Tag Archives: ARTECHNE

Creating and integrating a database – work in progress

By Marieke Hendriksen

As mentioned in the post introducing the ARTECHNE project at Utrecht University last month, we are in the process of creating a database containing recipes, artist handbooks, and art theoretical texts that can clarify the development of the use of the term ‘technique’, as well as related terms referring to processes of making and doing. The database is linked to Geographical Information Software (GIS), thus creating an online historical semantic map of ‘technique’. Such maps are more than merely nice illustrations; they can reveal connections that remain hidden otherwise.

We are in the fortunate position where we can build the database on an existing one, namely the excellent Colour ConText database. However, we do not simply want to offer a copy of the Colour ConText database, we want to integrate it with other sources on artisanal practices and theories, such as recipes, books of secrets, art theoretical texts, and artist handbooks, from the period 1500-1900, in Latin, Dutch, German, English, French, Italian and Spanish. The entire database has to be searchable with advance searches, allowing users to search full text for occurrences of terms, in particular geographical or linguistic areas and periods, or to trace the changing uses and meanings of particular terms over time, linking various forms of terms and different terms with a similar meaning in relational tables and glossaries.

Sneak preview of the new database website
Preview of the new database website

For example, if we want to know how instructions for making paint have changed in the low countries between 1600 and 1900, we want to be able to select all available sources from that period and area and search them for imperatives, nouns, measurements, and particular ingredients. We also want to be able to distinguish between printed and manuscript sources, artist handbooks and household recipes books, and ideally we want to be able to search annotations and marginalia too, as well as differences between various editions of the same work. That means a lot of different parameters have to be specified for each source, and everything we include must be carefully checked before it is added.

One of the problems we encountered when selecting the first sources we wanted to add was the low reliability of Optical Character Recognition software when used on early modern printed sources – a problem I have written about on my own blog before. We do not just want to combine existing digitized sources in our database, but also to add texts that have not been digitized and made searchable thus far. However, that often involves lengthy correction processes. One of the solutions we are considering is crowd sourcing such corrections. Fortunately, we can also add many digitized sources that are available under Creative Commons licenses (i.e. from the Digital Library of the Netherlands), and various researchers have contacted us to discuss adding their own datasets to the database.

The first edition of the database is now online – have a look at http://artechne.hum.uu.nl!  Please note that this is a first version, and that the database will be improved and continue to grow for the duration of the project. Over the next few months, we will focus on increasing searchability and adding new sources. If you have any questions or suggestions, please contact us at artechne[at]uu.nl.

Finally, we will also explore the options of maintaining the database after the end of the ARTECHNE project, for example by depositing the datasets or even the entire infrastructure with an archival institution.

The ERC ARTECHNE project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 648718) and is a cooperation of Utrecht University and University of Amsterdam.

Introducing ARTECHNE – Technique in the Arts, 1500-1950

By Sven Dupré and Marieke Hendriksen

Gerard Dou, Man Writing by an Easel. c. 1631-32. 31.5 x 25 cm, oil on panel. Private collection
Gerard Dou, Man Writing by an Easel. c. 1631-32. 31.5 x 25 cm, oil on panel. Private collection

What is ‘technique’ in the visual and decorative arts? And how is ‘technique’ transmitted? Those are the central questions of ARTECHNE, a five-year project supported by the European Research Council, and led by Sven Dupré, that started at Utrecht University and the University of Amsterdam in September 2015. ARTECHNE is the acronym of the project. Its full title is “Technique in the Arts: Concepts, Practices, Expertise, 1500-1950”.

To answer these questions an interdisciplinary team of researchers with backgrounds in history of art, science and technology, based at the Descartes Center for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities in Utrecht umanitiesworks together with conservators and conservation scientists at the Atelier Building / NICAS in Amsterdam.

One aim of the ARTECHNE Project is to write the history of the conservation studios or laboratories and the research uniting conservation, art history and science in the Atelier Building. This field of research (or is it a nascent discipline?) is now often called technical art history.

‘Technique’ is a fundamental concept in technical art history, but its meaning has evolved over time. By providing a history of technique in the arts, the ARTECHNE project will help to reflect on both historical and current knowledge practices in technical art history, conservation and restoration. For example, one of the four sub-projects focuses on the ways in which new visualization technologies and science-based methods (such as X-rays, black-and-white photography and chemical analysis of paint cross sections) shaped art history and conservation practice in the first half of the twentieth century.

Daniel V. Thompson's 1954 translation of Cennino Cennini's Libro dell'Arte.
Daniel V. Thompson’s 1954 translation of Cennino Cennini’s Libro dell’Arte.

The ARTECHNE Project starts from the observation that the transmission of ‘technique’ in the arts has been a conspicuous ‘black box’ resisting analysis. The tools of the humanities used to study the transmission of ideas and concepts are insufficient when it comes to understanding the transmission of something as non-propositional and non-verbal as ‘technique’.

Therefore, one sub-project, in which PhD candidate Thijs Hagendijk works closely together with conservation and restoration specialists at the Atelier Building, undertakes the experimental reconstruction of historical recipes to open the black box of the transmission of technique in the visual and decorative arts. The aim of these reconstructions is understanding the textual culture of the early modern workshop and the role of recipes in practices. Did early modern people learn from texts to do things? And if so, in which ways did they use recipes? We primarily look at artisans, but this was a hybrid identity at the time.

The historical sources of the ARTECHNE project are foremost recipes, or how-to instructions. We should also reflect on why and how these sources have come down to us. Jenny Boulboullé in her sub-project investigates the creation of editions and translations of premodern and early modern texts, such as the editions and translations of Cennino Cennini by Mary Merrifield and Daniel Thompson, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While such editions are still used by conservators and restorers today, one point of attention in ARTECHNE is the role of conservation and restoration projects, painting practice and reconstructions in these editorial projects.

Finally, in response to one of the main questions driving the ARTECHNE Project, Marieke Hendriksen writes a history of the shifting meanings of the term ‘technique’ in the arts and sciences. To support her research and that of the other project members, building on ColourConText hosted at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, she will create a database containing recipes as well as art theoretical texts that can clarify the development of the use of the term ‘technique’ – a neologism in the vernacular in the mid-eighteenth century – as well as related terms referring to processes of making and doing. The database (which will be hosted at the ARTECHNE website) will be linked to GIS software, thus creating an online historical semantic map of ‘technique’.

Marieke Hendriksen and Thijs Hagendijk have taken up their posts in the first months of 2016. We look forward to the arrival of Mariana Pinto (from the conservation and materials science program at UCL Qatar) and Jenny Boulboullé (from the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University)  over the summer, and to earnestly start with the reconstructions in the fall. Tonny Beentjes, leader of the metal conservation program at the University of Amsterdam, and Maartje Stols-Witlox, lecturer of paintings conservation, have joined the ARTECHNE Project. We are still looking to appoint a glass expert. ARTECHNE is supported by program manager Jill Briggeman, who also maintains the website.

This website, www.artechne.nl, is now online. Over the next few months, we will add more information about the project in blogs, and we list events, like the monthly Technical Art History Colloquium. Sign up for updates on the website and follow us on Twitter! (@ArtechneProject)

The ERC ARTECHNE project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 648718) and is a cooperation of Utrecht University and University of Amsterdam.