Digital humanities project maps European intellectual networks

April 24, 2013, 11:31 p.m.

Networking, in its modern form, may be no stranger to Stanford faculty and students. A groundbreaking new digital humanities project, however, aims to explore the networking of the 18th century, delving into the routes, people and places that made up the Grand Tour of Europe.

The project’s researchers, led by Associate Professor of Classics Giovanna Ceserani, have worked for five years to discover the networks and patterns presented by the Tour, an educational rite of passage taken in the 18th century by male aristocratic students and their entourages to widen their understanding of topics they learned about in secondary school, such as art, culture and architecture.

The project to digitally map this intellectual journey began after Ceserani and some colleagues attended a conference on mapping the Republic of Letters, a century-long phenomenon of intellectual correspondence in Europe that existed from roughly 1400 to 1800.

Shortly after an initial meeting about the umbrella project– Mapping the Republic of Letters– with Dan Edelstein, professor of French, and Paula Findlen, professor of history, Ceserani began work on her specific case study: The Grand Tour of Italy.

“We thought that it would be nice to explore this information… in a geographical way, to map the information and look for patterns,” said Sarah Murray, a graduate student in classics and researcher for the Grand Tour Traveler’s project.

Their research has led them to discover patterns such as increased travel to Sicily as the 18th century progressed and variations in the travel patterns of different professions, such as merchants traveling to ports.

“The purpose was to see the parts of the Grand Tour that are hidden from traditional scholarship,” Murray said. “What are the patterns overall and who are the people we don’t usually hear much about?”

In answering that question, researchers relied extensively on the “Dictionary of British and Irish Travelers to Italy, 1701-1800,” a dictionary that includes the identities of over 6,000 Grand Tour travelers.

“There is this imbalance of attributing the importance of this phenomenon to affecting a large number of people but then the account of the phenomenon is still based on the few most prominent individuals,” Ceserani said, claiming that traditional accounts of the Grand Tour tend to focus on the most famous or wealthy travelers. “A challenge for us now is to think of visualizations that will account for all of these other people who were part of the phenomenon but for whom we can’t trace a complete route.”

As her research ventures into uncharted intellectual territory, Ceserani acknowledged the difficulty in mapping out the distinct academic and geographic routes of each traveler.

“It’s a chance for us to tell a story which keeps present how much is always missing from any story we tell about the past,” Ceserani said. “We want all of these 6,000 people to be there, but some of them are only a name and a place.”

As the project progressed, Ceserani and her researchers have addressed an evolving set of questions.

“When we started putting more than one person on the map… it became about how the people interacted in networks and now a lot of the project is about networks and ‘who met whom?’” Ceserani said.

Approaching those questions most recently took the form of focusing specifically on the role and travels of architects during the Grand Tour.

“We are building a story that becomes a story of architecture in the 18th century,” she said. “It’s a story of how networking changes.”

A historical change that researchers noted through their mapping was the shift from the travel of prominent people who viewed architecture as a hobby to architects who journeyed to Italy under travel fellowships from a university.

“By the very end of the century, Cambridge started giving fellowships and it’s a very different type of travel and the networks are very different,” Ceserani said.

“Here we see how this travel is not only about learning about the past but establishing contacts that will help you,” she added. “It’s social networking basically that helps you.”


A broader impact

Ceserani emphasized the project’s broader academic impact, noting that it had even inspired a Thinking Matters course–  THINK 29: Networks: Ecological, Revolutionary, Digital— taught in part by Edelstein.

“Something that is so important to convey is<\p>…<\p>the truly collaborative nature of the project,” said Nicole Coleman, a technology specialist with the project.

Coleman acknowledged the challenges of interpreting the data on hand and presenting it appropriately.

“It’s kind of a dance between the questions we want to ask and the data that we have to work with and figuring out between those two what we can do,” Coleman said. “And then we figure out what visualization techniques we can use that will best leverage the data that’s available.”

Coleman suggested that although these visualization tools may not be fully functional at this stage in the project, they have led regardless to important discoveries about data modeling.

“The idea is that these are tools for data discovery,” she said. “Having a visualization as an outcome is not necessarily the end goal.”

Eliza Lupone ’15, a research assistant on the project, said that she decided to join Ceserani’s team because she was interested in the opportunity to apply quantifiable research to the humanities.

“One of the reasons that I was so drawn to the project was that we live in Silicon Valley and we hear Big Data thrown around by so many people, but I never really thought that it could apply to the humanities,” Lupone said. “What’s important is not letting us be limited by the tools that already exist, but thinking about how we can build new ones.”

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