Project Background

The book, in the form known as the codex that we recognize today, has served since the fifth century as the primary container for disseminating knowledge within Western culture. Although the means of forming letters and adhering them to various surfaces has significantly evolved, the basic book format has remained fairly constant until the last few decades. As the twenty-first century winds up its second decade, keeping up with the evolution of knowledge itself, along with the means/manner of its evolving containers—is a daunting task.

The BASIRA Project, made possible by today’s digital humanities technologies, examines the visual culture of books during the Renaissance—the period when moveable type and the printing press generated the last large change in the book as a knowledge container. How might social responses and adaptations revealed in art from that time apply to the present?

One does not have to search far to find a book in a work of Renaissance art. Books are featured in paintings, sculptures, illuminations, reliefs and prints, and in contexts both sacred and secular. Unlike other objects that have received their icono­graphical due, books (perhaps because of their ubiquity) have not yet been commented upon in detail in the scholarly iconographical literature of art history.

Operating in a border zone between art history and the history of the book, the BASIRA team hopes to to detect patterns not yet explored by assembling a searchable database of works of Renaissance art that depict books. This endeavor is made possible by the current widespread availability of visual records and database software.

What might we learn from studying and categorizing images of people using and holding books? Might this inform our understanding of contemporary re-formations of containers of knowledge? Once the book was no longer an edition of one, did it feature less prominently in works of art, and what does that tell us? This display describes the methods developed for the BASIRA Project and invites your perspectives, insights, and suggestions.

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