As this is my first blog post – I decided to bring back some “art historical” memories. I remember one of those cold and snowy days back in Poland, sitting in a dark room in the Department of History of Art of Gdansk University at 7am and looking at slides projected on the wall (I mean “real slides” by the way!). Slide, after slide, after slide… and tombs.1 Tons of tombs… It was one of the classes of the module about Renaissance called: “Development of tomb sculpture in Europe (14th-18th century)”. There was not much time for taking notes, but there was a lot of information to take on: who and when created and commissioned the work, location, style, dimensions, material, iconography and many other details. The fun part of it was a visual exam at the end of the term. We were faced with a selection of 20-30 images of tombs out of hundreds we have seen to date during the classes. I still remember the notes and sketches made of all those tombs and details in order to make it possible to differentiate one from another, and to memorize. We used to spend hours in a cafe nearby doing ‘tomb’ quizzes and having so much fun that I can’t believe it was all studying!
About that time I’ve build my very first thematic ‘digital’ collection of images. It was only 2003, but it feels like light-years in terms of technology. I had hundreds of images in folders on my desktop organised by topic, e.g. ‘Italian tombs’, ‘Church architecture in Italy, 15th and 16th century’, ‘Netherlandish painting in the 15th century’. The images weren’t easy to find online in the pre-Google era I must say. The best resource back then was the Web Gallery of Art, which is still around and almost unchanged in terms of look and interface.
I wish I had more options to capture the metadata of the images, or at least knew how to do that. Instead, I tried to include as much information as possible in each image’s filename… I kid you not! You can imagine how problematic it was back then. Even now, some of those images are corrupted because of the character strings in the file names are too long. The next step was to burn all these images on CD-ROMs to share with my colleagues. It helped us pass the visual exam with top marks! I think I’ve created the very first digital resource in my department. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ as they say.
Today art history students still need to train their visual memory, not necessary with tombs as a main subject though. I suppose they rarely spend time to make and re-make handwritten notes and sketches of the art works, not to mention spending hours to find images in books, journals and elsewhere. Back in the day we were not getting links to websites, Dropbox folders nor Powerpoint presentations from our lecturers. What we wrote down, sketched and memorized during the classes – that was all we had. And it was enough. What we have available today are endless resources, online collections and repositories at hand, and yes, Google too, ready to use, re-use, print, map, visualize and first of all – look at and explore. Art history made easy. Really?
Of course studying art history is not only looking at ‘pretty’ images nor just trying to remember them all. But it is crucial to practice this skill, train one’s visual memory and build a some sort of database of objects in our memory in order to navigate through history of art and architecture in the right and meaningful directions.
1. Terminology is tricky here… In Polish we had one word for this type of object: ‘nagrobek’, which translates into English as ‘tombstone’. Although, in English I came across many different names: tombs, wall tombs, tomb monuments, memorial tombs, cenotaphs, and so on.