Many a good idea has been inspired by a night in the pub, but it was an AHRC-funded project on the social use of taverns that was behind the lightbulb moment that led to the recent creation of an interactive map and app project on Renaissance Florence. Professor Fabrizio Nevola and Dr David Rosenthal had been working on the taverns project together as part of a Connected Communities project that looked at the historical use of pubs in Florence, Bristol and London. In looking for where to take the project next they came up with an idea that may have been popular with undergraduates, but was not quite what they were looking for.
“David Rosenthal found a fantastic document, which was essentially a 16th century pub crawl,” says Nevola, who is Chair in Art History and Visual Culture at Exeter University. “We thought we could make a great app from that as part of our Follow-On Funding. But we soon moved away from that and on to something that was more about a walk through Florence during the Renaissance.”
The idea for this interactive map, complete with audio directions and storytelling, first came to Nevola after he used the Guardian Streetstories smartphone app, which mapped and told the history of the area around the newspaper's new office in King's Cross, London. He then approached the app's makers, Calvium, to find out if it was possible to create a more in-depth product that could represent serious academic research and history without the need for screeds of text.
The result of the £30,000 Follow-On Funding is the app and website Hidden Florence, in which Nevola, Rosenthal and their creative partners have managed to weave together a history of Renaissance Florence that relates to mapped points around the city. In doing so, the pair have also utilised a 16th century map created by Benedictine monk Stefano Bonsignori. But it is the way that the team approached this project that really brings it to life.
“We decided to create a pseudo-historical character called Giovanni,” says Nevola. “He is a wool worker and he doesn't really exist in the archival record, but he represents a non-elite artisan worker and an alternative voice for that period. We placed him at the end of the 1480s, which was the heyday of Renaissance Florence.”
Giovanni leads you around historic Florence in much the same way as any friend would when you visit their city. He takes in the sights, a little local gossip, a touch of politics and, yes, even the odd trip to a tavern. You can get this information using the website, but using the app, which triggers conversation from Giovanni via GPS, really gives you an immersive tour. A good deal of this is down to the software and design by Calvium, although the sound skills of fellow collaborator Nicola Barranger really help to paint a picture in your mind as you stroll.
“I suggested that we personalise the tour and this is where audio works so much better than video,” says Barranger, a radio producer who also works with BBC Radio 4 and the World Service. “Fabrizio [Nevola] and David [Rosenthal] then came up with the character. There is a lot of material available on the upper echelons of society but we thought it would be great to have a normal person. I am a passionate believer in the strength of audio and how the imagination flares up when you get a good sound. To Giovanni we are contemporaries and he is delighting in showing us around his home area. It is like he is there whispering into your ear, saying 'look at this'.”
This format also allows the team to work humour into the project, with Giovanni giving us snippets of information and jokes that relate to Michelangelo and other historical figures. The format is so much more immediate and intimate than video, allowing for a seamless journey where the user paints the pictures in their mind, using their surroundings to place themselves in the story and therefore in the history of Florence.
In order to make sure that the app and website worked perfectly for those touring Florence, Nevola and the team flew out to expend some shoe leather on the streets. Ducking into potential GPS blind spots and ensuring that users would not get lost.
“I thought that being in Florence would be the fun part,” says Nevola. “But it was exhausting. We tested location by location as to whether the audio tour would trigger correctly. We tried to get into the most difficult locations and that was a real call on our time. It also rained the whole time we were there. We had to make sure that the route was right. There is nothing like being on location to help you find out where problems may occur.”
Nevola and the team also created some additional audio material for those who wanted to know more and to go beyond the narrative offered by the semi-fictional Giovanni. This allowed Nevola to add in some more academic-leaning content without spoiling the narrative, as well as encouraging further reading.
“The real research for me came away from the part I thought I was an expert on,” says Nevola. “I know all about streets and how they work, but tracing them out so that someone else can go there without me forced me to engage in a way that written research cannot.”
This discovery has, in turn, led to the desire to continue work on similar guides for other cities, using the same device of a semi-fictional character to lead to way. It has also made Nevola and Rosenthal keen to develop new characters for Hidden Florence, to offer a different perspective on different eras.
“I’m really taking that idea of working at the micro level for a very detailed understanding of a particular place and how you can magnify that out to a broader understanding of larger concepts,” he says. “So, for example, looking at the relationship between a specific street corner and how it speaks to bigger issues around sociability or justice. That illuminates history in a way that you would never have understood it just making that point in a couple of lines of written text. That, I suppose, was the real research finding and it was a really unexpected one to be honest. I was expecting this to be just telling people about things that I already knew about and it turned out to be something where I learnt a great deal.”
Article by Iain Aitch