Throughout their history, universities and colleges have produced, both directly and indirectly, a wealth of diverse documentary material: statutes, rotuli of the professorships, acts of the universitates and of the colleges of doctors, acts pertaining to graduations, registers and acts of the nationes, speeches (on the opening of the academic year, feast-days of patron saints, the appointment of rectors, teachers taking up their posts, the presentation of candidates at their final examinations), reform projects, assessments, disputes, besides, obviously, the books produced by individual university teachers. To these types of documents we must add a further one: the documents which until the eighteenth century were generally called paginae, that is to say, the inaugural lectures of the single courses held at the Philosophical-Physical, Medical, Juridical and Theological “Faculties” or “Colleges” of universities during the Renaissance and the Modern Age.
They are texts that are frequently only a few pages long, in many cases extant in a single copy, at times printed, at others manuscript, not always gathered into coherent, well-identified collections, and, with a few exceptions, almost unknown. Until a few years ago, scholars focussed their attention on specific texts by authors that were already famous; as a result, catalogues of these types of document are still very rare. Nevertheless, it is precisely the paginae, in their programmatic and (frequently) promotional nature, that offer an efficient key to understanding the ways in which, within universities, philosophical, physical, medical, juridical and theological traditions and innovations were presented, formulated or reformulated, spoken or unspoken, developed and transmitted to students. Thus a systematic enquiry into these documents may well improve our understanding of three centuries of cultural history significantly.
Owing to the dispersion of these documents, two fundamental activities would help scholars to study them: first, a systematic search for extant exemplars of them: second, the creation of a digital archive that can provide universal and easy access to their descriptions, digital photographs and transcriptions by means of a single Web portal dedicated specifically to this end. Such a systematic search, which involves locating, cataloguing, reproducing by digital photography and editing this entire class of documents, is far beyond the reach of a single research team. However, starting with the concrete case of a few documents relative to the University of Padua and conserved in a specific series in its archives, the foundations have been laid for the second of the above-mentioned means of assisting scholars. The outcome of this work is DArIL: the Digital Archive of Inaugural Lectures at Renaissance and Early Modern Universities.
DArIL’s contents and functions
At present, the DArIL database comprises 110 documents preserved in a specific archive series in the Archivio Antico of the University of Padua: a series concerning inaugural lectures held by teachers of the artistae chairs at the Gymnasium Patavinum from the second half of the seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth.
Of these 110 documents, 24 are manuscript texts and 86 printed. In the case of the manuscripts, their description, digital photo-reproduction and semi-diplomatic transcription encoded in xml/TEI language have been put at scholars’ disposal. In the case of the printed texts, in most cases the documents have only been described and reproduced by digital photography. The choice not to provide, in the case of printed documents, the transcription of all the documents was dictated by two factors. First, reading manuscript texts requires the assistence of a professional philologist while printed texts can be read without difficulty. Second, it was foreseen that at the end of 2011 scholars would have at their disposal the results of the IMPACT project (cf. http://www.impact-project.eu/ and http://www.digitisation.eu/), that is to say, a set of tools for the digitisation and OCR of ancient texts. For these reasons, it was preferred not to dedicate resources to the systematic transcription of printed paginae. Nevertheless, for experimental purposes, it was decided to proceed with the transcription, using OCR tools already available on the market in 2009, of 11 printed texts, of which, therefore, the semi-diplomatic encoded transcription is also provided.
As far as the contents of the documents are concerned, they are inaugural lectures drawn up in the course of over a century at the University of Padua, pertaining to a variety of subjects, from physics, biblical exegesis and rhetoric to anatomy, natural history and metaphysics. These texts were written following different procedures. Some manuscripts, for example, may have been written by the same lecturer who would then read them on the occasion of the inaugural speech of his own course; others were probably written by professional scribes and subsequently revised, perhaps by the author himself. Moreover, although they are all paginae, these documents present significantly different characteristics. In some cases they are general presentations, above all for promotional purposes, of topics that would be dealt with at a later date during the course. In other cases, they are simply the first lesson of a course. In still other cases, they are speeches, or disputes (taken in the broadest sense, that is to say, discussions concerning a certain topic), or dissertations, dedicated to a specific topic and only generically connected to the subjects tackled in the following course of lectures.
All the documents in DArIL can be retrieved through five access points, found in the section ‘Texts’: ‘Authors’, ‘Universities, ‘Date’, ‘Types’ and ‘Subjects’. The names and surnames of the authors are presented in standard form, that is to say, usually in the vernacular form that the authors themselves used most frequently or, when there is no certainty about this form, in the form that they chose in their works. Under the item ‘Universities’ there is, at present, only one entry, i.e. Padua University. ‘Types’ indicates the kind of inaugural lecture. It is determined on the basis of the way in which the various authors of the documents included in DarIL present or define, in the documents themselves, the nature of such documents: first lecture (that is, as stated above, simply the first lecture in a course), dispute (in the broadest sense), dissertation or speech. Finally, ‘Subjects’ is an “artificial” access point, in the sense that the keywords provided in it have been established by the DArIL directors. They are an attempt to synthesize in a series of terms the historical denomination of the professors’ chairs and the subjects taught under them, on the one hand, and the different meanings that such denominations have acquired throughout the century-long history of university teaching, on the other. Therefore, this thesaurus cannot, and does not intend to, provide a taxonomy of knowledge valid for the whole period of time in which the documents included, and includable, in DArIL were produced; it intends, rather, to be a propedeutic chart that will permit the modern reader to access the unstable variety of topics dealt with in the documents.
