Feature - April 7, 1999
The Magic Classroom
Interactive Web programs are changing how art history is taught
By Ann Waldron
Princeton is in the vanguard of a revolution in the teaching of art history. In 11 courses in the Department of Art and Archaeology, digitized images of the slides used in the lectures are available online so that students can study them on computers on campus at any time, for as long as they like. Some professors have even shelved their slide carousels in order to project digitized images in class.
One course, Art and Archaeology 320, Rome, the Eternal City, taught by John A. Pinto, the Howard Crosby Butler Memorial Professor of the History of Architecture, exemplifies what computers can do for art history through an interactive program available to students via the World Wide Web.
An undergraduate in Pinto's course can sit in her dormitory room, turn on her computer, call up the Web page for the course, and look at the Nolli map of Rome, created in 1748. With a mouse she can click on any monument on the map -- the Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, or the Colosseum, to name just a few, and call up an image of it. She can follow the Papal Way, the route that Pope Paul V took for processions, and see the buildings he saw. Clicking on the Colosseum, she can access a database that gives her a capsule description and history of it. She can see additional photographs and zoom in on any she pleases, or print them out. She can scroll through an extensive bibliography on the Colosseum. Through other links she can read what St. Augustine said about the ancient arena (he deplored the violence that went on there), learn about Henry James's heroine, Daisy Miller, who died after a moonlight visit to the Colosseum, or discover what Nathaniel Hawthorne said about it in his novel The Marble Faun.
Pinto did not do all this alone, but with the man he refers to as his full-fledged collaborator, Kirk D. Alexander '72 *75, who majored in art history as an undergraduate and earned a master's degree in engineering. Alexander is manager of Multimedia Engineering Computation Atelier (MECA), which with its staff of four is housed in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and is charged with helping professors who want to use computers in the classroom.
Anyone familiar with CD-ROMs will recognize the interactive features of Pinto's program, which Alexander classifies as an "Internet application." Both formats can combine various media -- images, text, animation, and sound -- and connect them by links (clicking on a picture or highlighted text zips you from one part of the program to another). But they differ in several respects. A CD-ROM, of course, is a laser disc that the user accesses by inserting it into his or her personal computer, and the data stored on the disc can't be changed. By contrast, an Internet application resides on a computer network -- TigerNet -- where it can be accessed by students, although not the general public. Also, elements can be added or deleted, making it a flexible medium ideal for teaching.
"I'd been teaching the Rome course for years, but most of the students had never been there and had no idea of the buildings in context," said Pinto. To create the program that would provide that physical, historical, and cultural context, he applied to the 250th Anniversary Fund for Innovation in Undergraduate Teaching. The grant he received supported him during the summer when he compiled the program's database, and it paid for the digital projector used in his course and the 10 other courses in the department that are now taught using digital images rather than slides.
Pinto and Alexander used the Nolli map as a starting point, because, as Pinto said, "It's a masterpiece of urban cartography. It's to city maps what the Sistine Chapel is to frescoes. Its date is perfect; by the mid-1700s, Papal Rome had crystallized. The map itself is a database, with 1,200 monuments indexed by site and by categories, such as churches or ancient ruins." He plans to take advantage of the program's ability to expand. "The Nolli map is useful for architectural history and urban planning, but not for painting and sculpture. For instance, there is something called a Census of Ancient Art Known During the Renaissance that could perhaps be added." He also wants to include text and images relating to the many frescoes found on the interior walls of the city's churches. "The only thing the Rome course now has about the Sistine Chapel is a shot of the exterior."
Slobodan Curcic, a professor who teaches Byzantine art and architecture, used the computer in quite a different way in an upper-level course he taught last fall on Thessaloniki. This ancient Greek port provides a wonderful laboratory in which to study architecture, sculpture, and frescoes from the 4th century B.C. to the present. "The market is in the same place it always was," said Curcic, "and the town is small enough to be walkable." (The students walked Thessaloniki's streets -- not virtually but literally -- on a visit there during fall break, expenses paid by the Program in Hellenic Studies.)
Many of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman buildings exist only as ruins, and Curcic conceived the idea of having his students build computer models showing how the buildings originally looked, based on information contained in old prints and written descriptions. "The École des Beaux-Arts used to be famous for its reconstruction drawings of lost buildings," he said. "But they were often fantasies by 19th-century artists that came to be looked on as facts. Using computers to build models allows for two or more alternatives, several hypothetical ideas. We discuss them in class. The computer becomes a tool for discussion and debate."
