700 Years of Persian Manuscripts Now Digitized and Available Online

Too often those in power lump thousands of years of Middle Eastern religion and culture into monolithic entities to be feared or persecuted. But at least one government institution is doing exactly the opposite. For Nowruz, the Persian New Year, the Library of Congress has released a digital collection of its rare Persian-language manuscripts, an archive spanning 700 years. This free resource opens windows on diverse religious, national, linguistic, and cultural traditions, most, but not all, Islamic, yet all different from each other in complex and striking ways.

“We nowadays are programmed to think Persia equates with Iran, but when you look at this it is a multiregional collection,” says a Library specialist in its African and Middle Eastern Division, Hirad Dinavari. “Many contributed to it. Some were Indian, some were Turkic, Central Asian.” The “deep, cosmopolitan archive,” as Atlas Obscura’s Jonathan Carey writes, consists of a relatively small number of manuscripts—only 155. That may not seem particularly significant given the enormity of some other online collections.

But its quality and variety mark it as especially valuable, representative of much larger bodies of work in the arts, sciences, religion, and philosophy, dating back to the 13th century and spanning regions from India to Central Asia and the Caucuses, “in addition to the native Persian speaking lands of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan,” the LoC notes.

Prominently represented are works like the epic poem of pre-Islamic Persia, the Shahnamah, “likened to the Iliad or the Odyssey,” writes Carey, as well as “written accounts of the life of Shah Jahan, the 17th-century Mughal emperor who oversaw construction of the Taj Mahal.”

The Library points out the archive includes the “most beloved poems of the Persian poets Saadi, Hafez, Rumi and Jami, along with the works of the poet Nizami Ganjavi.” Some readers might be surprised at the pictorial opulence of so many Islamic texts, with their colorful, stylized battle scenes and groupings of human figures.

Islamic art is typically thought of as iconoclastic, but as in Christian Europe and North America, certain sects have fought others over this interpretation (including over depictions of the Prophet Mohammad). This is not to say that the iconoclasts deserve less attention. Much medieval and early modern Islamic art uses intricate patterns, designs, and calligraphy while scrupulously avoiding likenesses of humans and animals. It is deeply moving in its own way, rigorously detailed and passionately executed, full of mathematical and aesthetic ideas about shape, proportion, color, and line that have inspired artists around the world for centuries.

The page from a lavishly illuminated Qurʼān, above, circa 1708, offers such an example, written in Arabic with an interlinear Persian translation. There are religious texts from other faiths, like the Psalms in Hebrew with Persian translation, there are scientific texts and maps: the Rare Persian-Language Manuscript Collection covers a lot of historical ground, as has Persian language and culture “from the 10th century to the present,” the Library writes. Such a rich tradition deserves careful study and appreciation. Begin an education in Persian manuscript history here.

via Atlas Obscura

Related Content:

15,000 Colorful Images of Persian Manuscripts Now Online, Courtesy of the British Library

The Complex Geometry of Islamic Art & Design: A Short Introduction

800 Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts Are Now Online: Browse & Download Them Courtesy of the British Library and Bibliothèque Nationale de France

800+ Treasured Medieval Manuscripts to Be Digitized by Cambridge & Heidelberg Universities

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Venice Time Machine: 1,000 Years of Venice’s History Gets Digitally Preserved with Artificial Intelligence and Big Data

Along with hundreds of other seaside cities, island towns, and entire islands, historic Venice, the floating city, may soon sink beneath the waves if sea levels continue their rapid rise. The city is slowly tilting to the East and has seen historic floods inundate over 70 percent of its palazzo- and basilica-lined streets. But should such tragic losses come to pass, we’ll still have Venice, or a digital version of it, at least—one that aggregates 1,000 years of art, architecture, and "mundane paperwork about shops and businesses" to create a virtual time machine. An “ambitious project to digitize 10 centuries of the Venetian state’s archives,” the Venice Time Machine uses the latest in “deep learning” technology for historical reconstructions that won’t get washed away.

The Venice Time Machine doesn’t only proof against future calamity. It also sets machines to a task no living human has yet to undertake. Most of the huge collection at the State Archives “has never been read by modern historians,” points out the narrator of the Nature video at the top.

This endeavor stands apart from other digital humanities projects, Alison Abbott writes at Nature, “because of its ambitious scale and the new technologies it hopes to use: from state-of-the-art scanners that could even read unopened books, to adaptable algorithms that will turn handwritten documents into digital, searchable text.”

