Homeless Paintings: crowdsourcing the diaspora of Italian renaissance art

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Amidst the archives that Bernard Berenson bequeathed to Harvard University at his Villa I Tatti in Florence is a collection of 17,000 photographs of Renaissance Italian paintings classified as “homeless”: works that were documented by a photograph but whose location was unknown. In a series of articles that appeared between 1929 and 1932 in the journals International Studio and Dedalo (posthumously collected, updated, and translated from the Italian as Homeless Paintings of the Renaissance, 1969), Berenson published some of his photographs of these artworks with the hope that their owners might come forward and claim them as their own.

He intended to use the information offered to bring up to date his continuously revised “Lists” of the works of Italian Painters of the Renaissance, manuals that made available a body of unfamiliar images to a broad public of art lovers, collectors, and scholars. In his call for cooperation in furnishing information, he also became an inadvertent precursor of forms of social networking and tagging common to the world of Web 2.0 and embodied by such projects as the Public Catalogue Foundation in the UK.

In this spirit of making little-known resources widely accessible to the scholarly community and of inviting collaboration to study them, the Mellon foundation funded a multiyear project to catalog, digitize, and make available online the Photograph Archive’s images of “homeless” paintings by Italian artists between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries. With support from the De Bosis Fund (and a 2-1 match from the Villa I Tatti), metaLAB is now designing a web-based platform that transforms the resulting database of images (currently locked up within Harvard’s VIA system visual collections browser) into a state-of-the-art “animated archive”: a prototype and model for future archives of lost or unidentified archives or artworks. The project will culminate in a Fall course at Harvard (inviting participation beyond Harvard’s gates) to research, curate, interpret—and perhaps even locate—lost works of the Italian Renaissance.

This new web portal will allow students and faculty, as well as off-site visitors, to do things with the Homeless paintings collection: to annotate, curate, and augment works within and beyond the collection; to construct sharable media-rich stories and elaborate arguments about individual items as well as groups of items. The project will support and enliven teaching in art history, museum studies, and a host of other fields. Beyond missing renaissance art, the platform prototyped here will be extensible to teaching, exhibition work, and crowdsourced “citizen scholarship” across the arts and humanities. If you’re interested in teaching, curating, or otherwise working with the platform, you can check in at our Facebook post on the project, or send us an email at info@metalab.harvard.edu.