Itinera's Displacements: A Roundtable

Framing #1: Itinera as renvoi

Framing #1: Itinera as renvoi

By Christopher Drew Armstrong

An Entry Point

From the journal of Michel Fourmont’s voyage to Greece (1728-30) in the Cabinet des Manuscrits at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Among the passengers on the vessel that transported the newly appointed French ambassador to Constantinople in 1728 was a certain English Lord Dashwood.[1] He traveled in the company of Michel Fourmont and Michel Sévin, French linguists who scoured the Aegean and mainland-Greece to obtain manuscripts for the royal library in Paris. Fourmont would go on to visit sites throughout Attica and the Peloponnese copying ancient inscriptions. None of this is mentioned in the entry on Sir Francis Dashwood in The Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy, 1701-1800 (or in any other published source), though he is known to have traveled on the continent from 1729-31.

Fourmont’s journal deflects Dashwood’s itinerary, opens up a completely unknown realm of his early travel experiences, and links him to a hitherto unsuspected network of people. A new perspective thus opens on the Society of Dilettanti, an organization Dashwood and other likeminded British travelers founded in 1732 and which would subsequently sponsor the most important early archaeological work in Greece and the Ionian coast. There is a tendency to see British and French endeavors of this kind as distinct, each camp aware of the other but otherwise pursuing their interests separately. Knowing of Dashwood’s presence in Fourmont’s journal, a somewhat different perspective emerges, one where a shared experience of travel brought those camps into direct contact and perhaps sparked new ways of thinking on both sides.

Fourmont’s journal entry provides more than an extra line in a biographical dictionary. It is an entry point for rethinking how data is aggregated and for imagining how digital tools and on-line environments can be used to make historical information more accessible. Shifting from the dictionary into a digital environment, we can imagine that Dashwood’s displacements in space and network of contacts (now including Fourmont and the French Ambassador to Constantinople) could be represented digitally in ways that are readily intelligible and easily revised as new information is discovered. Itinera is a digital environment conceived to make this shift; not to replicate conventional methods or to simply reconfigure existing data sets but to permit new ways of making and sharing knowledge.

The Big Picture

Motivated by a desire to create carefully modeled historical data and dynamic visualizations of the paths and networks that result from the experience of travel, we have envisaged a web-based platform that will better represent the displacement of bodies and objects in space than can be achieved in print media. We hope that readers of Journal18 will see in this project not only parallels with certain tropes in eighteenth-century thought, but also opportunities for building scholarly relationships and enhancing pedagogy.

Writing for this venue, we need hardly underline the importance of travel as a component of eighteenth-century culture. Travelers were held up as exemplars of a new scientific mind-set and their discoveries fueled compilations of new knowledge including the Encyclopédie (1751-72), Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois (1748), Buffon’s Histoire naturelle générale et particulière (1749), and Prévost’s Histoire générale des voyages (1746-59). Seeking to empower readers to create knowledge through the comparison of individual travelers’ accounts, Prévost (and the English collection of voyages that was his ostensible starting point) experimented with the format and structure of his collection of travel narratives, withholding editorial judgment on the merits of individual authors. All these works – purportedly global and inclusive – reveal to a greater or lesser extent the chaotic and quixotic processes of information gathering, analysis and distillation that are what Itinera is also grappling to harness.

For the editors of the Encyclopédie, geographic exploration served as a metaphor for the very process of knowledge production. In his definition of the word “Encyclopédie,” Diderot pointed out that the goal of the work was to “assemble knowledge distributed across the surface of the earth.”[2] He imaged the perusal of the Encyclopédie to be akin to travel, the astute reader walking down paths of interconnected articles that led spontaneously to new discoveries. Diderot and d’Alembert’s “Prospectus” provides a sweeping vision of that landmark publication, aligning its contents and principles of organization with Locke’s new philosophy of human understanding, and seeking to empower its readership to construct new knowledge. Our goals are more modest but draw inspiration from that path-breaking model of collaborative research and publishing. We share the excitement that motivated the authors of the Encyclopédie and see in web-based environments the potential for a comparable revolution in scholarship and public engagement.