In addition to posterity, the beneficiaries of this effort include historians, economists, and epidemiologists, “eager to access the written records left by tens of thousands of ordinary citizens.” Lorraine Daston, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin describes the anticipation scholars feel in particularly vivid terms: “We are in a state of electrified excitement about the possibilities,” she says, “I am practically salivating.” Project head Frédéric Kaplan, a Professor of Digital Humanities at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), compares the archival collection to “’dark matter’—documents that hardly anyone has studied before.”

Using big data and AI to reconstruct the history of Venice in virtual form will not only make the study of that history a far less hermetic affair; it might also “reshape scholars’ understanding of the past,” Abbott points out, by democratizing narratives and enabling “historians to reconstruct the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people—artisans and shopkeepers, envoys and traders.” The Time Machine’s site touts this development as a “social network of the middle ages,” able to “bring back the past as a common resource for the future.” The comparison might be unfortunate in some respects. Social networks, like cable networks, and like most historical narratives, have become dominated by famous names.

By contrast, the Time Machine model—which could soon lead to AI-created virtual Amsterdam and Paris time machines—promises a more street-level view, and one, moreover, that can engage the public in ways sealed and cloistered artifacts cannot. “We historians were baptized with the dust of archives,” says Daston. “The future may be different.” The future of Venice, in real life, might be uncertain. But thanks to the Venice Time Machine, its past is poised take on thriving new life. See previews of the Time Machine in the videos further up, learn more about the project here, and see Kaplan explain the “information time machine” in his TED talk above.

Related Content:

How Venice Works: 124 Islands, 183 Canals & 438 Bridges

Venice in Beautiful Color Images 125 Years Ago: The Rialto Bridge, St. Mark’s Basilica, Doge’s Palace & More

New Digital Archive Puts Online 4,000 Historic Images of Rome: The Eternal City from the 16th to 20th Centuries

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

New Archive Digitizes 80,000 Historic Watercolor Paintings, the Medium Through Which We Documented the World Before Photography

The watercolor painting has a reputation for lightness. It’s a casual endeavor, done in scenic outdoor surroundings on sunlit days. Watercolors are the choice of weekend hobbyists or children unready for messier materials. Watercolors, in other words, are often treated as unserious. But for a couple hundred years, they served a very serious purpose. In addition to being a portable medium with an expansive range, watercolors’ ease made them the primary means of making documentary images before photography completely took over this function by the turn of the 20th century when portable consumer cameras became a reality.

“Before the invention of the camera,” explains the Watercolour World, “people used watercolors to document the world. Over the centuries, painters—both professional and amateur—created hundreds of thousands of images recording life as they witnessed it. Every one of these paintings has a story to tell.”

The Watercolour World is a large-scale digitization of thousands of watercolors found hidden away in drawers all over the UK by former diplomat Fred Hohler, who came up with the idea for the project while on a tour of Britain’s public collections.

“The value—and excitement—of the Watercolour World project,” writes Dale Berning Sawa at The Guardian, "is that it views these historic paintings as documents, not aesthetic objects.” That’s not necessarily how their creators’ saw them. “A lot of the value in these images is… accidental. Often it’s the context—replete with treelines, snowlines or waterlines—the artist painted around, for example, the flower they’d set out to record.” Such accidental documentation captured one of the first known images of Mount Everest, situated in the background, in a painting from the 1840s. Of course much of the documentary purpose was intentional—in land surveys and scientific illustrations, and in the many paintings, like that above from 1833, of Mount Vesuvius erupting.

These images are becoming increasingly important to scientists and historians as ice-caps melt, historical sites are bombed or vandalized, and flora and fauna disappear. With a focus on pre-1900 images, the site launched with around 80,000 digitized watercolors, a number that could expand into over a million, Hohler estimates, at which point, it will become an “absolutely indispensable tool to help us understand today.” As for understanding the context in which these works were created—it’s complicated. Many of the paintings come with a wealth of identifying information. Some of the artists were professionals, some military draftsmen, botanists, expedition watercolorists, and surveyors.

