Virtual Humanities Lab: Looking Ahead

Presenters: Dino Buzzetti, Massimo Riva
Date: Friday, 24 November 2017
Time: 10am-12:30pm and 2pm-4:30pm
Location: Fisher Exhibition Meeting Room 1 (233), Level 2, Fisher Library

This workshop aims to present and discuss future directions of the Virtual Humanities Lab, a Brown University-based initiative, which provides a portal for interdisciplinary projects in Italian Studies and a platform for the encoding and annotations of a mini-corpus of late Medieval and humanist texts, including: Giovanni Villani, Nuova Cronica; Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron and Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante; Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oratio De Hominis Dignitate and Conclusiones Nongentae. It will showcase various features of the VHL and focus particularly on the Pico Project, which uses the VHL platform to allow scholars and students of the Renaissance humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) to contribute to the translation and annotation of the some of his works from anywhere in the world in a collaborative digital setting. The workshop will provide an opportunity to address critical issues concerning the future of digital editing: the evolution of remote collaboration and text mining techniques to be employed for textual analysis. The workshop will be run by Dino Buzzetti and Massimo Riva, and facilitated by Francesco Borghesi (Department of Italian Studies).

Massimo Riva, Brown University
The Virtual Humanities Lab at Brown University: A Short History

A crucial aspect of the digital humanities is envisioning and facilitating the emergent forms of collaborative scholarship that can take advantage of the extraordinary capabilities offered by technological developments. In this rapidly changing environment, over the past twenty years, my collaborators and I at Brown University have been particularly concerned with the transformation of the traditional research infrastructure in the digital age. The Virtual Humanities Lab at Brown University, or VHL, was created in 2004 thanks to a two-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Since its inception, the VHL has been an international endeavor: contributing scholars are located in the U.S., Europe (Italy and the U.K.), Latin America (Mexico and Argentina), and Australia. In its original configuration, the VHL included a platform for the collaborative encoding, annotating and publishing of a sample of late-medieval (fourteenth- and fifteenth-century) texts, in Italian and Latin. These included: a narrative text (Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron); a literary commentary (Boccaccio’s Expositions on Dante’s Comedy); a historical chronicle (the final book of Giovanni Villani’s New Chronicle); an oration (Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s De Hominis Dignitate); and a theological-philosophical treatise (Pico’s Conclusiones Nongentae). Collaborative editing was seen as a meaningful way to experimentally engage new techniques and methodologies applied to a diverse textual typology, representative of the humanist “Italian” tradition. Scholars and students, apprentice digital humanists, would train themselves in the new methods and the use of the new tools, while attending at their work in progress. More recently, in collaboration with the Brown Library, the VHL has included projects which focus on the development of library collections and archives, with an emphasis on visualization, such as the Garibaldi Panorama & the Risorgimento Archive, and the Theater that Was Rome. Data-driven projects are a potentially new area of development for the VHL.

Massimo Riva is Professor of Italian Studies and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. Educated in both Italy and the U.S., Massimo Riva has taught at Brown since 1990. His most recent books include:Pinocchio Digitale. Post-umanesimo e Iper-romanzo(Digital Pinocchio. Posthumanism and the Hypernovel, Milan, 2012), andIl futuro della letteratura. L'opera letteraria nell'epoca della sua (ri)producibilità digitale(The Future of Literature. The literary work of art in the age of its digital [re]production, Naples, 2011). He is the editor ofItalian Tales. An Anthology of Contemporary Italian Fiction(Yale, 2004) and the co-editor (with F. Borghesi andM. Papio)of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola,Oration on the Dignity of Man. A New Translation and Commentary(Cambridge, 2012). His NEH and ACLS-Mellon supported digital projects are now part of theVirtual Humanities Labthat he directs.They include theDecameron Web, the Pico Project, and theGaribaldi Panorama and the Risorgimentoarchive.This project was featured in the Italian pavilion at the 23rd general conference of the International Council of Museums, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2013, and various exhibits, at the British Library in London and museums in Italy and the U.S.He is currently at work on a digital monograph tentatively entitled:Italian Shadows. The Virtual Life of Casanovaand Other Tales of Imaginary or Forgotten Media, selected for the Brown Digital Publication Initiative funded by a grant of the Mellon Foundation.