Architecture students in Curcic's course were already familiar with the computer modeling of buildings. A few had used the software, Form Z, but most had to be taught from scratch. With the help of a grant from the 250th Fund, Curcic recruited his former research assistant, Joel Kelly *93, an Atlanta-based architect who's especially familiar with the computer modeling of buildings. Kelly came twice during the course, staying for a week each time, instructing students on his first visit and critiquing their work on the second.
Students loved it. For her project, Elizabeth Chirpich '99 "rebuilt" the main domed room of Bey Haman, a 15th-century Ottoman bath, using only a floor plan and a section drawing indicating heights. The 16th-century White Tower is built on the site of much older Byzantine fortifications. It now stands in isolation but used to be connected to the city walls. Matthew Coldiron '99 reconstructed the fortifications (shown at left) using an 18th-century drawing and several early 20th-century photographs. Neither of these students is an architecture major, nor had they any prior experience with the modeling software.
For the Thessaloniki course, Curcic is now developing an Internet application similar to the one used in Pinto's course on Rome. He has about half of it done and hopes to complete it before he teaches the course again, but admitted, "This is time-consuming work. If you've worked with slides for 25 years, it takes retooling." It's a task that Alexander compares to writing a book.
REAL AND VIRTUAL DIGS
This semester, Professor of Art and Archaeology William A.P. Childs '64*71 and J. Michael Padgett, the Art Museum's curator of ancient art, are coteaching a seminar on Greek art in which students examine museum objects with human/animal fusions, such as the Gorgons, sphinxes, sirens, centaurs, and satyrs. "We show students how these objects -- vases, figurines, reliefs -- are handled, and the class has started working on a database of the ancient objects in the museum," Childs said.
Childs himself wrote the program used in the class (its background colors are orange and black). He developed it from a database he has created for recording ancient objects. Adapting it for teaching, he said, "brings my research into the classroom and gives the students access to all my material." The program, which now includes 400 to 500 objects and 3,000 bibliographic entries and commentary relating to them, "can grow as anyone in the department researches or teaches the subject."
Childs has been involved for most of his career in ongoing excavations on Cyprus, and for the last 10 years he's been using his database to inventory the objects unearthed. The department has access to two other databases of classical objects. One is Sibyl, a 20,000-object database of classical iconography and mythology developed by Rutgers art historian Jocelyn Penny Small. The other is a large database of images of ancient objects on slides developed by members of Princeton's classics department. Rafael Alvarado, the coordinator for social sciences and humanities computing in the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, wants to combine all three of these databases into one that comprises images, bibliography, and iconography. He hopes eventually to expand the database so that it includes the cultures of medieval Japan and meso-America.
Alvarado points out that art history has always been dependent to some extent on technology: "It could not exist until photography provided the means to study art away from its site." It's not surprising, therefore, that when digitized images became a possibility some years ago, members of the art and archaeology department took notice. Childs, a classical archaeologist, was the first to get serious about computers. In the 1970s, he worked with David Packard [of Hewlett-Packard] on hardware and software to read all the ancient Greek texts. When directing Princeton's archaeological excavation on Cyprus in the early 1980s, Childs learned to use an electronic theodolite to plot on a computer the coordinates of the trenches and the objects found in the field. The theodolite could read distance to the millimeter. Its computer allowed the placement of a point in three-dimensional space, and the software translated it into longitude and latitude so that archaeologists could drop the point on a map of the site.
"Before, with the old method, we got within a few meters," Childs said. "With a computer we got within a millimeter. And what had taken an hour took one minute."
In 1986, wondering if computers couldn't provide three-dimensional images -- a virtual dig -- Childs talked to Alain L. Kornhauser *71, a professor of civil engineering who was teaching a course in computer graphics. Kornhauser assigned Christopher Wright '89, then a junior in the class, to Childs's project. In one semester, Wright designed the software to illustrate trench excavations in three dimensions.
"He came out to Cyprus that summer and later wrote his senior thesis on the work he did there," said Childs. "It was mind-boggling. He developed all the tools we needed; he wrote software that was perfect; he developed a technique for recording material in the field that changed the way we dig. The theodolite recorded every single object, whether it was a point on a wall, a fragment of a vase, or a statuette. It improved accuracy of records monumentally and provided a study tool of incalculable value to excavators. Chris not only wrote the software, but for his thesis he studied the principles behind the work we wanted to do. The way he thought through the problem was spectacular." Childs paused and said, with wonder and a hint of regret, "He became a stockbroker."
