Our tribute to Paola Barocchi. On Memofonte and the importance of information technology for cultural heritage.

Art historian Paola Barocchi, who played a pioneering role in the field of information technology for cultural heritage, left us on May 24. Our tribute.

Those who deal with art history by working with sources will surely have happened upon the Memofonte Foundation website at least once in their lives. For us at Windows on Art, this site has always been an important mine of information for our work: even we, who consider the study of sources indispensable not only for the work of the art historian, but also for our work of popularization, have often consulted the publications offered through the admirable site of the Foundation, which continues to reveal itself as one of the cultural institutions capable of using web technologies in the most intelligent way, and to constantly update its expertise (it is enough to observe the level of their communication on social networks, with content that is always interesting, diverse, and presented in such a way that it can directly and effectively address the scholars, to whom they mainly address themselves, but can also intrigue some lay people).

Last May 24, art historian Paola Barocchi, who was the founder of Memofonte, left us in 2000: at first the institute was structured as an association, then it became a foundation. Paola Barocchi had the intuition to donate, to scholars and the public, a tool that would allow online consultation of sources that were difficult to consult or find. Thus, among the pages of this invaluable website one can find correspondence, treatises, guides, catalogs. It is enough to cite a few examples to realize the importance of the Memofonte Foundation’s tool: they range from 16th-century art treatises (Vasari, Ammannati, Paleotti, Dolce) to the inventories of the Medici or Este collections, passing through art writings and correspondence (such as that of Michelangelo, which the Foundation’s website has published in full).

Thus, the Memofonte Foundation carries out passionate, valuable, useful research work: and this is thanks to the impulse given by the spirit of the founder. Not a few scholars have dedicated a memorial to Paola Barocchi in recent days. We, unfortunately, did not have the good fortune to meet her in person, and therefore cannot provide our audience with very beautiful and heartfelt testimonies, such as the one by Giovanni Agosti, published in the Manifesto: an interesting account thanks to which we appreciate not only the depth of Paola Barocchi’s studies and knowledge, but also the feelings she must have aroused in those who at the time, like Giovanni Agosti, followed her lectures in Pisa. Therefore, not having direct knowledge of Paola Barocchi, we can limit ourselves to saying that we are well aware of the importance of her studies, her stature as a scholar, and the extraordinary modernity of her vision of art history. It is especially of the latter that we want to speak.

Paola Barocchi e Maria Fossi
Paola Barocchi (left) in her high school days, together with Maria Fossi, who became, like her friend, a distinguished art historian. Photo taken from the Memofonte Foundation’s Instagram profile.

The University of Pisa has always been at the forefront of computer science. Suffice it to say that on the banks of the Arno saw the light of the first Italian electronic calculator (we are in the late 1950s and early 1960s), and the first Internet node in our country was inaugurated at the CNR in Pisa. In all evidence, the computer research of the Pisan athenaeum should not have escaped the attention of Paola Barocchi (holder, since 1968, of the chair of the history of art criticism at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa), who thought about how she could apply them to the study of art history. In particular, he sensed how the tools of information technology could prove decisive in enabling scholars to consult sources more quickly and easily. And a few days after her death, it was Salvatore Settis, with his memoir published in Il Sole 24 Ore, who reminded us how much the study of sources had characterized Paola Barocchi’s professional activity: “The study of sources was for her like a continuous, assiduous verification, conducted on the written word, of that history of art that no one like Longhi had been able to practice and impose on the painted surface. Paola Barocchi sought in the texts (from Vasari to the letters of the artist, especially Michelangelo, to manuscript inventories, to obscure or distinguished darchival papers) not trivial confirmations to what the works darte already tell us in themselves, but rather parallel voices, contradictory news, alternative hypotheses of reading. In short, the plot of a remote life to which we make ourselves contemporary, and then bring it back into the dimension of our present.”

Thanks to Paola Barocchi, the Center for Computing Research for Cultural Heritage at the Scuola Normale Superiore, established in 1991 as the crowning achievement of more than a decade of continuous research incultural heritage informatics, got under way. In fact, the first conference on such topics was launched in 1978: it was the First International Conference on the Application of Electronic Storage to Data and Historical-Artistic Documents, and the international success of the initiative was such that the work continued with the establishment, in 1980, of the pioneering Center for Automatic Processing of Historical-Artistic Data and Documents, which later transformed into the Center for Computer Research. In the environments of these research centers, scholars directed by Paola Barocchi experimented with methodologies and models, elaborated standards for the computer classification of sources, conducted campaigns to computerize inventories, treatises, more or less ancient documents, and, in more recent times, made sources available for online consultation (on the Library of art-historical sources website, just to mention one of the center’s projects, dozens of works can be consulted, also thanks to the help of search engines that allow in-depth analysis of texts). The center also did not fail to collaborate with other important institutes: just think of the collaboration with theAccademia della Crusca for the computerization projects of the famous vocabulary.

Today the Normale research center is no longer operational: the “informatics” legacy of Paola Barocchi will therefore be taken up by the Memofonte Foundation, which will continue to work, with the same competence and passion, in the name of its illustrious director. For our part, the best way to pay tribute to Paola Barocchi will be, very humbly and very trivially, to continue to think that, in spite of everything, “the Internet” and “art history” are two concepts that can get along to spread rigor and quality.

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