May was a very cultural month for me. After the DigCurV Conference in Florence, I took a day’s holiday to look round (among other things) the wonderful Duomo, Florence’s cathedral. Then towards the end of the month, while visiting family, I went to the beautiful Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.
One of the things that the Duomo and Chatsworth have in common is an array of spectacular painted ceilings and other artworks. As I gazed at these, I frequently found myself wanting more metadata. Who were all the people and places I was looking at? When had they been painted, and by whom? What was the significance of the recurring snake motif? A painting or a sculpture can be a pleasing thing to look at, but for me, what really brings them to life is learning the stories behind them.
In some cases, the extra information I craved was available. Vasari and Zucchari’s fresco on the roof of the Duomo (pictured right) was awe-inspiring by itself, but my enjoyment of it was enhanced several-fold by renting an audioguide headset that told me who some of the symbolic figures depicted were. Chatsworth offered a combination of guidebooks, information sheets, and friendly tour guides. One of my favourite nuggets was the identity of one of the characters in a painted ceiling showing the battle between the virtues and the vices: the artist had a rather stormy relationship with the housekeeper of the day, and took his revenge by painting her as one of the vices, complete with a very menacing-looking pair of scissors!
Sometimes, however, the details were simply missing. My dad was interested in the identity of a Man in Oriental Costume, painted by Rembrandt. The tour guide’s response: we don’t really know. It’s speculated that he may be King Uzziah from the Bible, but this is only a theory; there’s no definite record of who the artist intended this to be a picture of. Even more intriguingly, why did Maria Cosway paint Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire with six toes? Again, there are theories (it may be an artistic shorthand hinting that the subject had supernatural abilities or a sixth sense – or it may just be that the artist couldn’t count!), but no one really knows.
It saddens me immensely to think that countless other stories may have been lost to us because no one thought to write them down. Metadata can sometimes feel like a dry, dull, technical thing, but hearing more about the paintings was anything but that: it often made us laugh (and on one occasion in Florence, brought tears to my eyes), and gave us a vivid sense of being in real contact with the past. (And while this might apply most obviously in the cultural heritage sphere, anyone who’s ever looked through a collection of old holiday snaps with cryptic or inadequate labels will know that metadata can also be of real value in more domestic contexts.)
My hope is that the JISC MRD programme and other work in this area can help to promote a culture in which it’s less likely that this sort of priceless story will be lost. In the future, if anyone asks me about the value of metadata, I suspect I may end up telling them about the Chatsworth housekeeper and Georgiana’s sixth toe!