Penn Libraries News

Search Thousands of Works of Art With BASIRA: Books as Symbols in Renaissance Art

Developed by the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies and partners all over the world, this new database serves as a powerful new digital resource for understanding the history of books.

A collage of eight different images, each depicting a book or manuscript being read or held. The images range from people in historical attire reading ornate books to a modern-looking book with printed text and illustrations.

November marked the inauguration of a compelling new digital resource hosted by the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies (SIMS). BASIRA, or Books as Symbols in Renaissance Art, is an open-access online database of representations of books and other textual documents in the figurative arts between the years 1300 and 1600.

With the launch of the search portal, users anywhere can browse and query thousands of images of books from a constantly expanding dataset. Dozens of aspects of a book’s depiction can be investigated, including details of its binding, bookmarks, contents, and position. In addition, users can search for the particulars of who or what is interacting with the book, and how that action is taking place. The new resource is designed to appeal to students and scholars across a wide range of disciplines, from book history and art history to musicology, gender and sexuality studies, comparative literature and languages, religious studies, museum studies, book conservation, library science, and more. Over the coming years, our project team, with the help of an international board of advisors, plans to build BASIRA into a major global resource for all those interested in historical depictions of the book.

Founded in 2014, BASIRA is largely the brainchild of independent scholar and SIMS research associate Barbara Williams Ellertson who, after a wide-ranging career in book design, turned her energies to the exploration of the depiction of documents in late medieval and early modern art. In 2019, Ellertson partnered with Penn Libraries staff, including Special Collections Digital Content Programmer Doug Emery, and me, the SIMS Lawrence J. Schoenberg Curator, to transform the database and enrich its content. With the support of a transformative digital humanities grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in 2019, and with additional student support from the Price Lab for Digital Humanities, the BASIRA team was able to work with Performant Software LLC to produce both a robust back end for database enrichment and the compelling public search interface described below.

A collage of classical paintings and illustrations featuring people reading or holding books, with detailed book imagery below.
Details of some of the thousands of images in the BASIRA database.

Browsing BASIRA

The new BASIRA search interface is intuitive yet powerful, unlocking a world of previously inaccessible historical information. Users begin with a list of document records, which show summaries of a particular depiction of a book or book-like object. By inputting keywords and selecting facets, the result list can be narrowed down accordingly. Facets include particulars of the artwork (what, when, where) and its current location, as well as aspects of its iconography and cultural context.  

The most detailed facet groups concern the book depiction itself; a myriad of details can be searched, including general details like format, type, and size, as well as external features such as bindings, fastenings, bookmarks, and decoration. What color is the book’s cover? Is anything written on the spine? What type of endband does it have? How many bookmarks? What kind? Finally, if the book is shown open, can its contents be read? What language and script? Is anything else shown on the page? The possibilities are endless and the details are endlessly fascinating.

Screenshot of BASIRA website. On left, there’s a filter with options to expand or collapse details. 2 pieces of artwork are displayed on right: “Book held by Saint Paul, created by Geminiano Benzoni 1500–1510 and housed at Pinacoteca di Brera" and “Closed book held by Apostle, part of Triptych with Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin (Inhoff Triptych) created around 1455 by Master of Saint Wolfgang’s Altarpiece and housed at National Museum in Warsaw." Both show images of figures holding books.
The BASIRA search interface.

What is more, in BASIRA every document is engaged in one or more action. Most commonly, artworks depict books being held or touched or read (frequently all three simultaneously) by someone or something depicted in the work, but they can also be flying, burning, leaning, supporting, being sung from, and more. Each transitive action involves an entity: a person or thing performing the action. This entity has various characteristics and can be undertaking the action with a body part. Thus we can search for all images of female laypersons holding or touching a book with a thumb, even if we don’t have a particular individual in mind. The selected facets show up at the top of the search page and can be deselected at will.

Screenshot of BASIRA website with filters showing search results for “Entity Descriptors: Female”, “Entity Descriptors: Lay person”, “Verb: is held by”, “Verb: is touched by”, and “Body Descriptors: Thumb”. Two pieces of artwork are displayed: “Book held by Cassandra Cavalcanti Bandini (?)”, a portrait from 1550–1555 by Agnolo Bronzino and “Book held by courtiers”, a tapestry with David and Bathsheba from 1510–1520 by an unknown creator. Both artworks depict figures holding books.
Search results in BASIRA for all images of female laypersons holding or touching a book with a thumb.

Once a user has located one or more relevant results, clicking on any document summary brings up a detail page for that particular depiction. Here, we can see all the details of the first record in the search results, a book held by a woman thought to be Cassandra Cavalcanti Bandini.

