Dutch sources (sometimes quoted in the original language, sometimes not; sometimes translated, sometimes not) and the apparently random sequence of the essays. More important and more detrimental for the use of this book for further research is the absence of an index. In addition, the presence of the article by Claudio Gigante is puzzling: no matter how interesting this contribution may be (and it is), its link with the Low Countries is too tenuous to be included in a book about classical mythology in the Netherlands.

[4]  Classical Mythology in the Netherlands in the Age of Renaissance and Baroque offers a number of illuminating case-studies, and suggests many more stimulating lines for further inquiry. It thus lifts a tip of the veil upon a vast and rich field of research. Unfortunately, the decision not to include an introduction or conclusion which would attempt to bring the contributions together in an over-arching synthesis, as well as the comparatively limited attention to – or even complete absence of – certain genres or art forms equally marked by the presence of themes from Graeco-Roman mythology (such as Neo-Latin poetry or music), preclude that this book could be considered as a well-balanced overview of classical mythology in the Netherlands during the period under discussion. However, the relative novelty of this kind of research focusing specifically on the Low Countries, and the quality of most of the contributions, still ensure that it is a valuable document of what undoubtedly must have been an inspired and inspiring conference.

 K. U. Leuven, November 2011