For all documents acquired by DArIL, the system puts at users’ disposal both their complete photo-reproduction (except for blank pages), and a set of descriptive metadata relating to each document: essential catalographic description of the document, university of reference, subject(s), type, main language, responsibility for acquisition of pictures, responsibility for acquisition of text, responsibility for editing the edition, responsibility for encoding, Web address of the catalographic file card relative to the exemplar visualised (accessible through the label ‘OPAC’) and permanent Web address of the digital photo-reproduction retained in the system.
Artificial shadows and clearly meaningless marks have been removed from the photo-reproductions, whereas corrections of any kind and handwritten notes have always been maintained. Main distortions in perspective generated when the photograph was taken have been corrected. The graphic scale of the pages and characters has been optimised to facilitate reading; this, however, means that this scale is not the same for all the documents. The system enables the user to exploit functions such as exploring (by enlarging, reducing and shifting) the picture of the document and to download its photo-reproductions in PDF format.
In the case of documents acquired by DArIL in the form of transcriptions, users can also dispose of the text in the form of a semi-diplomatic encoded edition, that is to say with the description of numerous structural, semantic and critical phenomena. Some of the phenomena identified and encoded are lay-out of pages, notes, names (of people, places, institutions, currents of thought, university chairs), titles of works, quotations, lines of poetry, date of the inaugural lecture, professor responsible for the course, subject of the opening speech, critical phenomena (additions, erasures, corrections, interpretation cruces, classical forms of terms, repetitions) and gaps in the text. Editorial and encoding criteria are described analytically in the Manual for the Preparation of the Constituent Components of the DArIL Database (in Italian only, for the present), which can be freely downloaded and consulted. Nevertheless, since it is virtually impossibile to find a unique methodology that is universally valid for editing such diverse texts, the editors were obliged to define, along with general editorial criteria, some particular editorial criteria specific to individual texts; these criteria are given and declared in the metadata relative to the individual document.
If the transcription of the text is to be found in the system, users can dispose of various functions besides those available for documents whose photo-reproduction alone is available. First of all, they can search the text freely or through encoded lists of names (of people, places, institutions, currents of thought and university chairs). These functions are to be found respectively in the section ‘Advanced search’ and in the section ‘Lists of names’. Furthermore, users have the chance to visualise the photo-reproduction of the document alone, the transcription alone or at the same time the photo-reproductions of the pages of the documents together with their transcription. Finally, when visualising the transcription, they have the chance to activate or deactivate the visualisation of the semantic and critical phenomena that have been identified and encoded. For information concerning the characteristics of the functions and conventions used in the description of the critical phenomena, see the Guide and the Legend.
Finally, it can be noticed that DArIL interoperates with the following catalogues and databases: Catalogue of the Library System of the University of Padua, Phaidra, Europeana.
Improvement and expansion of DArIL: how to participate
Although the infrastructure of DArIL has been created with the immediate aim of providing scholars with a relatively small group of documents, it has been set up with a far more extensive aim: to permit the archive to include and save metadata, digital photo-reproductions and semi-diplomatic encoded editions of any inaugural lecture produced at any university or college from the beginning of the Renaissance to the years around the end of the eighteenth century, and to make all this accessible via Web to the scientific comunity. Setting up DArIL, therefore, does not represent the conclusion of a research project that led to its creation but is rather a fundamental stage in the full deployment of the initial project idea. Hence, the structure of the system offers the possibility to invite the scientific comunity to partecipate actively in the improvement and expansion of the digital archive.
As far as the improvement of the system is concerned, the board of directors of DArIL will be pleased to receive both indications concerning possible improvements in the functioning of the portal and any indications concerning errors (whether of editing or of encoding) found in the database. As far as the expansion of the archive is concerned, as we have said, DArIL has been set up with the precise aim of including descriptions, digital photo-reproductions and transcriptions of paginae produced in the years from the Renaissance to well within modern times, whatever their origin and wherever they may be conserved. Anyone can submit to the DArIL directors material to be stored in the database, whether photo-reproductions and semidiplomatic encoded transcriptions, simply digital photo-reproductions and semidiplomatic transcriptions, or simply digital photo-reproductions. The rules for preparing this material are set out analytically in the above-mentioned Manual for the Preparation of the Constituent Components of the DArIL Database, which can be freely downloaded. The necessary authority files – according to the explanation given in the Manual – are contained in the DArIL_Authority.zip file, which can also be freely downloaded.
Any activity on the part of scholars who wish to collaborate with the expansion of the DArIL database will be explicitly and clearly acknowledged: acquisition of images, acquisition of text, text editing and encoding. Individual scholars or research teams may partecipate in one or more of these activities; their work will always be explicitly recognised and declared in the metadata accompanying each single document, and anyone who browses it will be able to see it.
For requests, suggestions and proposals, please contact the editors by writing to: direzione[at]daril.eu.