Asian and Middle Eastern material in Russian : the January 2022 Slavonic item of the month

Having had the privilege of being on the selection panel for the new Chinese Specialist recently, I was pleased this week to catalogue the latest additions to the enormous
Pami︠a︡tniki pisʹmennosti Vostoka (Written monuments of the East) set which stands at 820.b.20.  The set contains Russian translations and commentaries of major texts from across Asia.  Among the new additions were a set of papers by the 16th-century Korean admiral Yi Sun-sin, the second volume of a dictionary of Turkic words, and a translation of the Mahāvairocanasūtra, a core Buddhist text whose original Sanskrit is lost so the Russian comes from the 8th-century Chinese translation.  These new additions are volumes 148, 128(2), and 149 respectively.  Their covers are shown below.

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Dating Spanish chapbooks: the wonders of artificial intelligence

Cambridge University Library was recently awarded a Cambridge Humanities Research Grant to continue work on the Spanish chapbooks catalogued and digitised under the “Wrongdoing in Spain, 1800-1936” project, as featured in the Cambridge Digital Library. This new year-long project aims to reliably date about 67% of chapbooks bearing estimated dates, often drawn from the printer’s period of activity. To establish more accurate dates of printing for these items, we aim to conduct visual search on woodcut illustrations within the chapbooks to compare prints made from the same woodblocks.

Printing houses used woodblocks (as well as metal stereotype plates in the nineteenth century) to illustrate the chapbooks. Woodblocks were expensive to produce, so printers often had a limited stock that they reused, sometimes through several generations of printers. Earlier woodblocks were crudely made on softwood, but the technique developed to produce much more detailed woodblocks etched with metal-engraving tools on harder wood. More intricate images are typical of the later period, although many older woodcuts continued to be used in later years to cut costs. It comes as no surprise then that wood blocks deteriorated over time, becoming less sharp, developing cracks. We see how, after many printings, the finest lines began to fade, and it is this wear-and-tear that we are hoping to use to our advantage to date the Cambridge Digital Library Spanish chapbooks more accurately.

During the first phase of the project (October 2021-to date) images of the chapbooks were run through a machine learning model created by Oxford University’s Visual Geometry Group. The model was pre-trained on similar Scottish chapbooks from the National Library of Scotland. This process recognized the woodcut images and created annotations to mark them using bounding boxes, but the result was not perfect. Manual input was needed to ensure that the gathering of images suited the parameters of the project. Our aim was to isolate individual woodblock prints (i.e., woodcuts made from a single woodblock). The software missed the fact that some images consisting of two or three separate woodblocks had been combined to make an individual image. It also missed borders and garlands and made “false detections”, so manual input was essential not just to serve our purposes for the project, but also to train the machine learning model to make more accurate predictions in the future.

On the next phase of the project, all the images and annotations, alongside metadata from Cambridge Digital Library, will be imported into an instance of VISE (Virtual Geometry Group Image Search Engine). VISE will allow us to visually search many images (we annotated a total of 18,757 images out of 26,527 scanned images of chapbooks). By using an image or a metadata field as a search query, we are hoping to use machine learning and computer vision to explore relationships between the illustrations and not only narrow down the publication dates of the chapbooks, but also open up fields for research in printing and social history.

Sonia Morcillo García

The great spa towns of Europe

This blog post revisits, as promised earlier, the theme of new additions to the UNESCO World Heritage list, concentrating this time on spa towns. Eleven towns in seven different countries formed a collective transnational nomination that was successful in July 2021. The towns are:

  • Baden bei Wien (Austria)
  • Spa (Belgium)
  • Františkovy Lázně, Karlovy Vary and Mariánské Lázně (Czechia)
  • Vichy (France)
  • Bad Ems, Baden-Baden and Bad Kissingen (Germany)
  • Montecatini Terme (Italy)
  • Bath (United Kingdom)

Terme Tettuccio at Montecatini Terme (by Elisa Salvicchi via Wikimedia Commons)

United by the healing properties of their waters, these resorts were chosen to represent spa culture which had its heyday from the 18th century to early in the 20th century. Now, in the cold of winter after a period of possible festive overindulgence, is the perfect time to envelop ourselves with thoughts of such places with their thermal springs and health cures. Using, as ever, resources held in the University Library, I will look back to a time when these were fashionable leisure destinations, frequented by famous visitors and stimulating the publication of many guides and handbooks. Continue reading

Science fiction and the arts

In July, I wrote a short introduction to the cataloguing work I have been doing with the collection donated by Professor Sir Alan Bowness and the insights from the donor’s own notes. After cataloguing and skimming through more of the collection, I found an enjoyable and unexpected theme amongst the collection of exhibition catalogues: science fiction & fantasy.

The out of this world cover of Bowness.b.471

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The nativity in Ukrainian puppet plays : the December 2021 Slavonic item of the month

The Institute of History of Ukraine in its online encyclopedia (in Ukrainian) explains that the vertep, a telling of the Christmas story through puppet theatre, is thought to have appeared in the second half of the 17th century and lasted until the early 20th century.  In 1929, I︠E︡vhen Markovsʹkyĭ published a book about vertep which was due to be the first volume of a set but which was never added to.  The UL’s copy has its record here.

The front cover of the book, with two pages showing puppets and a stage.

The vertep stage was often a two-storey house, with the story of the nativity taking place on the higher floor while the other provided other religious or secular puppet plays, with a strong strain of comedy running through the secular plays.  The Museum of Theatre, Music, and Cinema of Ukraine shows a beautiful array of vertep houses on this page.

Secular stories involved stock characters, among which often featured a Ukrainian peasant couple, a Zaporozhian Cossack, clerics, a Jewish character, a Polish character, Russian soldiers, and various animals.

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