Screenshot of an entry from the BASIRA website. It shows a close-up of a hand adorned with jewelry, holding a small, closed book. The hand is part of a painting and the person is wearing red clothing. Below the painting, there’s text providing details about this specific piece of art, including fields like ID, Name, Document Type, Document Format, and Orientation. There’s an option to go ‘Back to Search’ at the top right corner of the webpage.

In addition to a beautiful detail image, we see a summary of the actions taking place, as well as the external features and, if applicable, the internal features of the document. Note that each record is stable and has a unique BASIRA identifier (in this case, “documents/2492”). Clicking on the navigation menu in the upper left corner allows us to explore all elements of that record, namely the encompassing Visual Context, Physical Component, and Artwork. This menu is particularly useful for complex works of art like altarpieces and fresco cycles, which may contain many physical parts, individual figures, and depictions of books (Raphael’s School of Athens has 13 documents shown over 10 different visual contexts).

Screenshot of a digital interface displaying detailed information about a book held by Cassandra Cavalcanti Bandini in a portrait. The interface includes categories like artwork, physical component, visual context, and document. The right side of the screenshot shows a cropped section of the actual portrait.
The navigation menu for document 2492 page in BASIRA, showing associated Visual Context, Physical Component, and Artwork. 

Users can investigate the other related records, then return to their search result list and continue browsing. All record types can be cited, and URLs can be shared at will. From the main search page, users can also contact the BASIRA team, visit the project website for news and updates, and suggest new content and contribute photos through a Google form. Future development plans include the ability to save searches and view one’s search history in the database. New records are being added weekly, and long-term plans involve expanding the scope and chronological range of the resource significantly.

Investigating the Image of the Book

As a project, BASIRA aims to be a central resource for all those who are interested in historical depictions of the book. After a sneak-peek preview at the Workshop in the History of Material Texts on November 13, 2023, the official launch of the search interface was held during the 16th annual Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age, titled The Image of the Book: Representing the Codex from Antiquity to the Present. The symposium featured 16 speakers who investigated all kinds of historical depictions of books, from wax tablets in Greco-Roman antiquity to pop bibliographic illustrations in playing cards from Magic: The Gathering. Several speakers used BASIRA as the basis of their presentations.

The proceedings began with a keynote address at the Free Library of Philadelphia by Jeffrey Hamburger of Harvard University, who investigated the manifold ways in which authorship could be depicted in high-medieval frontispieces. Over the next two days, speakers discussed the ways books and other documents were depicted across space and time, from 12th-century Germany to Ming dynasty China to the Ottoman Court. Additionally, there was a special presentation of an array of extraordinary book-shaped objects (“Blooks”) by conservator/collector Mindell Dubansky of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a live demo of a Virtual Reality manuscript-viewing environment by Sanna Zonno of the Huntington Library and the University of Southern California.

A conference room with three people preparing for an event. A projector screen displays information about the event, including ‘Penn Libraries’ and ‘Free Library of Philadelphia’. The room is illuminated by natural light from large windows revealing a cityscape outside.
Dr. Sabina Zonno demonstrating the manuscripts in VR environment to two attendees of the 16th annual Schoenberg Symposium for Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age.

As a project, BASIRA aims to foster connections among scholars, curators, conservators, and all other persons interested in book history and the visual arts. The BASIRA team encourages web users everywhere to explore the database for research and teaching (see these sample student assignments), propose new artworks for inclusion through our online portal, and contact the project team with any questions or remarks. Follow BASIRA on Instagram and Facebook for a steady stream of fascinating project content and updates.

Want to learn more about BASIRA? Join us for an online talk on March 22 about how students and scholars can use this powerful database. Register now.

An illustration of a figure in ornate attire holding a red book. The background features intricate designs, suggesting this is a piece of historical or religious artwork.
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Book held by the Christ Child, detail from Triptych with the Virgin and Child, Archangels Michael and Gabriel, Saints, and Scenes from the Life of Christ. Ethiopia, late 17th century. Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2006.11.

A close-up of a painting depicting a person in historical attire holding a lute. The individual’s right hand and flowing sleeves are visible. A sheet of music with handwritten notes is prominently displayed in the foreground, contrasting with the dark background.
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Open book in front of woman, detail from The Player. Master of the Female Half-Lengths, circa 1550. Turin, Galleria Sabauda.

An open book with illuminated manuscript and elegant calligraphy. The pages feature a vivid illustration of a red creature amidst greenery, blue flowers, and intricate designs. The edges of the pages appear gilded, resting on a draped cloth.
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Book held by Saint Columba of Sens, detail from Wing of an altarpiece with Saint Andrew and Saint Columba of Sens. Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece, circa 1501–1510. Mainz, Landesmuseum Mainz, Inv. 441.



March 13, 2024