Digital mapping at Stanford reveals social networks of 18th-century travelers

By James Kierstead | April 15, 2013

Through a digital analysis of correspondence from travelers on the famed European “Grand Tour,” classicist Giovanna Ceserani is discovering how international travel fostered cultural and academic trends in the 18th century.

In the network view of travelers with recorded trips to Rome from the ‘Dictionary of British and Irish Travelers to Italy, 1701-1800,’ connections between individuals are based on whether there exists a record of correspondence (orange) or other relationship (blue). In this close-up view, architect Robert Adam is highlighted.

We live in a world of networks, of nonstop messaging and degrees of separation. So did intellectuals of the early modern age, according to new research at Stanford.

During the 18th century, thousands of letters, often on academic subjects like mathematics, were exchanged between scholars across Europe. Wealthy aristocrats and their tutors penned many of those letters when they were on the famed “Grand Tour” of ancient sites in Europe.

A pioneering digital visualization project has allowed Giovanna Ceserani, an associate professor of classics, to map the routes of thousands of British and Irish elite travelers who went to Italy in the heyday of the Grand Tour.

Ceserani’s digital humanities project, the Grand Tour Travelers, has uncovered unexpectedly close connections between intellectuals, illuminated the rise and fall of cities, and occasionally offered warnings about how visualization can sometimes prove misleading.

Analysis of digital interpretations of the records of over 6,000 travelers from the British Isles illustrate just how small the elite world of tourists in this period was, as well as how, “irrespective of profession and social status, travel abroad seems to have lowered social boundaries and enabled otherwise unlikely connections,” Ceserani said.

The project began with the encoding of a digitized version of the Dictionary of British and Irish Travelers to Italy, 1701-1800, generously supplied by the Paul Mellon Centre in London. For each traveler, Ceserani and her team recorded the sites they visited, the dates of their visits and their birthplace and year, as well as their area of expertise, educational background and social status, among other variables.

A scholar with an interest in how classical sites in Italy influenced broader European culture, Ceserani wanted to trace “the actual movements of scholars, of travelers,” as they undertook journeys across Europe, often coming into contact with other travelers as they did so.

Read full post here. (Originally posted April 11, 2013)