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Were the Great Voyages of the 18th Century the Internet’s Precedent?


A new digital humanities study maps the republic of literature during the Grand Tour of Italy, the top initiation ritual for the English elite of the Eighteenth century.

Our infatuation with maps has gone as far as to trace our understanding of the world, in other words, we have mapped the world in order to understand ourselves through it. That is how Italian classicist Giovanna Ceserani, from the University of Stanford, was able to understand something that precedes the Internet, but which worked in a similar way to the intellectual travellers of the 18th century. Back then the “academic” tendency to travel, especially to Italy, knit a network of degrees of separation on the map that connected the period’s great artists on a shared surface. Ceserani does a cartographic reading of the period through the correspondence the travellers kept with one and other and their country of origin, which was usually England.

With this, among many other things, Giovanna’s team realised that Vicenza was the Italian city which was most visited by architects at the beginning of the 18th century, and that towards the end of the century this city yielded its place to Naples, which was at the time the mecca of Greek resurgence. The study also showed that many of the great travellers were in the same place at the same time, increasing the possibility of having met: when the graphics on the map conveyed an encounter, Ceserani and her team drew a line on the map (thus delineating an impersonal social network of sorts –– the first social network of its kind).


Ceserani’s work especially links great historical characters: poets, novelists, aristocrats or architects whom we would never have linked together before. Perhaps they saw each other pass by in some Roman ruin, or they enjoyed a glass of wine and a conversation –– events that could have easily influenced their work. The pre-romantic movement of awe-inspiring minds in the Mediterranean must have had some effect in the course of history. It is that coming and going of lines and encounters what has been registered in Ceserani’s Grand Tour Travellers, which also presents a beautiful aesthetic.


“With visualization, we can see a tremendous amount of data at once,” Ceserani said. “At the same time with digitalisation we can magnify the story of specific points of the map (zoom in and zoom out)”, so that digitalisation generalises, links and has an intimate relation with the story.

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