PoLet500: an updated overview of an Italian DH project

di Antonello Fabio Caterino, bimestre settembre/ottobre 2018 (15 ottobre)

PoLet500 aims to develop the first database of literary controversies in the Italian Cinquecento (http://www.nuovorinascimento.org/polet500/). The project addresses a gap in scholarship, since available studies on this topic are scant and not up-to-date and intends to cross the traditional disciplinary boundaries. Thus, this research will make available to scholars of many disciplines a wealth of information insofar understudied if not totally neglected.

We consider a literary controversy as a conflict of opinion between two or more literates about literary subjects of different nature, directly testified to by the texts that constitute the framework of the controversy or indirectly by the testimonies of contemporaries.

This contrast may have the most diverse origins: it can be actually an argument on a delicate subject, an “excuse” to voice individual, political, ideological contrasts, or it can be merely adherence to the literary topos of the invective, and thus an absolutely artificial artifact used to advertising or self-referencing purposes etc.

Literary arguments too are not limited to mere issues of poetics, language, and style, but they can well extend to censorship, art, political, social and spiritual arguments. Moreover, the literates were never alien to their social context. As a consequence, the study of literary controversies is quintessentially interdisciplinary, and can offer useful materials to scholars from across all disciplines.

The fully questionable computer database PoLet500 project finds its premise in a critical vacuum to fill. In fact, scientific literature is certainly not lacking in specific studies on various literary works concerning controversies of the sixteenth century, sometimes included in well-detailed biographical studies. On the other hand, there is little interest in collecting data in a perspective focused on the whole century and in drawing a state of the art on the role of literary controversy in the Italian Cinquecento.

The history of literary controversy studies dates back to the end of the nineteenth century, when biographical and specific studies of substantially good quality (i.e. the eighteenth-century Scrittori d’Italia by G. Mazzuchelli) were published. Yet, these studies merely offered a summary list of querelles or some quick reference to them, lacking an overall interpretation. It was necessary to wait until the 1940s, when the work of the Swiss scholar Giovanni Laini appeared (Polemiche letterarie del Cinquecento, Mendrisio, Stucchi, 1944). Nowadays, his work can be considered as the most extensive and systematic work on the subject.

Unfortunately, this work is quite controversial and flawed, showing little accuracy, too much confidence in the erudite bibliography of the previous century, and resorting to categories at times insufficient to perform a proper indexing. This inevitably adds to the chronological question. Seventy years have elapsed since Giovanni Laini published his work in the mid-1940s. As a consequence, the volume does not take into account the specific bibliography that has since appeared on the single controversies. A viable way to update this work could be reviewing the sample cases of controversies offered in the light of the new bibliography and investigation tools. However, some difficulties remain, linked to the reliability of the editions of the texts on which the controversy is based, and to the indexing of the same.

Therefore, we intend not only to reconsider the various controversies, but to rethink the form of the study in its entirety. To clarify, the book-form was only sufficient to contain all the basic information for the analysis of the individual case. It is much more functional to think of such a research as a job of filing. However, even the cards would need indexes, and in any case would be related to a large number of texts which would be impossible to republish.

So, at this point, Computer Science and Digital Humanities, are certainly helpful. The novelty of my approach resides in the building of cards – related to the various controversies – in telematic form. In this way, the indexing turns out to be simply and absolutely more user-friendly.

I thought of a card, descriptive of the single controversy, divided into two sections: a general one, including the basic information on the controversy and the main markings, and a more particular one, with specific bibliographic references.

Therefore, the cards belong to several categories and consequently appear as a result of different queries (on a traditional book, once inserted a tab in a chapter – regardless of the index – you could not do anything but play on a series of references not practical between cards and chapters).

For the texts, I have resorted to the massive digitization process of projects such as Google Books, Internet Archive, Gallica etc.: it was necessary to add to the single sheet the reference to digitized sources. In this way one can quickly use something that already exists in the network and not just as metadata.

At this point, as the IT solution looks like the best methodology to form this kind of research, one needs to think about creating a single card. The study of controversy, in the light of a common card is already a great step forward compared to Laini’s work: to ask the same questions about all controversies, regardless of the entity and the fame of the protagonists, means being systematic and treating the data with greater objectivity.

The current state of the project’s art already has some complete cards that can serve as a model to understand the functionality of the site. Here are the explanatory examples of the board structure, structured as follows:

—- Section I, General

— Title

— History

— Topics

— Characters

— Synopsis

— Author of the voice

—- Section II, References

— Bibliography

— Monograph

— Encyclopedic voices

— Book chapter / journal article

— Sources

— Epistolar

— Poetic-literary

— Historical

The PoLet500 archive will consist of a growing number of cards linked to each other by the quality of their intertextual components: the reference to the same topic or the same character, the sharing of bibliographic entries and the reference history. These are elements that are indexed in a taxonomic sense and that work on card collections, formed by user interaction with the archive.

The user’s browsing capability is offered through appropriate hyperlinks, which translate the intertextual frame of the cards into native web surfing elements.

For this reason, the choice was to develop a plan that did not envisage any kind of management content through the database but would return the entire archive, whose connections between the cards were established by the quality of hypertext references.

The two work’s levels of the software are: the actual archive, in which the cards are written; and the second level in which the cards assume the physiognomy of an appropriately transformed text file into a web page.

We chose to opt for simple and “portable” frame in defining the raw media file storage: unmarked text files with comma-separated values (CSV) that form the frame of the cards, a general file containing the description and meta-description of the card and a file for the bibliographic references. The CSV files can be either text files or spreadsheets. They guarantee a long archival durability not only obtainable through the adoption of proprietary or closed storage software and paradigms.

The use of textual material allows a certain scalability of the whole project both in terms of future developments and for providing different outputs of the card. So, the original CSV file can be converted into a Markdown+YAML file (native, is the file format used in the website version that through dedicated template application, returns compiled web pages with a user markup), JSON and XML in RSS and ATOM for feeds and others, but still unprocessed at the moment.

Due to its complexity, to the philological work and to the IT structure, PoLet500 also employs external collaborators. For this reason, it needed an IT architecture that supported a collaborative and decentralized approach and favored the division of tasks between scientific review, formal control and web publishing of the various materials.

The development and co-ordination of such a complex project requires, in addition to historical and philological skills, technical and computer expertise, especially in the fields of digital humanities (management and use of the above-mentioned technologies) and Italian Studies. Although Polet500 is not intended as a popular science project, yet its files include a synopsis easily available to everybody through the indexing of the search engines (i.e. Google). This makes it possible to access the introductory part of the card without delving into the technical and scientific references that constitutes the core section of the card. Thus, the archive has a partially public dimension.

The official institutional partner of PoLet500 is the University of Molise (Dipartimento di Scienze Umanistiche, Sociali e della Formazione). Finally, the project was selected by EADH (European Association of Digital Humanities) among the projects undertaken during the last five years that contribute meaningfully to Digital Humanities in Europe (https://eadh.org/projects/polet500-polemiche-letterarie-del-cinquecento-0).


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