Credit: Jon Gardiner.
Credit: Jon Gardiner.

Visualizing the World Anew

Transforming methodologies
July 24, 2013

My field is the history of medieval architecture and cities. The research I do takes me climbing all over old buildings, measuring and recording details from the vaults of Notre Dame in Paris to the crypt of Naples Cathedral—and places high and low in between. I am interested in the process of building large structures, as well as their impact on the urban environment around them. How was space made for a much bigger cathedral in the middle of a city? Who had to give up property, how was that arranged, and how did those negotiations affect the process of construction? I’m also curious about the long-term planning and financing of large-scale architecture, so my research involves a lot of work in archives and libraries.

I’m essentially a detective for the places and spaces of the past, for the way the world as we know it was shaped. Needless to say, this process reflected social, economic, and religious practices and forms part of a continuum from the past into the present and future.

Modern medievalist: Bruzelius uses digital technologies to re-imagine—and re-create—how buildings and cities evolved over time.


So why would somebody who has such an interesting time doing research think about transformation? The answer is simple and rather wonderful: Digital technologies have transformed the ways in which I can gather and compare data (such as databases for the measurements of buildings), collect and compare visual resources (such as my National Endowment for the Humanities-funded database of Grand Tour images of the medieval buildings of Sicily), and, above all, reconstruct the lost spaces of the past to represent change over time.

Until now, the tools available to historians of cities and buildings were ground plans, maps, sections, photographs, and elevations. But all these types of documents represent a “frozen moment”—the state of the building or city at the time when the plan was produced or the camera shutter was clicked. Yet we all know that our environments are constantly changing. Just look at the transformations to Duke’s Perkins Library over the past ten years. Suppose we could show all the changes of space and place in Perkins as a continuous flow, one that explains how new ideas about making knowledge are expressed in the transformed library? Suppose we see the process as an animation that includes excerpts from discussions about how the changing role of libraries affect space as a process over time?

We can now tell stories about the lives of places and things as an ongoing process. We can build models of destroyed buildings, or reconstruct demolished zones of a city. We can show people what existed long before they arrived and settled: Perhaps it was a field, or an Indian village, or a trading post. When we put our projects in the DIVE (Duke Immersive Visualization Environment), you can walk into a church—say, one in Venice—that was destroyed 200 years ago. You can see that a painting in a museum was designed for the specific location and particular light conditions of the church that it came from.

I still measure buildings and go to archives, so my work is still embedded in the solitary activities of the humanities scholar. But I am also part of a collaborative team at Duke, a self-generated learning community called Wired! We integrate new visualization technologies into teaching and training from freshmen through graduate students and postdocs, including:

  • Developing a surface analysis system to capture chisel marks on medieval walls so we can ask questions about the labor force and about chronology of construction. A trip with three Duke undergraduates to do on-site research in Naples over spring break was funded by the Humanities Writ Large initiative, which aims to redefine the role of the humanities in undergraduate education.
  • Creating courses for freshmen, using the 3D software Sketch-Up, to model churches in Venice demolished after Napoleon’s conquest 200 years ago.
  • Inventing a research and public outreach initiative, called Visualizing Venice, which shows how this unique city evolved over time. This project is in collaboration with the universities of Venice and Padua and now involves about thirty scholars and students.
  • Working toward a new course with colleagues in computer science to engage undergraduates in developing apps that show how urban space changes over time. My goal is to have students produce apps that can take you on alternative tours of a city such as Venice—“Vivaldi’s Venice” or “Boat Making in Venice.”
  • Teaching mapping technologies in the “Introduction to Art History,” so that students can engage with the lives of things. For example, where did the basalt from the Stele of Hammurabi (c. 1760 B.C.E.) come from? What was its history? And how did it end up in the Louvre Museum in Paris? Objects have stories.
  • Working with colleagues in engineering to develop 3D interactive exhibitions for objects in the Nasher Museum of Art, so that the public can put our medieval sculpture back into a portal or church façade or restore its color.
  • Developing a research and teaching initiative with colleagues in environmental science to engage with Integrated Natural-Human systems that will use Venice as a long-term model of interlocked human-natural systems.

Our main goal is to train students in the intelligent and scholarly use of technology so they can ask meaningful questions about the world we live in. We are commited to communicating historical knowledge about cities, buildings, and works of art to the public on apps, online animations, and websites. Technology enables us to engage directly with the materiality of objects and buildings. It also can help us tell stories about places and things to the world at large.

Bruzelius has been teaching at Duke since 1981; she won the Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award in 1985. From 1994 to 1998, she was director of the American Academy in Rome, and in 2012, she was inducted as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her research covers medieval architecture, sculpture, and urbanism in France and Italy.