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IU professors collaborate on digital version of works by 14th-century poet Petrarch

June 27, 2013

The way H. Wayne Storey sees it, the 14th-century writer known simply as Petrarch -- who is credited with developing the Italian sonnet -- was also a talented graphic designer.

Storey, a professor of Italian in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington, said Petrarch was one of the first western European poets to lay out his poems on the manuscript page, according to a deliberate visual and physical design involving careful use of blank space.

H. Wayne Storey

H. Wayne Storey

“He used each manuscript page as a 31-line canvas, following strict rules of graphic composition that were integral to his poetic techniques and to the meaning of his poems," Storey said.

"No edition of the work since the early 15th century has followed Petrarch’s complex layouts.”

After the poet's death in 1374, his book design patterns were quickly abandoned by copyists churning out editions of his famous work.

Storey and his collaborator, John Walsh, a digital humanities and editing specialist and associate professor in the School of Informatics and Computing at IU Bloomington, are working on a project that will help share the poet's original vision with the world.

The two are creating a digital “rich text” edition of "Canzoniere," one of Petrarch’s most influential bodies of work, using the poet’s personal service copy of the work as a model.

Like many powerful bodies of poetry, "Canzoniere" -- or, as Petrarch called it, "Rerum vulgarium fragmenta" (roughly translated, “fragments of ordinary things”) -- was inspired by love.

As the story goes, Petrarch fell in love with a woman named Laura in 1327 and remained fixated on her for decades, writing a sequence of 366 poems, most of them sonnets.

While the poems are iconic in the world of literature, Storey said, few people today know what Petrarch’s famous poems were meant to look like on the page.

One of the trickiest elements of Petrarch’s poetry is what’s not there -- blank space. “For medieval copyists and poets, blank spaces serve as highly evolved punctuation,” Storey said. “In Petrarch’s manuscript, we have identified nine separate functions for blank space.”

To realize their vision of digitizing Petrarch's medieval style, Storey and Walsh are testing the limits of the  Text Encoding Initiative, an international set of guidelines for encoding machine-readable texts in the humanities and social sciences.

Working with graduate students Allie McCormack (library science and informatics) and Isabella Magni (Italian), Storey and Walsh are creating a digital model that will allow users to explore the relationship of visual layout to the meaning of Petrarch’s work.

With funding from IU's New Frontiers grants program administered by the Office of the Vice President for Research, Storey and Walsh are creating “The PetrArchive Project,” a website that will allow users to follow “microscopic” shifts in Petrarch’s work, Storey said.

petrarch archive project

H. Wayne Storey and his collaborator, John Walsh, associate professor in the School of Informatics and Computing, are working on a project that will help share 14th-century poet Petrarch's vision with the world.

Employing various contemporary web technologies, the site will be interactive and will reveal the layers of the poet’s erasures, corrections and changes through animation.

“All these phenomena will be animated so that users can watch the genesis of specific poems and how those changes alter meaning,” Storey said. “Users will be able to trace the development of single and multiple corrections in the text. In print, that is a daunting task. In the digital medium, it becomes an intriguing pleasure.”

Shortly before his death, Petrarch decided to add more poems to the end of the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta.

He took two sheets of parchment and folded them to make four chartae (eight “pages”) to insert between the last page of his manuscript (not at the end). But Petrarch miscalculated the space needed to transcribe the 23 new poems and was forced to dramatically change his standard layout. 

“He needed an additional side of a charta (one page) that would insert blank space into the collection, something that broke the unity of this part of the work," Storey said. "Our animation follows this significant shift in visual and transcriptional layout for the poem while documenting Petrarch’s own ‘distorted version’ that he had to adopt purely for material reasons.”

Eventually, the website will take on the study of the relationship between visual layout and poetic form and meaning in the work of other writers and poets.

Meanwhile, Storey and Walsh are hard at work on their collaboration to make Petrarch’s magnum opus speak anew.

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