Some had long, distinguished careers taking over other countries, like colonial British General James Maurice Primrose, who painted several very impressive landscapes in India like 1860’s “In the Neilgherries,” above. And there are also “untold numbers of amateurs,” Sawa writes, “which Hohler suspects will turn out to have been mostly women, unpaid for their time and skill—who picked up a paintbrush to record the world around them.” Whoever these painters were, and whatever motivated them to make these works of art, we can be grateful that they did, and that these thousands of paintings, many of which are quite fragile, survived long enough for digitization in this impressive public project.

“By making history more visible to more people,” the Watercolour World puts it, “we can deepen our understanding of the world.” The UK-based organization seeks paintings from around the globe; “there are thousands of watercolours still to add.” If you have some pre-1900 works to contribute, you are encouraged to get in touch and find out if they’re suitable for inclusion. Enter the Watercolour World here.

via The Guardian

Related Content:

Visit a New Digital Archive of 2.2 Million Images from the First Hundred Years of Photography

The Getty Digital Archive Expands to 135,000 Free Images: Download High Resolution Scans of Paintings, Sculptures, Photographs & Much Much More

Download for Free 2.6 Million Images from Books Published Over Last 500 Years on Flickr

25 Million Images From 14 Art Institutions to Be Digitized & Put Online In One Huge Scholarly Archive

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Lou Reed Archive Opens at the New York Public Library: Get Your Own Lou Reed Library Card and Check It Out

This past October marked the fifth anniversary of Lou Reed’s death. This month marks what would have been his 77th birthday. It seems like as good a time as any to revisit his legacy. As of this past Friday, anyone can do exactly that in person at the New York Public Library. And they can do so with their own special edition NYPL Lou Reed library card. The NYPL has just opened to the public the Lou Reed Archive, “approximately 300 linear feet,” the library writes in a press release, “of paper records, electronic records, and photographs, and approximately 3,600 audio and 1,300 video recordings.”

These artifacts span the musician, writer, photographer, and “tai-chi student”’s life from his 1958 high school band The Shades to “his job as a staff songwriter for the budget music label, Pickwick Records, and his rise to prominence through the Velvet Underground and subsequent solo career, to his final performance in 2013.”

It is more than fitting that they should find a home at the New York institution, in the city where Lou Reed became Lou Reed, “the most literary of rock stars,” writes Andrew Epstein for the Poetry Foundation, "one who aspired to make rock music that could stand on the same plane as works of literature.” See a list of the Lou Reed Archive collections below:

  • Original manuscript, lyrics, poetry and handwritten tai-chi notes
  • Photographs of Reed, including artist prints and inscriptions by the photographers
  • Tour itineraries, agreements, road manager notes and paperwork
  • 600+ hours of live recordings, demos, studio recordings and interviews
  • Reed's own extensive photography work
  • Album, book, and tour artwork; mock-ups, proofs and match-prints
  • Lou Reed album and concert posters, handbills, programs, and promotional items
  • Lou Reed press for albums, tours, performances, books, and photography exhibits
  • Fan mail
  • Personal collections of books, LPs and 45s

Reed left his first “lasting legacy” at Syracuse University, as Syracuse itself affirmed after his death in 2013, as “a criminal, a dissident and a poet.” There, he studied under his literary hero, Delmore Schwartz, was reportedly expelled from ROTC for holding an unloaded gun to his superior’s head, and was supposedly turned away from his graduation by police. Once in New York, however, Reed not only piloted the Velvet Underground into everlasting cult infamy, jumpstarting waves of punk, post-punk, new wave, and a few dozen other subgenres. He also carried forth the legacy of the New York poetry, Epstein argues.

He had “serious connections to the poetry world”—not only to Schwartz, but also to the Beats and the New York School—to poets who “played a surprisingly large role in the emergence of the Velvet Underground.” Like all great art, Reed’s best work was more than the sum of its “multiple and complex influences.” But it should be appreciated alongside mid-century New York poets as much as jazz experimentalists like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor who inspired his freeform approach. “Reed’s body of work,” writes Epstein, “represents a crucial but overlooked instance of poetry’s rich back-and-forth dialogue with popular culture.”

Similar things might be said about Reed's engagements with film, theater, the visual arts, and the New York avant-garde generally, which he also transmuted and translated into his scuzzy brand of rock and roll. The NYPL archive documents his relationships with not only his bandmates and manager/patron Andy Warhol, but also Robert Quine, John Zorn, Robert Wilson, Julian Schnabel, and Laurie Anderson. And yet, despite the many rivers he waded into in his long career, immersing in some more deeply than others, it was the New York literary world whom he most wanted to embrace his work.

