The digitization of the Art History Institute Photo Archive is underway at the Cini Foundation Library
At the end of September, the Library of the Giorgio Cini Foundation opened its ancient doors to LINC Magazine and showed itself in all its glory. The foundation was established in 1951 on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice by Vittorio Cini in memory of his son George. The original aim was to restore the island, which had been neglected for 150 years under military occupation. The foundation hosted the 13th edition of the Future of Science, in which LINC Magazine acted as media partner. Which better opportunity to talk about the future starting from the most ancient traditions?
THE CENACOLO PALLADIANO
THE CENACOLO PALLADIANO
THE SCANNER REPLICA 360RV
THE NEW LONG SLEEVE
THE NEW LONG SLEEVE
SAN GIORGIO ISLAND
THE NEW LONG SLEEVE
THE NEW LONG SLEEVE
The Cini Foundation and the Library
«The Cini Foundation – says Emilio Quinté, Head of Communication and Marketing – wanted to bring the premises of the former Benedictine monastery built on San Giorgio Island back to their old glory, and turned them into the headquarters of cultural, artistic, social and educational institutions». The most important spaces of the old monumental building were rebuilt: the Library designed by Longhena, the Cenacolo Palladiano, the Cloister designed by Palladio and that designed by the architects Andrea and Giovanni Buora, who also built the “long sleeve”, a long corridor giving access to the monks’ cells.
Later, the “St. George School for the study of the Venetian Civilization” was founded, originally made by 4 Institutes: the Institute of Art History, the Institute of History of Literature, Music and Theatre, the Institute for the History of Society and the Venetian State, and the Institute Venice and the Far East. «The Benedictine abbey became a great centre of culture and the premises of a prestigious library – explains Quinté. All the sciences of the time were gathered in publications which could be found here».
During the restoration process, Vittorio Cini decided to devote part of the island to the professional education of war and sea orphans and another part to research. Over the years, the foundation institutes have grown and the historic library became inadequate. So, a new space for the library was needed. «The idea – carries on Quinté – was to turn the old dormitory (which had lost its function because there were no longer resident monks) into a library, and this is what was done».
The heart of the library complex inside the foundation is the New Long Sleeve, the old dormitory designed by Giovanni Buora, which was turned into a reference reading space by the milanese architect Michele De Lucchi, providing an open and multi-disciplinary access. The rooms reserved to reference reading were designed in the space once taken by the monks’ cells, which are inter-connected. The Library, which is 128 meter long, was officially opened in 2011.
The value of archives
Over the years, the foundation got hold of collections, archives and libraries relating to different subjects through acquisitions, bequests and donations. An invaluable cultural heritage which includes more than 90 collections, yielding over 5 million documents, photos and books. The subjects range from the history of Venice to literature, music, theatre and opera. «The Nino Rota Archive, for instance – explains Quinté – is stored in San Giorgio, as well as the Eleonora Duse Archive, which represents the largest and most complete collection of documents about the life and artistic career of the great Italian actress».
The Cini Foundation also stores the Tiziano Terzani Archive, holding six thousand volumes on Japan, China, India and Southeast Asia, documents from the masters Luigi Squarzina and Maurizio Scaparro, donated to the Institute for Theatre and Opera. There are also collections that belonged to art historians, forming the main core «because this library – highlights Quinté – is mainly an art history library and this is the most important institute for the study of Venetian and Veneto arts in the world».
“Venice Time Machine” and the Replica project
In this context, the initiative “Venice Time Machine” was launched, promoted by the Lausanne Polytechnic University in collaboration with Cà Foscari University and the Venice National Archive, with the aim to digitize all the information concerning the history of Venice. The material involved in the digitization project comes from two places: the National Archive and the Cini Foundation.
Replica, within this larger scale project, implies the creation of a new research engine for the study and promotion of the Venetian cultural heritage. «The Photo Archive of the Art History Institute of the foundation – explains Quinté – gathers images documenting all the artistic traditions that developed during the time of the Republic of Venice, from the foundation to the fall of the Serenissima, and up to the Eighteenth Century».
The project started with the presentation, in February 2016, of the revolutionary scanner “Replica 360rv”, curated by Adam Lowe, founder of Factum Arte in Madrid, a workshop that reproduces the most famous art works in the world. «We then started the digitization project of the Art History Institute Photo Archive, which holds over a million photographs – explains Andrea Barbon, the IT supervisor at the Cini Foundation – Today, we completed about half of the work».
We have several photo archives at the foundation, ranging from musical compositions to theatre scripts, amounting to around 2 million photographs. «The scanner – he carries on – was essential to create a tool fit to speed up the gathering of information. In the past, technology solutions were unfeasible, both as regards the time and the funds needed».
Replica 360rv makes data capture processes much quicker, despite requiring a human supervision. The collected images are treated with specific algorithms elaborated by the Lausanne Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale to facilitate data storage making the data flow automated. «This scanner – explains Emilio Quinté – is an excellent machine, so much so that we have received an extraordinary number of requests of use, and not only from Venetian organizations».
How does it work? Andrea Barbon does the explanation: «A barcode fitted on the objects selected for digitization is automatically read by the scanner and associated to a data system loaded on an internal database that drives the scanning. At this point, all the files are organized and catalogued according to the criteria set up at the beginning. This process allowed us to create a sort of automated, time-saving work flow as all the information are automatically extracted first by the scanner algorithms and secondly by the algorithms that are later applied in Lausanne where the digitized images are analysed and segmented».
The Replica research engine analyses images and identifies recurring iconographic partners. «It is possible – explains Barbon – to link several images, for example if they share common elements or to highlight a common detail such as a capital or a bell tower, and search all the images in which that specific detail occurs”. This system uses machine learning algorithms to make searches, which are AI algorithms. «The machine learns which search the user wants to make step by step, so that, if the search is wrong and the user points out the mistake, the machine corrects itself».
The target is to create a tool mainly for the use of art history scholars, suitable for doing the job that a scholar couldn’t possibly do such as comparing millions of information, thus facilitating research. Up to the present, the levels of error have been very low. «During the first test made last September – explains Barbon – we reached a figure of 67-75%; in a very short time we reached 90%”. The merit goes to the algorithms and the latest technologies which keep providing more effective results: “We are at the eve of a paradigm change, a revolution».
This model of scanner can be used with loose sheets of paper, letters, documents and drawings. At the foundation, we have a dedicated workshop for manuscripts and bound documents. «At the National Archive – says Barbon – there is an air-operated scanner that automatically turns the pages. However, it cannot be used for historic books (only on printed books from the Nineteenth century onwards, if well-preserved) because there is a risk of ruining the originals».
Can we imagine a future in which we will be able to scan a closed book? «Yes, we can. At the Lausanne Polytechnic University, but also in Warsaw and Nuremberg, the tomography technique is exploited. We saw the results: it is a CAT, a computerized axial tomography, which is extremely useful as many books cannot be opened and would be ruined if they underwent scanning». One of the most interesting issue of this working process is that it can play an important role in increasing our knowledge of the past.
«If not only present-day big data can be processed – concludes Emilio Quinté – but also those from our past history, we have a chance of making Tolstòj’s dream in War and Peace come true. We generally think that historic phenomena were influenced by great figures such as Napoleon for instance, but the truth is that many minor events contributed to generate those phenomena, which we are unable to assess. We tend to simplify but we don’t really know why events developed in a certain way because we don’t have the opportunity to process all the relevant information». This is why the systematic use of information gathered from archives, documents and personal correspondence could radically change our conception of history and open new perspectives.
(Translated by Cecilia Braghin, foto Credits Carmelo Benvenuto)