Roundtable on the State of Digital Humanities in Italian Studies (MLA Convention 2017)

In January 2017 the MLA’s Forum on 20th- and 21st-Century Italian sponsored a roundtable on digital humanities and Italian studies at the Association’s annual convention. The purpose of the roundtable was twofold: first, to provide interested colleagues with a venue in which they might discuss and receive useful feedback on individual DH projects and, second, to engage in a meaningful discussion of the current relationship between the digital humanities and Italian studies as a field.

Historical accounts of the digital humanities often cite Italian contributions as foundational to the field’s development, from literary works and the methodologies used to study them to theoretical interventions on the concept of the text itself. Seminal Italian figures in the field of humanities computing include Jesuit priest Roberto Busa, whose decades-long collaboration with IBM produced the Index Thomisticus in the second half of the 20th century, and Franco Moretti, the founder of Stanford University’s Literary Lab and author of such pioneering works as Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2005) and Distant Reading (2013). Despite the apparent significance of Italian studies to digital humanities, the latter are virtually invisible in traditional outputs of academic scholarship in our field. Indeed, a brief survey of the last five years covered by the MLA International Bibliography and of conferences sponsored by the principal organizations representing Italian studies in the United States over the same period reveals few works, panels, or presentations overtly linking their Italian subjects to the tools and applications made available through the digital humanities. (This informal survey excludes works whose primary focus is on the pedagogical uses of digital technologies in the foreign language classroom).

The roundtable sought to raise awareness of recent DH work in Italian studies by presenting a broad array of perspectives from Italianists at diverse stages of their careers and with different levels of institutional support for their projects. Participants represented all academic ranks and the kinds of postsecondary institutions in which Italian programs are most typically found in North America. Their research areas represented the principal specializations within Italian studies, from the medieval and early modern periods (Petrarch’s verse, Ariosto and the Renaissance epic, Galileo and the history of ideas in the Renaissance) to the modern period (contemporary Milanese poetry and Italian cinema). Some of the questions addressed during the roundtable included:

  • How does Italian studies utilize DH?
  • Where does DH work in Italian stand relative to other foreign language and literature fields?
  • Which institutions (undergraduate and graduate) with Italian programs offer support for colleagues interested in utilizing DH tools and applications in their research and teaching?
  • What kinds of tools/applications are supported?
  • How are faculty DH projects in Italian studies currently being assessed for tenure and promotion?
  • Where is DH work in Italian studies primarily being published? (If not in traditional journals of Italian studies, then in print and/or e-journals dedicated to DH?)
  • How are junior scholars in Italian being discouraged or encouraged to engage in DH work?

Position Papers
Roundtable participants made available brief position papers in which they described their individual DH projects.  The discussion at the MLA touched on these individual projects as well as the broader questions listed above.

Crystal Hall: “Galileo’s Library at the Intersection of Digital Humanities and Italian Studies.”

Serena Ferrando: “City of Water. Uncovering Milan’s Aquatic Geographies. A Digital Humanities Lab.”

Brendan Hennessey: “An Introduction to the University of Notre Dame’s Wagstaff Digital Archive of Italian Film.”

Daniel Leiswitz: “The Orlando Furioso Atlas: Mapping the Possibilities and Challenges in Digital Italian Studies.”

Massimo Lollini: “Reading, Rewriting and Encoding Petrarca’s Rvf as Hypertext.”

Isabella Magni: “Petrarchive. An Edition of Petrarch’s Rerum vulgarium fragmenta. Edited by H. Wayne Storey and John A. Walsh, with the Collaboration of Isabella Magni.”

