Being held open
Workshop of Robert Campin, Madonna and Child in Enclosed Garden (detail), ca. 1450; Kress; National Gallery of Art.

The BASIRA Project, founded in 2014, explores interconnections of book history and visual art during the period of European history referred to as the Renaissance. By constructing this database of images, which are being tagged with structured metadata, we hope to contribute a research resource for studies of art history, material culture, religious history, printing technology, iconography, and history of literacy.

¶ Even though books are featured prominently in a large percentage of European paintings and sculptures of the period, the specific particularity of the book itself has been largely overlooked. We hope that the BASIRA database will foster analysis of trends in artists’ portrayals of books: ways that books were held, displayed, and read, using such variables as region, patrons, faith communities, aesthetic traditions, and/or access to technology.

¶ During our transition to an Open Access format, which will be available via web browsers, the schema has been expanded and brought into conformance with available controlled vocabularies. As with the earlier FileMaker version, the database includes counts of all books in an image, with detailed information for those that are “prominent.” Data fields include: binding (style, size, and color); the book holder (nature and posture); book action (open, closed, being written or read); the artist; the repository.

Black book being held with 2 HANDS
Matteo di Pacino, St. Cosmas and St. Damian (detail), ca. 1370–1375, N.C. Museum of Art

¶ The original BASIRA team was comprised of independent scholars, working under credentials from the National Coalition of Independent Scholars. An affiliation was formed in 2018 with the Schoenberg Institute of Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, which will be the host of the re-designed & expanded database. Thanks to support from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the University of Pennsylvania, the projected launch date for the new site is late fall 2023.

¶ We continue to gather input and guidance on ways this data is recorded and tallied. Comments on the schema are especially welcome, as are references to works of art depicting books that should be included in this study.

Barbara Williams Ellertson, bwellert@basiraproject.org
Nicholas A. Herman, hermanni@upenn.edu

Header image is a detail from Madonna delle Ombre, created by Beato Angelico between 1440 and 1450, now in the Museo nazionale di San Marco, Florence, Italy. Public domain image.