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Emblematica Online: Emblem Digitization, The German Emblem Database, and The OpenEmblem Portal

Professor Mara R. Wade, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Dr. Thomas Staecker, Head, Wolfenbütteler Digital Library, Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, are the recipients of a joint NEH/DFG (DFG=German Science Foundation) grant of $350,000 over two years to digital renaissance emblem books in the collections of their respective libraries.

The grant will allow the University of Illinois and the Herzog August Bibliothek to present emblem books in an innovative digital environment and to develop the portal for a key genre of Renaissance texts and images. Emblematica Online will fulfill its goals through its three constituent activities: 1) Emblem Digitization: the complete digitization of two emblem collections of world-wide prominence; 2) The German Emblem Databases: the creation of extensive metadata with broad functionality for the German emblems of both institutions; and 3) The OpenEmblem Portal: the development of the portal as an open access research site incorporating book-level metadata from emblem digitization projects worldwide and emblem-level metadata from Illinois and the Herzog August Bibliothek (HAB). The OpenEmblem Portal offers the ability to search across significant levels of granularity, creating functional access to the entire collections of emblem books at Illinois and HAB, to book-level metadata for a number of projects worldwide, and to a large corpus of emblem-level metadata for German emblems from the collections of Illinois and the HAB. Because major search engines such as Google can find the data from these projects, the mass digitization undertaken for Emblematica Online will serve scholarly communities in Germany, the US, and beyond, for research and in higher education.

The term “semantic web” is so often used that it has almost become a meaningless buzzword. That is unfortunate since a semantic web is exactly what the portal is spinning over a unique corpus of early modern imagery and texts. By gathering 10,000 specimens of one of the most popular and widespread Renaissance art forms and by offering access to its subject matter in unprecedented depth and detail, completely new research become feasible. Creating a database of the mottos and indexing the meaning of the imagery make possible highly associative searching and browsing that by its very nature offers the opportunity of what may be called “knowledge discovery.” This concept, often used to describe new forms of research that become possible when biomedical or chemical data are collected in huge databases such as PubMed, will also be applicable to Emblematica Online. The essential analogy is that a large quantity of material is combined with sophisticated information about its content. Reliable quantitative information will become available about themes and motives in artistic and literary sources, a hitherto unknown phenomenon. Scholars using this material will no longer have to describe many thousands of images to grasp their content, but can devote their energy to new research questions.

The Renaissance emblem in its canonical form was a three-part invention consisting typically of a titular inscription, a picture, and a short text, usually in verse. The idea for a genre developed around the title the Milanese jurist Andrea Alciato had chosen for his collection of illustrated epigrams from the Greek Anthology, published in Augsburg in 1531 as Emblematum liber. The Latin juridical term emblema referred to various types of attached or inserted ornaments that did not fundamentally change the nature of the dish, drinking cup or, metaphorically, the text to which they were attached. Each combination of picture and text is to be understood as a rhetorical unit in which all parts interacts with and comments upon each other and together reorients the reader’s understanding to present a new and unexpected message. The first German emblem books were published in the last quarter of the 16th century.

Cultural objects interact with one another only through human mediation. The project proposed here provides the human interface for sophisticated scholarly inquiry of the humane sciences in a digital environment. It will provide concrete new models for the digital humanities, including

  1. creating a mirror of the OpenEmblem Portal at the HAB;
  2. comparing the DFG viewer and the METS viewer by Indiana University;
  3. managing workflows of large scale digitization with Iconclass markup and; and
  4. establishing granularity of searching book- and emblem-level metadata in the portal.

The grant recipients would like to express their profound thanks to the various members of the Society for Emblem Studies who read and commented on versions of the grant, wrote letters of support, served as consultants to our projects, attended workshops and meetings on digital emblematics over the years, and everyone who has supported our work in so many ways. (MRW)