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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Digitizing Venetian archives

From times of great antiquity, Venice was the hub of maritime commerce, the link between West and East. 

As Robert Zimmerman quotes in his blog Behind the Black

As Venice’s empire grew, it developed administrative systems that recorded vast amounts of information: who lived where, the details of every boat that entered or left the harbour, every alteration made to buildings or canals. Modern banking was invented in the Rialto, one of Venice’s oldest quarters, and notaries there recorded all trading exchanges and financial transactions.

Crucially, those records survived through turbulent centuries. While the rest of Europe was roiled by its perpetually warring monarchs, from the eighth century onwards Venice began to develop into a stable republic that provided the peace and order required for trade to flourish. In many ways it was a model democracy. The people elected a leader — the doge — supported by various councils, whose members were also usually elected. Governance was secular, but for the most part co-existed tolerantly with religion.

French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte put an end to the Serene Republic in 1797. En route to Vienna during his attempt to conquer the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he declared Venice’s secular and democratic governance to be a form of autocracy, and the city to be an enemy of the revolution. He forced the republic to dissolve itself. In 1815, the old Frari was turned into the State Archives of Venice. Over the next decades, all state administrative documents, including death registers, were transferred there, along with medical records, notary records, maps and architectural plans, patent registers and a miscellany of other documentation, some from elsewhere in Italy. Particularly significant are ambassadors’ reports from wider Europe and the Ottoman Empire, providing a unique source of detailed information about daily life. “Venetian ambassadors were the most observant travellers, trained to find out things like what was being unloaded at the docks, or what a prince or other high-up was like as a person,” says Daston. “Their reports were full of gossip and intrigue.”

Most of the archive, predominantly written in Latin or the Venetian dialect, has never been read by modern historians. Now it will all be systematically fed into the Venice Time Machine, along with more unconventional sources of data, such as paintings and travellers’ logs.

Only metres away from the tourist throngs that bustle through Venice's crowded piazzas, the silence inside Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is so profound it hurts the ears. State archivists long ago took over this fourteenth-century friary, but they are just as studious as the Franciscan brothers who once lived here, as they tend the historical records that fill some 80 kilometres of shelving within. Now, a crew of scientists laden with high-tech equipment is stirring things up in these hallowed stacks.
History hangs heavy at the Frari, and computer scientist Frédéric Kaplan likes it that way. He has an ambition to capture well over 1,000 years of records in dynamic digital form, encompassing the glorious era of the Most Serene Republic of Venice. The project, which he calls the Venice Time Machine, will scan documents including maps, monographs, manuscripts and sheet music. It promises not only to open up reams of hidden history to scholars, but also to enable the researchers to search and cross-reference the information, thanks to advances in machine-learning technologies.
If it succeeds, it will pave the way for an even more ambitious project to link similar time machines in Europe’s historic centres of culture and commerce, revealing in unprecedented detail how social networks, trade and knowledge have developed over centuries across the continent. It would serve as a Google and Facebook for generations long past, says Kaplan, who directs the Digital Humanities Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).
Although the previous decade has seen many digital-humanities projects that scan, annotate and index manuscripts, this one stands out because of its ambitious scale and the new technologies it hopes to use: from state-of-the-art scanners that could even read unopened books, to adaptable algorithms that will turn handwritten documents into digital, searchable text.
A reader that can scan the contents of a book without that book being opened?
Marvelous for scholars -- but rather spine chilling for writers and publishers.  Could these dedicated scientists open a Pandora's box of unintended consequences?  After all, that is the story of the internet so far....

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