GETTY RESEARCH INSTITUTE
While on a research visit to Los Angeles in 2009, Dr. Nuria Rodríguez Ortega, Professor and Chair of the Art History Department at the University of Málaga, uncovered a unique unpublished 17th century manuscript in the Getty Research Institute’s Special Collections. Beginning as a collaboration between Ortega and Dr. Murtha Baca, a scholar of Renaissance and Baroque Italian art and literature and the head of Digital Art History at the Getty Research Institute (GRI), the pioneering “Digital Mellini” project was formed. The project was envisioned as a foray into “using the Web as an innovative and productive way to develop discipline-specific research tools and to present and publish scholarly, authoritative work” (Baca, 2013).
At the heart of the endeavor is a document authored by Pietro Mellini in 1681. Written in historic Italian, the manuscript, entitled “Relatione delle pitture migliori di Casa Mellini,” is a rhyming inventory of the best paintings and drawings from his family’s collection in Rome. In the introduction, the work addresses itself to Cardinal Savo Mellini, Pietro’s brother who was papal nuncio in Spain at the time; however, the purpose of the document remains unclear. Jorge Fernandez-Santos Ortiz-Iribas has written about another inventory also produced by Pietro Mellini regarding the collection in the Palazzo del Rosario completed in a more standard prose format the year before (1680), which is currently preserved in the family archive of Giovanni Crescenzi Serlupi Mellini in Rome (Baca 2009: 161). Two differences are worth noting between these two inventories: the first being that the 1680 inventory lists one hundred and forty-three distinct works, while the 1681 poem is a selection of the ninety-five “best” overall; the second is its poetic form and aesthetic evaluation of the paintings in the collection, which is a fanciful deviation from the standard details recorded for works in family collections at the time as exhibited by the 1680 inventory.
The document’s status as both a conventional inventory and a poetic text allows for a reading across the disciplines of art history, literature, and cultural studies. Therefore, as Baca and Ortega suggest, “the manuscript provides crucial primary evidence for art historians, as well as other humanities and interdisciplinary scholars who focus on provenance research, collecting patterns and habits, the social construction of taste, textual analysis of historical documents, and transfers of cultural capital” (Baca, 2013). In an attempt to allow for these multiple readings to coexist openly, and in the spirit of a network analysis approach, a project team of technologists and subject experts came together to construct an online content management system. Using digital tools, the scholars set out to answer questions regarding the documents purpose, its intended audience, the reason for its “hybrid” form. The art historians also sought to uncover what the document could reveal about the artistic literature of the 17th century. Conducting a terminological/linguistic study of the critical vocabulary in a work that is not a "treatise" per se revealed more nuanced information about collecting and the role of art in Mellini's time. The project also allowed for the examination of the role of words played in the development of visual culture, through comparing the descriptions of the artworks in the 1681 poem and the conventional inventory done in 1680. With these research questions and goals in mind, the project team set out to build an online workspace to incorporate and house a transcription and a set of translations (Spanish and English) with multi-author annotations, a searchable database bibliography, and space for a concordance, image gallery, and artists list, each containing specific comments and notations and all linked into overarching essays.
My experience as project coordinator for Pietro Mellini's Inventory in Verse, 1681: A Digital Facsimile with Translation and Commentary published by the Getty Research Institute was my first foray into the field of digital art history. The J. Paul Getty Trust states it exists as “the world's largest cultural and philanthropic organization dedicated to the visual arts” and the Getty Center is one of the most visited campuses for art in the United States (Getty Website) and I arrived in the Digital Art History department during its very early days. I witnessed decisions made by an influential organization from the trenches to the top that promoted digital art history work and encourage the discipline of art history to be more inclusive and supportive of digital approaches to art historical scholarship and practice. Being a part of a team leading that charge helped me think more broadly than the single scope of the Mellini project and to how we can build digital tools for art historical scholars to work more collaboratively.
The Getty Scholars’ Workspace™
AUGUST 2011 – JUNE 2015