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Image archive

Virtual archive of the images of the original texts

Since 2014 The Years of the Cupola site incorporates a powerful tool for the "intelligent" viewing of the entire set of over 10,500 photographs of the archival manuscripts used by the editorial staff for the preparation of the vast textual corpus of over 21,000 acts, completed in 2009. Long-term users will recall the prototype for this system proposed in 2004. The present site offers the consultation of all the photographic material used for the edition in this innovative structure, simulating the experience of working directly with the original documents in an archive that has been "virtually restored" from the extensive damage wrought by the great flood that inundated Florence in 1966.

Photographic documentation of a flood-damaged archive

The Years of the Cupola was conceived as a purely textual digital edition of the sources of the administrative archive of the Opera of the Florentine cathedral during the planning and construction of its famous dome, 1417-1436. The inclusion of photographic reproductions of the original manuscripts was far from our imagination at the time of the project's conception in 1994, not only because images involved extravagant use of digital space in the economy of early computing, but also because the condition of the manuscripts themselves presented grave problems of legibility. The disastrous flood of 1966 had nearly washed out the script of many of the codices involved in the project, causing new and seemingly irreversible damage to an archive whose contents had already been impoverished by the loss of many account books and of every trace of graphic models and designs known to have been commissioned for the cupola effort.

Nevertheless, as pioneer computational editors, we were extremely grateful to find the 1958 black and white microfilm for 19 of 31 codices designated for the edition, and from the start we used printouts from these reels to supplement visual scrutiny and hand-held ultraviolet lamps to enhance our ability to read the most faded passages of the texts. Meanwhile, the idea of adding images even to the early stages of the edition, originally foreseen as a local archive service with possible CD distribution, was tested in the first formal presentation of the project in 1997 at the VII centenary conference of the cathedral.

The big step forward in photography's integration into the project came in 1999 through a fortunate collaboration with the Department of Conservation of manuscripts of the Fachhochschule of Cologne, which, under the direction of Robert Fuchs, undertook to photograph the most damaged codices for which no previous photography existed. Using experimental equipment inspired on police applications, the Cologne équipe contributed nearly 6,500 images photographed with a digital camera under low intensity ultraviolet lighting, which, after image processing, dramatically improved the editors' ability to decipher the flooded script. At the same time the existing microfilm was digitized and re-formatted in order to facilitate consultation.

From prototype to virtual archive

In 1999 collaboration had already begun with the Max Planck Institute of the History of Science in Berlin under the generous leadership of Jürgen Renn for the creation of an HTML internet representation of the original textual database (DBT). The question of offering consultation of the existing images to the general public, however, required special tools that would assist the user in contextualizing details and individual documents on damaged pages and in maintaining the awareness of the photographic medium as a reading device rather than a representation of reality. The creative programming of Jochen Büttner produced the prototype of a consultation structure presented on the growing site already in 2004, a viewing tool that managed the variables determined by the heterogeneous nature of the documentation and photographic archive.

Already in 2004 with the support of the ECHO (European Cultural Heritage Online) initiative new full page digital photography had been acquired on which to map the special photography details, and additional UV details had been executed for the great register of deliberations covering the key years 1425-1436, bringing the project's photographic holdings to over 10,500 images of various types. To put these to good use in the guided consultation environment, 21,165 markings of individual documents and 6,444 of detail photography needed to be made manually by qualified collaborators. An open competition launched by the Opera selected two such scholars, Ilaria Becattini and Pierluigi Terenzi, who accomplished this prodigious task under the guidance of the historic directors of the of the project in 2013, while Büttner, from Berlin, updated and refined the working and viewing environments, whereby it was possible to record the coordinates of the marked areas on the general photographs with simple and intuitive graphic framing.

The sustained efforts of all these participants have immensely enriched the vast textual archive of the Years of the Cupola. The project remains unique in its objectives of completeness and depth in the edition of archival sources, but now possesses a powerful and intelligent tool for its accountability in the face of the original manuscripts in whatever condition they have come down to us or been recorded in photographs. The expert scholar and the sceptic will no doubt appreciate the opportunity to "see for oneself" the script that has been transcribed into digital language. The neophyte or curious amateur may enjoy the opportunity to learn by example from the vast corpus of transcriptions and images that can be viewed conveniently side by side. The editorial criteria of the textual edition, which include information on the scribes' hands page to page, act to act, in the description of the archival units, supply the basis for new and specific studies capable of meeting the standards of demanding philologists. The project not only has a documented past. It now has an even more flexible future in the hands of tomorrow's researchers.


We invite you to visit the virtual archive of the manuscripts recording the cupola years in the Archive of the Opera of Santa Maria del Fiore. It can be entered from any active document entry by clicking on the red view image button. From there you are free to navigate the entire archive by the browse method or to return to the textual archive for structured research, always with the option of image viewing of the original texts.

For specific instructions on the use of the dual level viewing and image management environments, Overview and Digilib, please see the Image viewing section in the Guide pages of the site.

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