U. digitizes century-old panorama

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Monday, October 1, 2007

Displaying a piece of art that is as long as a football field is not an easy task. After coming into the “Garibaldi Panorama,” a 19th-century work measuring 273 feet long and four-and-a-half feet tall, the University Library and Department of Italian Studies have worked together to scan and digitize the artwork so that it will soon be available online.

The artwork, a long roll of parchment painted with bright watercolor, depicts the life and adventures of the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the founding fathers of Modern Italy. In over 40 different scenes ranging from massive battles to picturesque landscapes, the panorama is one of the longest and oldest surviving pieces of this style, which was popular in the 19th century.

“They were sort of like movie theaters of the day,” said Peter Harrington, curator of the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection at the John Hay Library. Huge crowds would gather to watch these massive parchments unrolled as a narrator explained the story or faraway lands they pictured. “Panoramas were entertainment, but also ways of informing the public,” he said.

Since it was completed by J. J. Story in England in 1860, the panorama has been unavailable for public view. It was stored in the late James Walter Smith’s personal collection until it was donated in 2005 and is now at the University’s library annex, which is 10 minutes from campus.

After raising money through grants and donations, the University was able to have the piece scanned. The double-sided parchment was unrolled in six-foot sections and photographed – a process that took three days to complete. The digitized image will be available soon on the Center for Digital Initiatives’ Web site and will allow viewers to scroll through the panorama, zoom in or freeze on scenes. The Web site will also include facts and history about the time periods and style of the panorama.

“I think as an academic library, we aspire to be open institutions for people to come in and use. One great thing about digitization is that it allows us to share what we have with a global audience that would never otherwise be able to see this,” said Brent Lang, a communication and marketing specialist for the University library.

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