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Review: Digital Humanists’ Orlando Furioso

A review of Digital Humanists' Orlando Furioso, a website that documents the analytical and interpretative results of an interdisciplinary undergraduate senior seminar at Bowdoin College, directed by Crystal Hall

Published onMar 25, 2024
Review: Digital Humanists’ Orlando Furioso

Digital Humanists’ Orlando Furioso

Project Director
Crystal Hall, Bowdoin College

Project Team
John Almanza, Bowdoin College Class of 2023
Yordana Gerdzhikova, Bowdoin College Class of 2023
Lorenzo Hess, Bowdoin College Class of 2023
Abraham Hollis, Bowdoin College Class of 2023
Jack Olcott, Bowdoin College Class of 2023

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Caterina Agostini, University of Notre Dame

Project Overview

Crystal Hall

Digital Humanists’ Orlando Furioso is a website that documents the analytical and interpretative results of an interdisciplinary undergraduate senior seminar at Bowdoin College. The course was built around a collaborative process of agile hermeneutics, inspired by Geoffrey Rockwell and Stéfan Sinclair’s Hermeneutica (MIT, 2016), which involves dialogue, iteration, and thinking about texts through the use of and results from digital or computational analyses.

In the first iteration of this experimental course, five students representing majors in Italian studies and digital and computational studies spent the semester reading the blockbuster Italian Renaissance epic poem Orlando furioso (Orlando Enraged) by Lodovico Ariosto, printed in three editions in 1516, 1522, and 1532. Given the length of the poem and its highly episodic nature, as well as the value of knowledge gaps in student-centered pedagogy, the reading was crowdsourced such that each student read different portions in Italian or English translation, but everyone learned digital and computational analytical tools to study the entire poem.

The class ultimately decided to apply elements of textual and network analysis to better understand one of the most unusual moments in the poem: a trip to the moon on winged horseback to retrieve the wits of the title character. This digital humanities project documents the data used along with the interpretative decisions made during its creation, presents the findings of the class, contextualizes the results within secondary scholarship on the poem, offers literary and historical interpretation, and points to future directions worth pursuing when the course is next offered.

Although the project director is a specialist in premodern Italian studies and digital humanities, the project team represented a varied liberal arts background beyond these primary fields through coordinated and double majors as well as minors (Anthropology, Economics, Government & Legal Studies, History, and Physics). As such, the humanistic engagement with the poem was quite broad (documented in part by the project section on analytical digressions). We shared a concern for the power of secondary scholarship and data-driven methods to overemphasize certain features at the expense of meaningful details. We perpetually asked who or what might be missing, did our questions represent our moment or that of the poem, and the extent to which the literary and poetic elements that captivated us as readers resisted detection through the tools at our disposal.

While the project is housed on a Google Site (for the convenience of co-authorship and co-editing), it embeds results from the use of R, Gephi, Voyant, and Constellate. The class also spent significant time cleaning the data from an expansive index of the poem, shared on the site along with other data that we cleaned. Cleaning was started in class so that we could encounter inconsistencies and develop rules to address them while completing this work as homework.

The anticipated audience includes students, specialists of the poem, and instructors interested in conducting this kind of work. The project director paid research assistants to complete some of the unanticipated data cleaning when it became too cumbersome, but no other funding supported this work.

Project Review

Caterina Agostini

Digital Humanists’ Orlando Furioso is a digital project documenting a pedagogical experience at Bowdoin College, where Professor Crystal Hall designed an experimental course for students in Italian studies and digital and computational studies that read, analyzed, and interpreted the 15th-century epic poem Orlando furioso (Orlando Enraged) by Lodovico Ariosto. The poem narrates the adventures of a knight named Orlando pursuing the love of a beautiful woman, Angelica. The project is directed by Crystal Hall and co-authored with John Almanza, Yordana Gerdzhikova, Lorenzo Hess, Abraham Hollis, and Jack Olcott. The project website publishes the analytical and interpretative results of an interdisciplinary undergraduate senior seminar combining humanities and digital humanities methods. 

Digital Humanists’ Orlando Furioso explores both literary analysis and book history in the original language of the epic poem, Italian, and in English translations, particularly Barbara Reynold’s (London: Penguin, 1975), whose index of people and places mentioned or implied in the poem was a starting point for lemmatization and text analysis, including keywords in context. The poem Orlando furioso is particularly fit for digital inquiries and text analysis centering around characters, episode distribution, and movement across space, drawing from existing scholarship in the humanities, including Daniel Leisawitz’s Orlando Furioso Atlas (2019).

The project analyzes how Ariosto addresses his readership, and the intertwining of authorial and epic narratives is an important line of inquiry. Results from the use of R, Gephi, Voyant, and Constellate are showcased in the project’s Google Site, which serves as a convenient platform for co-authorship and co-editing. The project serves as a replicable model for digitally inclined users while confirming the value of experiential learning in the humanities. 

By visiting Digital Humanists’ Orlando Furioso, one can find the rationale guiding the team’s inquiries, datasets, word indexes, and reflections on case-specific technologies. Digital humanities methods used in the project range from text analysis to network visualization, as well as discussion, iteration, and thinking about texts as data, through distant reading as well as close reading of epic adventures, such as Astolfo’s trip to the Moon to find Orlando’s wits. The distribution of main characters and narrative motives such as love, chivalry, and friendship are potential areas of future development with significant impact on stylistic analysis in the humanities. 

This original initiative, which combines traditional humanities in Italian studies with digital technology in text mining and network analysis, brings forth a new dimension to scholarly research and engagement through curriculum development and pedagogy, thus promoting “new literacies, new literary categories, new approaches to language instruction, and new fields of inquiry” articulated in the MLA Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media. The project’s intuitive design allows users to seamlessly navigate through an extensive collection of textual sources, both in Italian and English, as well as scholarly sources, thus providing a rich and immersive experience. 

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