The original subject of this research project was the proto-national conception of Italy that developed in the 15th and 16th century through the interaction of historiographical, geographical and literary media. Contrary to the first idea to cover the whole period, the project was finally built around the “Italia illustrata” of Flavio Biondo (ca. 1450), a detailed historiographical and geographical description of Italy in which the author struggles with a huge number of information cues, such as toponyms (place names, points-of-interest), landmarks, streets, distances, places, rivers, walls, historic sites that are foremost based on ancient authors such as Strabo, Pliny or Livy.


Central to the research became the question how verbal representations of spatial order work, and how crucial the impact of maps has been – in a time when maps were still rare. The project in the meantime has been co-financed by the Bibliotheca Hertziana, MPI for the History of Art, Rome, where the PI has been based since 2014.

With his “Italia illustrata” Flavio Biondo penned a description of Italy as a “prototype of a historico-topographical description” (Ottavio Clavuot) that subdivides Italy into regions to which the local and national history is then related. The book was not initially printed and packaged with maps. Nonetheless, it is an undisputed fact that maps stand behind (or rather alongside) the topographical order described successively in the texts, or in other words, that the form of history writing represented here draws on geographical descriptions and maps of historical places and Areas. And: it provides a clear mental map.

To understand the conceptual processes at work in Biondo’s verbal construction of Italy the analysis was split in three parts: (1) an accurate investigation of his ancient sources and its transformations, (2) an analysis of topographical information based on computational linguistic heuristics, and (3) a survey of maps that could have been available for the author.


(1) Apart from the research in inter-textual relations we provided a new English–Latin translation of Volume I, Book III (Latium) and synchronized the Latin–English sentences with specific focus on spatial annotation. That lead to a better understanding of the textual structure and provided the basis for the following examination in computational linguistics.

(2) A first frequency account based on a wordlist (POS tagging) using Antconc and Collatinus was created. The text corpus has been run with different annotation programs such as TreeTagger and the Lund Parser. The tagging procedure enables to extract parts-of-speech-tag-frequency-list, a word-and-POS-frequency-list, a semantic-frequency-list, lemmatised-and-POS-tagged-vertical-format and XML-format-POS-tagged, to name a few. The results are then tagged based on dependency graph. These methods help to understand the mental map as well as the spatial construction, and they enable the user to map the information cues onto a geographic information system.

(3) A set of maps in the Archivio di Stato (Naples) and in the Biblioteca della Società Napoletana di Storia Patria have been identified by Vladimiro Valerio as faithful copies of physiographic maps of South Italy produced in the kingdom of Naples (second half of the 15th century). This confirms the project’s initial hypothesis of an interdependence between written and drawn descriptions of Italy and the important role that the Kingdom of Naples played in this process. The set of maps was studied and professionally photographed. Furthermore, a digital collection of cartographic representations of Italy (15th century in Ptolemy-manuscripts and others) was established at the Bibliotheca Hertziana, MPI for the History of Art which is the basis for the future research in the concrete relation between historical maps and Biondo’s text production.

In short: This interdisciplinary approach to the “Italia illustrata” gave new insight into the complexity of historical spatial constructions and the role that different media played. It is planned to investigate further in a “thick description” of one single region that shall be displayed with the help of tools from literary, linguistic and computational studies. Methods and approaches developed in collaboration with other projects in Topoi research group (C-5) Common Sense Geography were employed, especially with research group (C-5-1) Common sense geography and mental modelling.

First results were also presented at “Mapping Ancient Identities” in Berlin; “Espandere i confini, paesaggio e territorio costiero tra realtà e immagine“, Istituto Nederlandese, in Rome, June 20-21, 2016; at the Sixteenth Century Society-Conference, Brügge, August 18-21, 2016; at the Digital Infrastructure for Named Entities Data, Leipzig, Humboldt Chair for Digital Humanities January 11-13, 2017.

The Ph.D. thesis attached to this project (C-5-9-1) Early Netherlandish Painting in the Crown of Aragon was compledted in 2017. Adrian Bremenkamp used the concept of ‘translation’ to analyse the artistic production at the Aragonese court and he offered a new aspect to understand the Neapolitan humanistic culture to which also Flavio Biondo belonged. The book publication Features of Common Sense Geography. Vol II: Landmarks (Geus, Görz, Michalsky & Thiering) presents a detailed description of the theoretical and analytical framework.