Dino Buzzetti, Università di Bologna
The Pico Project and the Future of Digital Humanities

Text mining techniques have recently reached a high and quite sophisticated degree of efficiency, so as to be usefully employed for specific text analysis purposes. The research activity of the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project at the University of Chicago offers an instructive case of the application of digital-assisted approaches to text analysis in the successive stages of development of computational tools applied to textual studies. ARTFL scholars distinguish three successive main stages of development of computational tools that enable three distinct hermeneutical approaches, focussing respectively on “the interaction of digital methods with the text, the context, and the intertext” (Roe 2014, 89). Text mining methods would then seem quite helpful in dealing with problems of intertextuality, such as finding the sources of Pico’s Nine Hundred Theses, as well as in tackling complex problems of contextual semantic analysis.
Since text mining procedures range over a large group of algorithms and machine learning techniques, an epistemological assessment of their respective heuristic force deserves careful consideration. Some data mining applications based on artificial adaptive systems (Tastle 2013) create models whose dynamics, in certain respects, develops independently from the observed data. These models, automatically produced, can then be construed both as newly generated interpretive models and as objective representations of the texts under scrutiny.The importance of this specific property of certain text mining applications for precise text analysis purposes cannot be overestimated. But besides heir relevance for the analysis of Pico’s texts, their employment can have wider implications for the development of digital humanities as such. The relative independence of the model from the observed text can be considered a kind of self-representation of the text as seen by an observer or, for that matter, by an interpreter. The inclusion of the interpreter’s point of view in a representation of the text obtained trough an automatically generated model can indeed promote a new and promising convergence of methods between the hard sciences and the humanities: from this point of view, the hermeneutic circle does not seem an exclusive principle of the human sciences anymore. An insightful awareness of the epistemological impact that digital humanities can exert in fostering a rapprochement of the ‘two cultures’ would enhance their role as an active theoretical discipline and prevent their drift, perceivable already, towards a dull, passive, and merely technology-driven development.
Roe, Glenn. 2014. “L’étude littéraire à l’ère du numérique: du texte à l’intertexte dans les ‘digital humanities’.” In Literaturwissenschaft im digitalen Medienwandel, edited by Christof Schöch and Lars Schneider, [85–111]. PhiN Beiheft, 7. Accessed 4 March 2017.
Tastle, William J., ed. 2013. Data Mining Applications Using Artificial Adaptive Systems. New York, NY: Springer.

Dino Buzzetti was born in Bologna in 1941. Educated in Milan and in Bologna, he graduated in the History of Philosophy at the University of Bologna. Since then, he has carried on his teaching and research activities at that university. From 1982 to his retirement (2010) he served as Associate Professor in the History of Medieval Philosophy. He was afterwards admitted as a research fellow to the Fondazione per le Scienze Religiose Giovanni XXIII in Bologna. He also gave courses in Ancient Philosophy (1985-1991) at the Faculty of Arts in Bologna, and in Historical Documents Processing (1993-2001) at the Faculty of Preservation of the Cultural Heritage, in the Ravenna campus. He was awarded an Alexander-von-Humboldt Research Fellowship at the universities of Münster (1975-76), Göttingen (1993) and Cologne (2001), and an Exchange Fellowship at Brown University (1998, 2004); he was invited as visiting professor at the University Bergen (1998), and for a course to doctoral students on The Neoplatonic Tradition, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City. His research interests and publications are chiefly focused on the history of logical theories and their relations to the philosophical and theological doctrines of influential authors-modern (John Stuart Mill, Locke, Bultmann), medieval (John Duns Scotus) and late-antique (Proclus).
He is honorary president of the Italian association for humanities computing and digital culture (AIUCD). In this domain, he works on digital text representation, markup theory, and digital scholarly editions of manuscript texts. He also gave courses in Humanities Computing to philosophy students (2004-2010).