Participant Bios
Crystal Hall (Presider) is Associate Professor of Digital Humanities and Co-Director of Digital and Computational Studies at Bowdoin College, where she teaches courses on the relationship between technology and scholarly practice. Her research specialization is Renaissance and Early Modern Italy and her digital project on Galileo’s library builds on the research completed and the questions raised by her first book, Galileo’s Reading (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Allison Cooper (Co-presider) is Assistant Professor of Romance Languages and Cinema Studies at Bowdoin College. She has published on contemporary Italian cinema and Italian modernism, including articles on the films Certi bambini and Romanzo criminale as well as on early-twentieth century poets and writers such as Giuseppe Ungaretti and Paola Masino. She is currently at work on Modern Rome between the Sacred and the Profane, a book-length analysis of filmic representations of Rome and their treatment of the city’s dual identity as capital of the Catholic Church and capital of the Italian state. She is curator of the Bowdoin Digital Clip Archive, a searchable repository of digitized film clips enriched with metadata.

Serena Ferrando is Assistant Professor of Italian at Colby College. She has published on modern and contemporary Italian literature, including articles on poet Alda Merini and novelist Dino Buzzati. Her book in progress, Water in Milan, is an ecocritical study of water in contemporary Milanese poetry that offers a new literary-cultural narrative of the relationship between poetry and nature. In conjunction with her book she is developing a digital humanities project to map the cultural history of water in Milan.

Brendan Hennessey is Assistant Professor of Italian at Binghamton University. His research focuses on modern and contemporary Italian film, visual culture, and literature. He is currently authoring a monograph on director Luchino Visconti that analyzes the balance between formalism and realism in postwar Italian adaptation. His scholarly interests include: auteur and popular cinema, representations of technology, theories of adaptation and Italian American cultural studies. He is Curator of the Wagstaff Digital Archive of Italian Film at the University of Notre Dame.

Daniel Leisawitz is Lecturer in Italian and Director of the Italian Studies Program at Muhlenberg College. His research involves the intersection between technology and literature, the representation of Renaissance literature in Italian cinema, and Jewish-Italian culture. His latest article, on the 16th-century Mantuan dramaturge and stage director Leone de’ Sommi, was published in the most recent edition of Italica. He is in the initial stages of constructing The Orlando Furioso Atlas, a hyperlinked concordance of Ariosto’s epic that will integrate textual and cartographic data.

Massimo Lollini is the Hazantonis Distinguished Fellow in Italian and Professor of Comparative Literature and Romance Languages at the University of Oregon. He has written widely on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature as well as on modern literature, including Le muse, le maschere e il sublime: Giambattista Vico e la poesia nell’età della ‘ragione spiegata’ (Guida, 1994) and Il vuoto della forma. Scrittura, testimonianza e verità (Marietti, 2001), which received the Premio Letterario Nazionale “Grazia Maria Deledda” in Italy and the American Association for Italian Studies Book Award in the USA. He is the co-editor of two volumes of essays, one with David Castillo, Reason and its Others: Italy, Spain and the New World (Vanderbilt UP, 2006) and another, with Norma Bouchard, Reading and Writing the Mediterranean: Essays by Vincenzo Consolo (Toronto UP, 2006). He is the principal investigator of The Oregon Petrarch Open Book, a working database-driven hypertext in and around Petrarch’s Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta (Canzoniere), and the editor in chief of Humanist Studies & the Digital Age, a peer-reviewed e-journal devoted to the reformulation of received philological and philosophical ideas of writing and reading literary words in the age of electronic texts.

Isabella Magni earned her Bachelor and Master’s Degrees at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan (Italy), with a focus on French and British literature, with a second Master’s Degree in Italian and Medieval studies from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. She is currently a PhD candidate in Italian with a focus on digital humanities, Petrarch, and early Italian and Occitan literature. For the past three years she has served as the principal assistant on the project, collaborating with Wayne Storey and John Walsh in the production of the new rich-text digital edition of the Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta, a project funded by IU’s New Frontiers initiative (2013–14) and by the NEH (2014–2017).

Dennis Looney (Respondent) is Director of Programs and Director of the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages (ADFL) at the Modern Language Association. He was a professor of Italian, with a secondary appointment in Classics, at the University of Pittsburgh from 1986-2013.