Despite the inclusion of thousands of engraved plates illustrating an array of complex phenomena and the incorporation of clever strategies such as the renvois that served as a spur to kick-start knowledge production, the Encyclopédie was constrained by the very nature of paper-based publishing. The volumes were expensive, which limited its audience, and the contents were out-of-date before the final volumes rolled off the presses. While supplements added new elements and amended obsolete articles, a key problem with all print-based encyclopedia projects has always been the impossibility of altering entries or inserting new ones without reprinting volumes or adding cumbersome addenda. As the editors of the Encyclopédie fully understood, knowledge production is spontaneous, open-ended and unpredictable,[3] features of web-based media harnessed by the most successful encyclopedia of the twenty-first century, Wikipedia. Like other digital humanities projects, Itinera embraces the Internet as a means to move beyond limitations inherent in print media and which, among other things, holds out the promise of new ways to visualize complex data sets.

Like a number of other digital humanities projects, Itinera took as a starting point The Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy, 1701-1800 [hereafter DBIT] published in 1997 by John Ingamells based on research compiled by Brinsley Ford and housed in the Paul Mellon Center for British Art in London. Rather than seeking to represent data published in that volume, however, Itinera asks how one might construct a web-based environment in which the complexity of interactions between humans, objects and sitesPeople-Objects-Sites
From the very first planning sessions for Itinera in late 2011, we knew that we wanted to be able to model the movement and interaction not only of the human beings that were traveling across the globe, but also of objects and even monuments, such as the Parthenon, that have also found themselves distributed far and wide. We have always thought of people, objects, and sites as co-equal "actants" in this model, borrowing the implications of that term from Actor-Network Theory. In terms of digital practicalities, each of these actants has different needs in terms of Itinera's data model, and so we have treated them as "modules" that we have been implementing over time. We began with the human travelers, in part because they seemed the most tractable. We have since been able to turn our attention to implementing the Objects Module, starting in 2016. The work on the Sites Module will be closely related to that of the objects, and will begin in the near future. One day, in fact, it is a dream to design a way to model events—such as wars and celebration—into the workings of Itinera. For a review treatment of our initial plans, please see also, Jason M. Kelly, “Reading the Grand Tour at a Distance: Archives and Datasets in Digital History,” The American Historical Review 122.2 (April 2017): 451–63.
 over time could be represented in a manner accessible to a range of potential inquirers and be constantly updated with new information. Itinera is not about travelers of a particular nationality to a given region during a limited time period – the core idea is to represent the displacements that generate networks of people and things in time and space.

For those of us who study cultures other than the British and who see boundaries (date ranges; political frontiers) as arbitrary and provisional, the DBIT is a model we wish could be expanded in every direction. A case could surely be made for a Dictionary of Italian Travellers to Britain and Ireland. Though there may not have been a French equivalent to the Grand Tour, there was no shortage of French authors, scholars, artists, diplomats and other kinds of travelers in Italy at the same time as those British and Irish peers and elites – and in certain instances interacting with them and their Italian hosts. To capture the experience of French artists in Italy, the temporal boundaries would need to be moved outward.  From 1666 to 1968, for example, successive French administrations regularly sent prize-winning artists trained at state schools in Paris to study at the French Academy in Rome – and beyond. A proliferation of biographical dictionaries, however, would be the wrong approach if capturing the cosmopolitan nature of international travel networks and the diversity of individual experiencesLife Events and Tour Stops
Sometimes we talk about Itinera as a re-envisioning of the traditional linear narrative that has long-structured our understanding of the "Grand Tour" in Western Europe. And that was, indeed, one of the foundational concepts for the project. For this reason, we spoke of the collocation of an agent, a time, and a place as a "tour stop." Since that time, however, we have come to see that what we are producing is not the trace of one trip or one tour. Instead, we are collecting information about the trajectory of a given life. Indeed, the project team had its change of heart at a very particular moment. Karen Lue, an undergraduate research assistant at the time, looked up from her work and said, "Is baptism a tour stop?" The room quieted down, we knew we wanted to track this sort of information, and therefore we also knew our terminology needed to change. In part because of a large helping of technical debt, the back-end interface still calls these data points, "tour stops." However, nowadays, when we speak of these events within the Visual Media Workshop, we make an effort to call them "life events," whether we are talking about people, objects, or sites.
is to be an objective. Sir Francis Dashwood embarking on a French vessel bound for Constantinople in 1728 is thus a conceptual starting point for Itinera rather than a mere data-point.

Cite this page as: Christopher Drew Armstrong, "Framing #1: Itinera as renvoi," in “Itinera’s Displacements: A Roundtable,” Journal18, Issue 5 Coordinates (Spring 2018),

From “Voyage fait en Grèce par les ordres du roy et sous les auspices de mgr. le comte de Maurepas,”
BNF, mss, fr. n.a. 1892, fol. 81 recto. 

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