Launching a new student-created database: Provenance Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi Online (PABLO)

With introduction by Jacqueline Giz (Rutgers BA ’23, MA cand. ’24)

The newly established Provenance Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi Online (PABLO) database is officially live. PABLO is a product of an interdisciplinary collaboration between four undergraduate Rutgers University—New Brunswick students – Jacqueline Giz (RU’23), Emilie Puja (RU’25), Geetika Thakur (RU’23), and Vaishnavi Vura (RU’24)—under the direction of T. Corey Brennan (Professor, Rutgers Classics). PABLO is supported by Rutgers School of Arts and SciencesInterdisciplinary Research Team Fellowship (IRT) program.   

PABLO is a platform that will eventually host a comprehensive provenance database for the former and present collection of the Boncompagni Ludovisi family. At its peak in the mid-17th century, the family’s illustrious collection was filled with famous sculptures like the Dying Gaul, master paintings by the likes of Raphael and Caravaggio, ancient gems, and countless other media. Their works were dispersed across their various properties in Rome.  A fraction of the collection remains in the family’s hands today and most of the collection has traveled across the world. Former Boncompagni Ludovisi items can be found from the Capitoline Museum to the Getty Museum to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (among countless other institutions). 

However, PABLO will eventually reunite these cultural objects in a digital setting. And as the future of the Villa Aurora and its priceless collection of cultural heritage continues to be in question, PABLO will prove to be a valuable resource. More objects of cultural importance will certainly be dispersed, and PABLO will reunite the collection in a virtual environment.   

In its first iteration, the database will highlight the family’s collection of cameo and intaglio gems. Although inventories suggest that the family owned nearly 500 engraved gems, a set of plaster casts made by Tomaso Cades in the 18th century provides a definitive picture of 68 gems once owned by the family. These casts were the basis of the provenance study that populates the database today.   

These engraved gems are the first of many media that will be featured on PABLO. In the coming months, the database will grow to include Boncompagni Ludovisi sculpture, paintings, and inscriptions. With time, the students hope to represent all aspects of the Boncompagni Ludovisi collection within the database. 

To mark the launch of PABLO, Jacqueline, Emilie, Geetika, and Vaishnavi joined Corey Brennan via ZOOM to chat about PABLO and their experience working under Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences Interdisciplinary Research Team program.   

JACQUELINE: “Just to get started as of last night there are officially 21 pieces on the PABLO database with provenance from their time in Boncompagni Ludovisi hands to the present, which I think doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a lot of work that has gone into it. I guess maybe we should start with the tech side of things. If somebody kind of wants to talk about how we ended up using Omeka and stuff, that might be a good place to start.”   

EMILIE: “Initially, considering that we have two computer science majors and an IT major on the team, we were very set on coding the database ourselves. And you know, we experimented with SQL and tried our hand at that. But luckily, we also sought out the help of other professors, and it was Dr Warren Allen in particular, the Director for the Undergraduate Information Technology and Informatics program at Rutgers, who actually recommended Omeka to us. So I’ll admit, at first, I was a little bit hesitant to use this software rather than code the database ourselves. I was kind of worried about the limitations or restrictions that might put on us and the project, that it might limit how much of our vision we could accomplish. But honestly, I think in the long run, this is going to be great for the sustainability of the website, considering how it’s been pretty easy to learn and use Omeka. And we’ve already created guidelines for future website administrators, which we update as we encounter new things. So, having computer science majors and IT majors working on this project will not be absolutely necessary in the future. We’re ensuring that pretty much anyone can learn how to use the software and maintain PABLO.” 

At Rutgers’ spring 2023 Interdisciplinary Research Team Fellowship colloquium (21 April), PABLO creators (from left) Jacqueline Giz (RU’23), Vaishnavi Vura (RU’24), Geetika Thakur (RU’23), and Emilie Puja (RU’25)

JACQUELINE: “I think one of the most important things about Omeka is how easy the interface is. Even without a background in Computer Science, I feel like anyone can learn the system which will be crucial as the database expands. And also, this is kind of a no-brainer here, but the database is scalable. So even though right now there are only 21 gems, what’s really important is that in the future we’ll be adding even more things like inscriptions, paintings, sculptures, which is something I’m looking forward to watching happen.” 

