Digital Scholarship Incubator Reflections: Laurie Shepard

This post is part of a series of reflections from 2017 Digital Scholarship Incubator participants.

Laurie Shepard: My goals are two-fold. As an intellectual project the site will reconstruct the Italian communities that produced comedies in seven Italian cities between 1500 and 1550. The fundamental documents are the comedies themselves. I have been researching the comedies as the expression of a complex agenda including both entertainment and the cultural politics of various courts – but also efforts to explore relationships of power with the family and within the city, exercises in perspective, and a wide array of other possibilities. My second goal is to identify the means to create a site that is informative, challenging, open-ended, and that promotes understanding and analysis.

The site will be divided into seven sections, each dedicated to a city where comedy flourished in the first half of the sixteenth century. Fundamental are the comedies themselves, and I have encoded 40 comedies of the 300 extent words. Other fundamental components of the site are: 1) a timeline, 2) mapping, 3) a personography, 4) a gallery of relevant images, 5) short essays exploring first-hand accounts of the early performances, with additional bibliography. The timeline will include the dates when comedies were written, performed and published. The undergraduate with whom I am working told me he is using a word-cloud type of app to illustrate the physical proximity of writers, impresarios etc. at various points in time. I hope to have diagrams of performance spaces among the images. I am open to additional components in the future.

My curiosity as an historian of language and literature is at play in the desire to create this site. I am interested in comedies because they give voice to characters (women, servants, poor people), which do not appear in Italian literature before the sixteenth century. And although they are quite literary, there are moments when I have a sense that I have discovered linguistic “flypaper” that had been left out over the piazza – because the comedies include words and forms that were not accepted in “good” literature. (The comedies had an ambivalent status — low in style and prestige but first performed in throne rooms by princes.) But most of all, it is the communal effort of comedy that I seek to cnvey. I think about Mozart and Da Ponte yelling across the alley at each other as they composed The Marriage of Figaro; Machiavelli’s suggestions for improvement are still found on the margins of Strozzi’s comedies, and Raphael painted the scenery for Ariosto’s comedies, which the Pope in spectacles attended. The site is a multi-media attempt to reconstruct and illustrate the communities of production and consumption, and to move comedies into communion with one another. The juxtaposition of texts will promote both close and intertextual readings.

I know quite a lot about comedies and nothing about programming. I hope that my audience will be students of literature and history who are interested in sixteenth-century life in Italy and more specifically in theater. These are the first modern European comedies and the basis for French and English comedies. My real dilemma – perhaps I should call it a barrier — is that my texts are in Italian while the context provided by the site is in English. I do not know how to resolve this or what it implies in terms of audience. In addition, these texts were written 500 years ago and languages change. I don’t want to create a site that explains every word that is difficult because I find that sort of intervention too intrusive and unpleasant. I do hope to stimulate enough interest that a reader will fill in the gaps that are necessarily present in the site.

I know nothing about programming and I would be happier not thinking about it at all, which I regard as I problem. I feel that at a minimum I need to understand how the various site components work.

My biggest problem is that I want to do too much. I need to be more realistic about what I can achieve. I like the idea of the site rather than a book because it is an open platform and I can continue to explore ideas in the future. I hope to find collaborators who join me.

A successful project will be attractive and informative. It will invite inquiry and analysis. It will be accurate, it will be copious, and it will increase our understanding of the field. If I do not achieve any one of these goals, the site will be a failure.