Accepting an award in 2007 from Syracuse, Reed said, “I hope, Delmore, if you’re listening you are finally proud as well. My name is finally linked to yours in the part of heaven reserved for Brooklyn poets.” Head over to The Library for the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center to get your own Lou Reed library card. If you’re lucky enough to spend some time with this extensive collection, maybe consider how all Reed's work was, in some way or another, informed by a lifelong devotion to New York poetry.

Related Content:

Hear Lou Reed’s The Raven, a Tribute to Edgar Allan Poe Featuring David Bowie, Ornette Coleman, Willem Dafoe & More

Meet the Characters Immortalized in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”: The Stars and Gay Rights Icons from Andy Warhol’s Factory Scene

Lou Reed Sings “Sweet Jane” Live, Julian Schnabel Films It (2006)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A New Collection of Official, Authorized Prince GIFs!

Tech entrepreneur Anil Dash, podcaster, music historian, and advisor to the Obama White House’s Office of Digital Strategy, knows his way around Prince’s catalogue.

Less than a year after the iconoclastic musician left the planet, Dash created a guide to help newbies and casual listeners become better acquainted with his oeuvre:

The nice thing about Prince’s work is that there are no bad starting points; if you don’t like what you hear at first, he almost certainly made a song in the complete opposite style as well.

He assembled playlists for the Prince-resistant, reeling ‘em in by catering to various tastes, from “riff-driven rock tracks” and electronica to “Prince for Redbone fans.”

(Those playlists are also a great service to those of us whose attention wandered in the decades following Prince’s 80’s heyday.)

Dash has also now done us a solid and highlighted an official archive of high-quality Prince GIFs, taken from his music videos.

Prince was notoriously protective of his image, and wild as it is, the GIF archive, a collaboration with GIPHY, Paisley Park and Prince’s estate, colors within those lines by steering clear of unflattering reaction shots culled from interviews, live performances, or public appearances.

There’s still a broad range of attitudes on display, though best get out of line if you’re looking for an expression that conveys “lack of confidence” or “the opposite of sexy.”

The archive is arranged by album. Click on a song title and you’ll find a number of moments drawn from its official music video.

Any captions come straight from the horse’s mouth. No backseat caption jockeys can has cheezburger with Prince Rogers Nelson’s image, thank you very much.

Begin your explorations of the Prince GIF Archive here.

via Kottke

Related Content:

Watch Prince Play Jazz Piano & Coach His Band Through George Gershwin’s “Summertime” in a Candid, Behind-the-Scenes Moment (1990)

Read Prince’s First Interview, Printed in His High School Newspaper (1976)

Hear Prince’s Personal Playlist of Party Music: 22 Tracks That Will Bring Any Party to Life

Prince Plays Guitar for Maria Bartiromo: It’s Awkward (2004)

Ayun Halliday always stood at the back of the line, a smile beneath her nose. Ayun is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City in February as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Free: Download Thousands of Ottoman-Era Photographs That Have Been Digitized and Put Online

“Turkey is a geographical and cultural bridge between the east and the west,” writes Istanbul University’s Gönül Bakay. This was so long before Constantinople became Istanbul, but after the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the region took on a particular significance for Christian Europe. “The Turk” became a threatening and exotic figure in the European imagination, “shaped by a considerable body of literature, stretching from Christopher Marlowe to Thomas Carlyle.” Images of Ottoman Turkey were long drawn from a “mixture of fact, fantasy and fear.”

With the advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, those images were supplemented, illustrated, and countered by prints depicting Turkish people both in everyday life circumstances and in Orientalist poses.

In the final decades of the Ottoman Empire, as modernization took hold all over Europe, viewers might encounter photos of women in poses reminiscent of the Odalisque and street scenes of bustling, cosmopolitan Constantinople, with signs in Ottoman Turkish, English, French, Armenian, and Greek.

Photos of Enver Pashade facto ruler of the Ottoman Empire during World War I and “highest-ranking perpetrator of the Armenian genocide,” writes Isotta Poggi at the Getty’s blog—circulated alongside images like that below, a group of Turkish tourists posed near the Sphinx. These and thousands more such photographs of Ottoman Turkey at the turn of the century and into the first years of the Turkish Republic—3,750 digitized images in total—are now available to view and download at the Getty Research Institute.