TCB: “I have a question, just a general one for the team. Just tell about the process by which you even just got started. I mean, there’s no Omeka template, but there’s a lot more that went into it than just, you know, just walk us through some of the most basic steps and some of the milestones.”  

GEETIKA: “So, for us to use Omeka, we had a lot of trial and errors. So, as Emilie said before, we were trying to code our database, so we were learning SQL. We were creating our own database, we saw that our database wasn’t storing our information in the particular order that we wanted it. Our provenance data, like the order of the owners and information, did not save in the certain way we wanted. And it was just really confusing because it’s not formatting that way and the information was disorganized. So, we just did trial and error. We also reached out to professors in the IT department, and the CS department, to help us with our database. We assumed that maybe we were creating it[the database] wrong, or we were inputting data incorrectly, and if there is an easier and more efficient way of doing it. That’s actually how we learned about Omeka! The best thing about Omeka is that it is used for storing provenance and art history data, so it stores the information in an efficient and clear way.”

JACQUELINE: “I want to add a bit on provenance. So, Omeka as a database is usually used for museums and archives. However, as far as I know, the database has yet to be used to present something that’s based on provenance. PABLO is not a standard collections database. It’s not just, here’s a database of everything the Boncompagni Ludovisi family once owned. But instead, here is everything they owned and where it’s been since they’ve owned it. So, it’s a lot more complex. This required a different kind of framework. We were able to set that up with Omeka because the platform is so customizable. Instead of being based off of a single collection and having a bunch of things in that collection, the framework of PABLO is a bunch of different collections. You can see every owner of a particular object. If it’s been in five of the collections on our website, you can see each of the collections it was in, when it was there, who owned the collection, and all of the information. PABLO highlights ownership and exchange more so than a standard museum database.  

TCB: “And another thing that I’m just wondering about, you know, as you sort of went through the process about how to decide in what order to do this and how to scale well, what were some wrong turns that you made? I mean, things that basically didn’t pan out that one’s not going to see in the present database. Vaishnavi, do you have any?”

VAISHNAVI: “I mean, I’m just kind of thinking. I think one of our biggest issues is just, in general, organizing our spreadsheet because we had so much information on it and then taking all the gems that we had on that and being able to upload them in the most efficient way. We tried a lot of different methods. First, we started with one specific Gem, and then we tried uploading that one and making sure we got all the information about that one specifically that took a lot of trial and error because we either couldn’t get all the information we wanted to display, or we wanted to hide certain things all while we were navigating Omeka and figuring out what exactly we can do with this platform. We use Google Sheets to upload everything and we had to change it to a format—CSV—that Omeka used. That process was a little hard and challenging because of all the content we had as well as the content we didn’t. Some gems had full provenance while others did not. And recently, one of the biggest struggles that we overcame was using the “years owned” section on our database. So we didn’t have that section up on the database until very recently. We just figured out how to do years owned of the gems-yay! We had to kind of figure out how to put that on our Google sheet in a way and convert it into CSV and then upload that. So that was like our biggest challenge recently, but now everything looks great!” 

EMILIE: “I wouldn’t say we took any ‘wrong turns’ necessarily. This whole process has very much been saying, ‘Okay, this is what we want to see. This is what we want the website to look like and how we want it to function. Here are all of our possible options. What option is going to best preserve the scalability of the website? What will ensure that we can continue adding to it and developing it to fit both our needs and the needs of its future users?”   

At Rutgers’ spring 2023 Interdisciplinary Research Team Fellowship colloquium (21 April), PABLO team leader Jacqueline Giz (RU’23) introduces the project.

TCB: “How much in person did you do with all four of you together?”

JACQUELINE: “We met every week last semester in person, and then this semester, we still meet every week, but we just meet virtually because our schedules are a little chaotic. We still meet every week for probably between 30 minutes to an hour.”

TCB: “That’s awesome. I had trouble even making the virtual meeting today. And also, talking about scalability, do you want to say just a bit more about, you know, now that it’s up and running and just sort of, you know, what might the next 3, 6, 12 months look like?”

