Matthew Lincoln, PhD Cultural Heritage Data & Info Architecture

Sixteenth Century Society Conference

I’ve been racing to catch up on work not done during this year’s Sixteenth Century Society Conference in San Juan. But just because your conference is on a beach doesn’t mean it can’t be productive. Some bullet points from my very selective experience of the conference:

  • I’ve posted the full text and slides of my talk on the Mira calligraphiae monumenta. There were more than three people there, huzzah! In fact it was a nicely-composed panel that touched on art and nature, but also the concept of the universal collection in the sixteenth-century wunderkammer (Susan Maxwell) and its relationship (and real difference from) scientific illustration traditions from the later seventeenth century (Emily Anderson).

  • An evening roundtable on new directions in research on the arts of the early modern Netherlands touched on many interesting points. Among others, Walter Melion talked about mining religious treatises and polemics for theories of vision and art; Perry Chapman urged not only more technical art history, but computational art history as well, pointing to an article on computerized canvas thread counting; Barbara Haeger ruminated on models for interdisciplinary and collaborative work. I’d have been glad for a lengthier discussion of what “collaborative” work means for art historians and other humanists versus what it means in the sciences. Genuine multi-author works of art history are few and far between – what we call collaboration is often an anthology of single-author essays, and I am not sure from listening to this roundtable exactly when or how we might foray into multi-author models.

  • A beautiful panel called “Only Connect1: Physical and sensory engagement in Northern European art and architecture” hopped from altarpiece doors both closed and opened (Lynn Jacobs), to some stupendous images elevating (or fetishizing?) the spear wound in Christ’s side to a subject in its own right (Vibeke Olson), to the encrusted sacrementshuisen in Netherlandish churches in the age of iconoclasm (Ann-Laure van Bruaene).
  • Angela Jager of Amsterdam University presented some fascinating research from her dissertation on the low-end painting market in Amsterdam. Working from three inventories of mid-1600s dealers who specialized in cheap (under 5 guilders) paintings, Angela reached some surprising conclusions. One of her most intriguing conclusions was that the plurality of paintings stocked by each of these dealers were history paintings, and not landscapes as has generally been deduced from studies of middle- and high-brow dealer inventories.2

There were also four digital humanities sessions and a roundtable discussion at this year’s SCSC, organized by Colin Wilder of the University of South Carolina, roughly divided between mapping, network analysis, and digital discovery/pedagogy. Some of the standouts from these panels:

  • The University of Chicago’s Niall Atkinson asked us to consider the soundscape of Renaissance Florence. Working from lengthy archival research into the size, position, and ringing schedule of both civic and sacred bells in the campanille of Florence, Atkinson generated map visualizing the sounding of bells over the course of a day. This map made visible what might otherwise have been missed in disparate archival records: that the bells of Florence did not ring in isolated moments, but a conversation that reinforced Florentine civic identity.

  • David Brown of Western Ontario University’s CulturePlex presented their study of Spanish publishing networks in the seventeenth century. His team generated a database from the frontmatter of several thousand volumes describing authors, publishers, printers, censors, and so forth – all the parties necessary to publish a work at the time. Their data demonstrated the centralization of publishing in Madrid over the course of the century. They also developed a multimodal network graph from these data, however it is only in the preliminary stages. Interestingly, they hope to project a social network from this original network (which includes locations and institutions in addition to people), from which they may then pursue more conventional social network analysis.

  • The panels were concluded with a roundtable session on all matters DH. We debated the importance of data standards and formats for the humanities and other familiar DH concerns. One issue that I felt was better clarified here than anywhere else I’ve seen before was the question of how digital work should be valued for academic tenure and promotion. Wondering if months of years of working on a digital project will be rejected as as “scholarship” by a review committee is a fear that dogs many DH-ers. John Thiebault drew a thoughtful analogy, however, to the comparative value of editing a primary source translation versus producing analytical scholarly articles or books. Like the former activity, developing digital databases or editions of humanities sources is essential and valuable work. But it is categorically different work from using digital tools to analyze such data and thus produce new knowledge. I think this analogy usefully clarifies the transformative potential of digital methods to not just produce computerized versions of humanities subjects, but alter the very paths of inquiry we take. This is not to cast aspersions on digitization projects – as we all noted, they are what enable analytical DH work to happen. However I was glad to hear a reasoned pushback against valuing a digitization project as equivalent in and of itself to traditional scholarly work. Such a project must also pursue the analytical avenues offered by digital formats if it is to be ranked alongside original scholarly articles or monographs.

And last but not least, let’s not forget the few, the proud, the SCSC participants who use Twitter:

  1. The much-used phrase originally comes from E.M. Foster’s 1910 Howards End, though in this particular context it was surely a gesture towards John Sherman’s series of 1988 Mellon lectures at the National Gallery called “Only Connect: Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance” exploring how art of the Italian Renaissance demands the participation of the viewer in order to be seen, and thus interpreted, most fully. 

  2. For example, see Alan Chong, “The Market for Landscape Painting in Seventeenth-Century Holland,” in Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Landscape Painting (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987), 104–120. 

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Lincoln, Matthew D. "Sixteenth Century Society Conference." Matthew Lincoln, PhD (blog), 30 Oct 2013,

Tagged in: Digital HumanitiesConferences