Childs and Wright, said Alexander, were "ahead of their time. You could buy nothing off the shelf. It all had to be created from scratch." After Wright graduated, Kornhauser provided other students to work with Childs, calling it "a good use and expansion of the technology. It exposed humanities students to technology and engineers to classical archaeology."
"FLOATING" THROUGH FRESCOES
At about the same time that Childs was making contact with engineers, Marilyn A. Lavin, a visiting professor who was writing a book about fresco cycles in Italian churches, asked the Office of Computing and Information Technology (CIT) for help in compiling a database. When her book, The Place of Narrative: Mural Decoration in Italian Churches, appeared in 1990, Lavin acknowledged the assistance of CIT's Shirley K. Robbins and printed the database in the book's appendix.
Next, Lavin asked CIT's cyberwizards if they could build a three-dimensional image of one chapel so the viewer could "walk in" and see the sequence of its frescoes. At the time they couldn't, but after Alexander organized MECA to assist faculty in using computers, he acquired the necessary equipment. In 1992 he called Lavin to ask her if she were still interested.
Indeed she was. The result was the Piero Project. Similar on one level to Pinto's program built around the Nolli map of Rome, the Piero Project offers the user 3D images of the Chapel of San Francesco in Arezzo, Italy, where frescoes by the 15th-century artist Piero della Francesca depict the Legend of the Holy Cross. By using a mouse to manipulate controls along the bottom of the screen, users can navigate through the chapel's virtual space. They can home in on details of the frescoes and draw imaginary lines across walls and around angles to measure different parts of the work. For comparative purposes they can juxtapose details such as faces or figures from different frescoes.
The program, said Alexander, "is the very best way to appreciate the interrelationships among the frescoes in the chapel and the intentions of the artist." He has written an article on the Piero Project that's available on the Web (http://mondrian.princeton.edu/scripts/pierowww.good). Its title -- "The Magic Classroom" -- could apply to any of the Internet applications MECA has helped develop.
It was the Piero Project that led Pinto to visit Alexander at MECA's offices in the Engineering Quad. Alexander plays an active role when he works with professors, asking questions and making suggestions that help to refine their goals. After he and Pinto discussed possibilities for using computers in the teaching of architectural history, the two decided to work first on the course on Rome architecture, a subject dear to Pinto's heart. He had spent his teenage years in Rome, where his father was headmaster of the International School, and the experience changed his life. The city became the focus of his research as a graduate student and fellow of the American Academy in Rome, and he has been working on it ever since, writing especially about the Trevi Fountain and Hadrian's Villa.
VIRTUAL IMAGES REPLACE SLIDES
Once the department had the equipment, Pinto and Childs started putting the slides for several courses online. "We did the chairman's course first -- we wanted him involved," said Childs. Chairman John Wilmerding, the Christopher Binyon Sarofim '86 Professor in American Art, is hardly a computer buff (he doesn't even use e-mail), but he's happy that images for his survey course in American art are now digitized: "Even I can see the value of having images available at all times for students to use, to zoom in on, and to print out."
In the predigital era, students taking courses in art history were limited to seeing their professor's slides during lectures. Preparing for exams, they flocked to study rooms in McCormick Hall to review photographic prints. But a print wasn't available for every slide in a course. Prints occasionally disappeared, and study-room hours did not always jibe with students' schedules. Once everything is digitized and online, the university will no longer have to maintain extensive photo collections, or pay to have prints mounted on cardboard for hanging on the wall, or post prints in spaces that could be used for other purposes.
Childs feels that computer images are not as good as slides and photographs, but he uses them anyway. Said Pinto, "They're good enough for architectural photographs, but Willy Childs lectures on Greek vase painting, where a hairline makes a difference." But digital projectors "are getting better all the time," he added, and eventually the resolution and color quality of their images will surpass those of slides. Students, for their part, are comfortable with the technology and don't complain about the quality of online images.
Pinto said that computerization had not depersonalized the teaching of his Rome course in any way: "If anything, it's made it more personal. Students used to come to my office to talk about term-paper topics. They were fishing, they wanted me to assign them a topic. Now I say in class, 'Link up, then go to the library and read about the monument.' Students now have a topic when they come to see me. They get better topics, and they go to the library more. You can't write a term paper by relying just on the database for your research -- you still have to use the library."
Ann Waldron is a regular contributor to paw. This summer, the Alumni Council will offer an online course for alumni based on John Pinto's undergraduate course on Rome. The course will make extensive use of Pinto's interactive Internet application, which includes sound and 3D animation. Those seeking more information should visit the Website www.princeton.edu/~alco, about the first of June.
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