JACQUELINE: “I mean, I could talk about this just. I’m really excited because over the next couple of months I think we’ll have a lot to add. Hopefully, by the end of the semester, we’ll have at least 10 more gems on the site. Emilie’s also working on inscriptions that are going to start going up in the coming months too. Over time, we’ll start to include more media, like the Boncompagni Ludovisi collection of sculptures and paintings. I think this work is particularly important now, with everything that’s happening at the Villa, where a lot of the works that are still on the property are kind of up in the air. Nobody really knows what might happen to them. Also, there are so many pieces that are around the world from New York City to Los Angeles to Rome to. These things have traveled far and wide from their original locus in Rome. It’s almost mind-blowing. I think that database really helps you see that. And as we add more and more things, that’s just going to come to light even more, which I think is going to be really exciting.” 

TCB: “I was wondering if you could say something about the larger IRT program at Rutgers and just basically what it’s like working under the IRT umbrella and then also seeing other IRT teams or any type of mentorship, direction, encouragement you’ve gotten. And that’s part one of my long question. Part two is, is there going to be present is there going to be an opportunity to present the final work this semester?”

VAISHNAVI: “So, I think we definitely are going to be presenting our final product at the end of the semester. We did that at the end of last semester as well, kind of as a way of seeing the progress of everyone’s project so far, and if anyone had some very big things that they wanted to share. It was very cool to see what everyone else was working on. Everyone’s projects are vastly different. I don’t really think anyone’s doing the same thing or working on the same idea. So it’s very cool to see how Rutgers supports not only our project but also someone else who’s in a very different field. I remember one team was kind of working on air purification, I think, and it was very much more of a physical item compared to ours where it’s like a virtual database. Obviously, the things that go into making that type of creation are very different than the things that go into making something like our project. So IRT has been very great. They have a couple of assignments throughout the semester that we have to do. And they’re just more to help us stay on track. We do an assignment check-in, so it’s just a list of everything that we want to get done for the semester and then where we are in that task. So it’s really great to see the support that they’ve given us. But it’s also very much like working here to support you, and you know, whatever you need, we’ll do for you. They’re not telling us how to do things or what to do. It’s just very much like if you need it, we’re here to support you.” 

At Rutgers’ spring 2023 Interdisciplinary Research Team Fellowship colloquium (21 April), PABLO creators (from left) Jacqueline Giz (RU’23), Geetika Thakur (RU’23) and Emilie Puja (RU’25). Not pictured: Vaishnavi Vura (RU’24).

TCB: “Is there like a peer supervision component to IRT? Do you get together with other groups? You’re just, you just do your own thing, and then you came together at the mini-conference at the end of the semester?” 

GEETIKA: “Usually each group works on their own projects, and then at the end of the semester, we have a little conference where all the groups demonstrate their projects. And it’s really interesting and fascinating to see everyone’s project and like what they’ve been working on all semester.”

 JACQUELINE: “I think one of the coolest things about the program is that students can develop their own research concept. Funny enough, the concept for this project started in my dorm room last Spring. Vaishnavi and I were talking about how funny it would be if a computer science student and an art history student worked on a project together, and here we are right now. I think that’s a testament to the resources at Rutgers, and how the professors, like Professor Brennan, are eager to support undergraduate work. This goes without saying, but Professor Brennan, thank you so much for being so willing to advise our team. It’s also awesome that the Interdisciplinary Research Teams program is generously funded by Rutgers alumnus Alan Grossman, so we all get a stipend for participating.”

TCB: “Well, it’s there’s no hotter topic in art history than provenance, and also there’s no more vital topic for the history of the Villa Ludovisi than provenance. I mean, basically, where did the stuff come from, where is it now, and where’s it going? Thanks expressly to HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi we have been able to get so far over the past dozen or so years. We have received so much expert help, especially from Dr Dorothy Lobel, whose work really is at the cutting edge, and Dr Kenneth Lapatin and Dr Judith Barr from the Getty. This exciting database will provide an open-access platform for research for a decade or more to come.”  

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