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H. Wayne Storey

June 12, 2013

You might have to hark back to high-school English briefly, but you likely recognize the name of Petrarch, the 14th-century writer credited with developing the Italian sonnet. As the story goes, Petrarch fell in love with a woman named Laura in 1327 and remained fixated on her for many decades, writing a sequence of 366 poems, most of them sonnets.

That collection came to be known as the Canzoniere, although Petrarch called it the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (Rvf), which roughly translates to “fragments of ordinary things.” It went on to become one of the most powerful and influential icons of world literature.

But H. Wayne Storey, professor of Italian in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington, says few people today know what Petrarch’s famous poems really looked like. Petrarch was a “non-conformist” with a “propensity for erasure and reordering,” says Storey, who co-published an extensive commentary on the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta in 2004. Petrarch used complex patterns to lay out his poems on the manuscript page, patterns that were quickly abandoned by copyists churning out editions of the poet’s famous work after his death.

“Petrarch is one of the first western European poets to design a complex work according to a very deliberate visual and physical design,” Storey explains. “He used each manuscript page, or charta, as a 31-line canvas, following strict rules of graphic composition that were integral to his poetic techniques and to the meaning of his poems. No edition of the work since the early 15th century has followed Petrarch’s complex layouts.”

Until now. Storey and his collaborator John Walsh, a digital humanities and editing specialist and associate professor in the School of Informatics and Computing at IU Bloomington, are creating a digital “rich text” edition of Petrarch’s Rvf, using Petrarch’s personal service copy of the work as a model for the layouts the poet intended.

One of the trickiest elements of Petrarch’s poetry is what’s not there—blank space. “For medieval copyists and poets, blank spaces serve as highly evolved punctuation,” says Storey. “In Petrarch’s manuscript we have identified nine separate functions for blank space.”

Contemporary tools for marking up texts for digital display don’t automatically accommodate this medieval style. The latest version of the Text Encoding Initiative (an international set of guidelines for encoding machine-readable texts in the humanities and social sciences) has added functionality for addressing details of design and layout, but Walsh and Storey are testing the limits of recent additions to the TEI.

Working with graduate students Allie McCormack (Library Science and Informatics) and Isabella Magni (Italian), Storey and Walsh are creating a digital model that will allow users to explore the relationship of visual layout to the meaning of Petrarch’s work. With funding from Indiana University’s New Frontiers grants program (administered by the Office of the Vice President for Research), Storey and Walsh are at work on “The PetrArchive Project,” a website that will allow users to follow “microscopic” shifts in Petrarch’s work, says Storey. Employing various contemporary web technologies (e.g. HTML5), the site will be interactive and “animated” to reveal the layers of the poet’s erasures, corrections, and changes.

“All these phenomena will be animated so that users can watch the genesis of specific poems and how those changes alter meaning,” Storey says. “Users will be able to trace the development of single and multiple corrections in the text. In print, that is a daunting task. In the digital medium, it becomes an intriguing pleasure.”

For example, Storey says, shortly before his death in 1374, Petrarch decided to add more poems to the end of the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta. He took two sheets of parchment and folded them to make four chartae (eight “pages”) to insert between the last chartae of his manuscript (not at the end).

“But he miscalculated the space needed to transcribe the 23 new poems and was forced to change dramatically his standard layout for the canzone ‘Quel’ antiquo mio dolce empio signore’,” Storey says. “He needed an additional side of a charta (one page) that would insert blank space into the collection, something that broke the unity of this part of the work. Our animation follows this significant shift in visual and transcriptional layout for the poem while documenting Petrarch’s own ‘distorted version’ that he had to adopt purely for material reasons.”

Eventually, the website will take on the study of the relationship between visual layout and poetic form and meaning in the work of other writers and poets.

Meanwhile, Storey and Walsh are hard at work on their collaboration to make Petrarch’s magnum opus speak anew.

For more on the project and to see some examples, visit http://dcl.slis.indiana.edu/petrarchive/.