Art historians are able to do more and more research from home with the availability of many articles on JSTOR and many books at least in part on Google Books and even on Amazon.com’s “search inside” feature. Even more than new books, old books – really old books – are often digitalized both for conservation and accessibility reasons, and for the fact that they are far beyond copyright restrictions. There are numerous resources online for early printed books or Renaissance texts that should be brought to the attention not just of specialist scholars but of all interested “students” of the past. If you have never had the chance to browse a rare old book, this is your chance, albeit virtual.
Looking at books online not the same as touching and smelling the real books, but these amazing research tools can provide a first exposure to early modern printed books. This can be exciting for undergraduates or for anyone with a general interest in history. Graduate students may find these collections useful to establish which works they need to travel to see while preparing grant applications.
Today I was amazed to find various editions of a sixteenth-century Italian printed book that I need for research in the Internet Archive Text Collection project. Frankly, it would be very difficult, if not impossible for me to view this many editions of the same book in any one city, and I am able to compare editions on my screen.
The internet archive’s goal is to digitize libraries in order to “change the content of the Internet from ephemera to enduring artifacts of our political and cultural lives” and they have been doing so since 1996. Some books are available in a very nice flip-format (see below), while others (such as the “Project Gutenberg”) are in text format. I found my 1574 first Italian illustrated edition of Paolo Giovio’s Dialogo delle Imprese on this website! As this system does not have an effective full text search, you have to have a decent sense of what you are looking for, but be patient and you are likely to turn up something useful. If you’re just a browser, the most popular books are listed under each collection.
Here is an example of a very useful book for identifying iconography in Renaissance art – Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia – an illustrated version of 1603 published in Siena and digitized by the Getty Research Institute. The woodcut illustrations and the text describe the attributes of allegorical figures such as plentitude or intelligence.
As digital research is so very important for art history, I think I will post more articles on this in the future – please let me know if you find this useful or interesting.