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Finding a Home for Homeless Art

Biblioteca Berenson and metaLAB partner to help identify whereabouts of “lost” paintings.


October 22, 2013—In the 1930s, Bernard Berenson, an avid collector, published a series of articles about “homeless” Renaissance Italian paintings—works that had been documented at some point in a photograph but subsequently dropped out of sight. By using an early example of crowdsourcing, Berenson hoped to identify the whereabouts of the items.

A collaboration between Biblioteca Berenson and metaLAB at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society aims to update Berenson’s efforts for the 21st century. Biblioteca Berenson, part of Harvard’s Villa I Tatti in Florence, Italy, digitized, cataloged and posted Berenson’s photographs online, in a multi-year project supported by the Mellon Foundation. metaLAB designed Curarium, a web-based platform, that will transform the static database of images into an animated archive, supported by both the De Bosis Fund and Villa I Tatti.

Jeffrey Schnapp, faculty director of metaLAB and co-faculty director of the Berkman Center, was immediately interested when he heard about the project. “We saw this as the perfect opportunity to fuel an ongoing conversation in the museum and library communities, that of how to make collections actually useable—how to make them interactive, not just to scholars, but to the public as well. We feel that this is the type of project that will help bring the life back into historical and cultural collections that have—otherwise—just been sitting there unused.”

Schnapp continued, “The platform is a teaching-friendly platform, in that students can group and curate digital materials using search terms related to time period, color, specific artists, location or iconography.” He envisions researchers, historians, students and even local historical societies using interactive digital archives. “I was intrigued when I saw this because of my background in Italian culture and history; I did much of my research at Biblioteca Berenson,” he said. In addition to his roles at the Berkman Center, Schnapp is also professor of romance languages and literatures in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a member of the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

“Curarium will allow anyone with an interest in the material to explore objects and make connections both within a particular collection and with other collections or across the web, which will let users see collections in aggregate, and interact with them on both an individual and a global scale,” said Caitlin Christian-Lamb, a project producer at metaLAB. “We hope Curarium will change the way that people view collections—of library, archival and museum material, but also of things not included in those institutional repositories.”

The team is aiming to launch Curarium by the end of 2013, and a spring 2014 Harvard course will deploy it so students can “research, curate, interpret—and perhaps even locate—lost works of the Italian Renaissance,” Schnapp said.

Read more about the history of Biblioteca Berenson’s “Homeless Paintings of the Italian Renaissance” here.