The photos come from French collector Pierre de Gigord, who acquired them during his many travels through Turkey in the 1980s. They were taken by photographers, some of whose names are lost to history, from all over Europe and the Mediterranean, including Armenian photographers who played a “central role,” notes Poggi, “in shaping Turkey’s national cultural history and collective memory.” (Read artist Hande Sever’s Getty essay on this subject here.) The huge collection contains “landmark architecture, urban and natural landscape, archeological sites of millennia-old civilizations, and the bustling life of the diverse people who lived over 100 years ago.”

Despite the loss of materiality in the transfer to digital, a loss of “formatting, or sense of scale” that changes the way we experience these photos, they “enable us to learn about the past,” writes Poggi, “seeing Turkey’s diverse society” as photography’s early viewers did, and to better understand the present, "observing how certain sites and people, as well as social or political issues, have evolved yet still remain the same.” Enter the Pierre de Gigord collection at the Getty here.

via Hyperallergic/The Getty

Related Content:

New Archive of Middle Eastern Photography Features 9,000 Digitized Images

Venice in Beautiful Color Images 125 Years Ago: The Rialto Bridge, St. Mark’s Basilica, Doge’s Palace & More

Tsarist Russia Comes to Life in Vivid Color Photographs Taken Circa 1905-1915

An Online Gallery of Over 900,000 Breathtaking Photos of Historic New York City

The Library of Congress Makes Thousands of Fabulous Photos, Posters & Images Free to Use & Reuse

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

11,000 Digitized Books From 1923 Are Now Available Online at the Internet Archive

Whether your interest is in winning arguments online or considerably deepening your knowledge of world cultural and intellectual history, you will be very well-served by at least one government agency from now into the foreseeable future. Thanks to the expiration of the so-called "Micky Mouse Protection Act," the U.S. Copyright Office will release a year’s worth of art, literature, scholarship, photography, film, etc. into the public domain, starting with 1923 this year then moving through the 20th century each subsequent year.

And thanks to the venerable online institution the Internet Archive, we already have almost 11,000 texts from 1923 in multiple digital formats, just a click or two away.

A cursory survey produced Wm. A. Haussmann’s translation of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, Arthur Stanley Eddington’s The Mathematical Theory of Relativity, Waldo Lincoln’s History of the Lincoln Family, covering the President’s ancestors and descendants from 1637 to 1920...

...Lynn Thorndike’s A History of Magic and Experimental Science, Volume I, Chandra Chakraberty’s An Interpretation of Ancient Hindu Medicine, Edward McCurdy’s translations of Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebooks, Nandal Sinha’s translation of The Vaisesika Sutras of Kanada, Winston Churchill’s The World Crisis, Henry Adams Bellows’ translation of The Poetic Edda, a collection of Mussolini’s political speeches from 1914-1923, and Thom’s Irish Who’s Who, which catalogues “prominent men and women in Irish life at home and abroad,” but tellingly leaves out James Joyce, who had just published Ulysses, to some infamy, the previous year. (It does include William Butler Yeats.)

1923 turns out to have been a particularly rich literary year itself, with many of the 20th century’s finest writers publishing major and lesser-known works (see here and here, for example). Browsing and focused searching through the archive—by topic, collection, creator, and language—will net many a literary classic or overlooked gem by some famous author. But you’ll also find much in this enormous collection of digitized books that you would never think to look for, like browsing the shelves of a Borgesian university library with an entire wing devoted to the year 1923.

The Internet Archive homepage looks as modest as it does dedicated, listing all of its top collections rather than foregrounding the huge tranche of newly-available material (and counting) on the 1923 shelves. But founder Brewster Kahle does not mince words in describing its incredible importance. “We have shortchanged a generation,” he says, “The 20th century is largely missing from the internet” (in legally available form, that is). Now and in the coming years, thousands of its stories can be told by teachers, scholars, artists, and filmmakers with ever-broadening access to documentary history.

Related Content:   

An Avalanche of Novels, Films and Other Works of Art Will Soon Enter the Public Domain: Virginia Woolf, Charlie Chaplin, William Carlos Williams, Buster Keaton & More

The Library of Congress Makes Thousands of Fabulous Photos, Posters & Images Free to Use & Reuse

The Public Domain Project Makes 10,000 Film Clips, 64,000 Images & 100s of Audio Files Free to Use

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

More in this category... »
Quantcast