By Hana Suckstorff
In June 2018, Eric Pecile and I spent two weeks at the Visualizing Venice Digital Art History Summer Institute, hosted by Duke’s Wired! Lab and funded by the Getty Foundation. We were welcomed warmly, though as DECIMA Research Assistants we sometimes felt a bit like the odd (wo)man out. The Visualizing Venice workshop was thoroughly art-historical, while DECIMA was initially developed with a more social historical focus. What exactly does information about who lived where, what rent they paid, and what profession they practiced have to do with art history? As we took other workshop participants behind the scenes of our database and into the first stages of our 3D modelling, workshop leader Paul Jaskot repeatedly asked those in the other groups: what are your critical art historical questions? And why are digital methods the best way to answer them?
Representatives of the 10 different projects from across North America and Europe re-convened regularly by means of monthly Zoom check-ins through the course of 2018-19. We then had the opportunity to participate in round two of the workshop this past June, It was, as always, good to see folks again and hear how they’ve been doing in the meantime: new jobs, new cities, new homes. As one of our fellow participants remarked, the workshop created a real sense of community, one that can be sustained over the Internet but that is hard to build from scratch. She hopes, as I do, that the publications we hope to produce as a group reflect and develop that sense of community.
In June 2019 we made headway in thinking about DECIMA’s art historical applications. As Jaskot wrote in a 2019 piece in the journal Visual Resources, “The map is not the answer; the map indicates a relationship.” DECIMA is a fantastic tool for mapping relationships, and those relationships can certainly be art historical in nature. Over the week we spent together in Venice this past summer, I considered how some of the work that University of Toronto undergraduates have done with DECIMA can point us in some constructive directions. Their mapping of public shrines and tabernacles in fifteenth-century Florence immediately raises questions about why there were fewer in the Oltrarno. Beyond that, other projects have prompted questions about how artisan guilds’ artistic patronage in the city responded to Medici dukes’ claim to power, and how to read Stefano Buonsignori’s 1584 artistic rendering of the city as a political document. DECIMA has long been a platform in which scholars with varieties of expertise—plague, travel literature, historical reconstruction—can incorporate their own research data to develop questions and conclusions. The possibilities for social art historians—those who want to study art in public space, as well as art and artisans in space—are endless.
Eric and I also renewed our relationship with the Firenze Scomparsa team, whose work is very complementary to ours. Eric’s 3D rendering of the city, which he has developed in CityEngine using LIDAR-data capturing modern Florence, can provide an anchor for Firenze Scomparsa’s models of specific buildings. Both DECIMA and Firenze Scomparsa are now collaborating directly with Fabrizio Nevola’s Immersive Renaissance project, which further connects art historical and social historical inquiry. We also look forward to collaborating with other participants in the Visualizing Venice workshops on essays about digital art history for a planned publication. The group set up a framework for essays centered on broad themes that allow participants from varied projects to collaborate. I for one am interested in the question of power, both about how the Buonsignori drawing makes claims about political power, and about the power that we as modellers (and teachers who use models in class) wield to shape public perception of space and place over time. The volume will be developed over the coming year, and I’m grateful meanwhile to have had the opportunity to work with, dedicated, thoughtful scholars seeking to put digital humanities tools into the service of good research questions, instead of the other way around.