Transcultural Journalism. The English Novel and the Italian Press in the Long Eighteenth Century.

A Project Supported by the THINC Lab Seed Grant.

Image for post
Image for post
Charlotte Smith. Ethelinde; or, The Recluse of the Lake. London, 1789

The Broad Picture*

In the second half of the eighteenth century Europe witnessed the rapid growth of modern journalism, a truly global phenomenon that changed the way people read, interacted with their surroundings, perceived the distance that separated them from far away events or from domestic occurrences. The seemingly continuous proliferation of magazines and miscellaneous periodical publications with a relatively short “shelf life” — except for a few notable exceptions — was the tangible sign of the vitality of the press and of the chaos and instability on which journalistic enterprises tested the new ground. Start-ups of the time, one could say, experimental business models and cultural products that saw partnerships flourish and dissolve with astonishing speed. Urban centers across the continent where the hubs of such modernization and while the British and French models exerted the greatest influence, the malleability of the periodical form allowed for a myriad of domestic local solutions. Through the “negotiation of normative accounts of social structures and behaviours” (Botein 468), the press addressed, filtered and categorised the great transformative events of the eighteenth century, such as the rise of the middle class, the enhanced role of women, the emergence of nationalism, and — later on — the revolutionary upheaval. Melton points at “topical diversity” as one of the common denominators of the periodical press, which determined the “extensive” nature of the act of newspaper reading (92). Among the variety of subjects offered to the readers, book notices or announcements progressively transformed into book summaries and then into full-fledged book reviews.

Announcements and reviews increased and reverberated the variety of subjects, “contributed to the formation of an informed and sophisticated reading public” and at the same time worked as advertisements “designed to stimulate consumer demand.”(93) Eighteenth-century novels progressively gained center stage among the novelties advertised and reviewed in the periodical press and despite differing models and outputs, the dramatic increase in novel production and consumption as a European phenomenon marks it as “the single most important growth industry in the eighteenth-century literary market” (94).

The English novel opened the domestic sphere as a locus of literary inquiry and the periodical press was instrumental to the evaluation, problematization, and subsequent ‘naturalization’ of the genre. The popularity of English novels in Italy during the second half of the eighteenth century was a widespread phenomenon, that occurred — at first — almost regularly through the filter of contemporary French translations. It was the eighteenth-century press that supplied Italian readers with much of the debate surrounding the reception of English novels, a critique often conducted on the basis of national values and national identity.

The Transcultural Journalism Project

Despite the growing number of studies on the Italian periodical press, often conducted on individual publications or on regional phenomena, the study of the reception of the English novel in the Italian press is still waiting to be fully explored and evaluated (Mangione 17–18).

The Transcultural Journalism project is filling this gap, as it investigates the reception of English novels (i.e. novels in English) in the Italian literary press during the Long Eighteenth Century (1700–1830). Its main purpose is the collection, analysis, digitization, text encoding and visualization of data relative to the publication, dissemination, translations, critical reviews, and editorial advertisements of English novels in the Italian press. The initial primary corpus for this research is constituted by about three hundred reviews and editorial advertisements of English novels that I collected in digital form during archival research in Venice, Padua, and Florence. New computing technologies are the most suitable and advantageous way to approach this comparative research, characterized by a high granularity of data, a wide network of journalistic influences and borrowings, and a transnational dimension. After attending a series of DHSI and DH@Guelph seminars, the Thinc Lab seed grant has allowed the project to gain momentum and to use digital tools to research, analyze, disseminate and preserve such material. Thanks to the creation of a relational database in the form of a Drupal-based software for corpora, the textual and spatial digitization, analysis and visualization of data for this project is underway. About 250 reviews have been digitized so far. A TEI prototype is in place and at the end of March work will commence on a small set of data (about 20 reviews) to test the text encoding and the data visualization that will allow to conduct statistical analysis and to visualize the European network of English novels’ reviews that connect the Italian public to French and English readers. A portion of the seed grant is also currently facilitating my work on the TEI prototype through consultation with digital humanists in Ontario. A team of researchers is currently actively working on the project. Maria Moschioni, a graduate student who joined the European Studies MA at University of Guelph in January 2017 (through the Erasmus Mundus Program “Crossways in Cultural Narratives”), populated part of the database and is currently translating all the Italian reviews in English. The THINC Lab seed grant is allowing Maria Moschioni to conduct this foundational work on the project. Andrea Penso, a FWO postdoctoral student from the Free University of Brussels, is working on a parallel project from Europe, and he is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Guelph (from January to June 2018). We are joining forces on this collaborative project and the THINC Lab is providing the ideal scholarly environment where we can share, discuss, and test our work. Both Maria Moschioni and Andrea Penso are contributing an account of their recent experience.

Maria Moschioni (Research Assistant, University of Guelph)

No part of modern Literature seems to us as rich and fertile as the Novel”: this passionate judgement opens up the long review of Elizabeth Inchbald’s 1791 novel, A Simple Story, which appeared on the Venetian periodical Nuovo Giornale Enciclopedico in January 1795. Significantly enough, this article is an early example of a literary review as such, it is a judgement on a literary genre that was then in its earliest stages of life, and was penned by Elisabetta Caminer Turra — writer, editor, publisher, translator, and the first female journalist in Italy. As I started working as a Graduate Research Assistant for the DH project Transcultural Journalism in the Long Eighteenth Century, I have begun to discover the fascinating complexities of this reality where the novel as a genre, the review, and the roles of author, translator and reviewer were just beginning to take shape into what we know them for. Going through the material that my supervisor, Prof. Sandra Parmegiani, has been collecting through the years in archives and libraries, I have had a chance to read what Silvio Pellico had to say about Byron’s The Corsair; to trace the direct connection between an Italian review of a British novel and its source, copied word for word from a French journal; to look in vain for the original titles of works now lost forever; or to find them translated and reworked into completely different novels. All this material, in the form of notes, photographs and bibliographies, is the record of a complex and still largely invisible network along which novels, their translations, and their reviews travelled in 18th century Europe. Bringing it to light in a way that can effectively reflect its interrelated structure is precisely the aim of the Transcultural Journalism digital project, and of my work as a Research Assistant.

My main task so far has been the population of a relational database created for the project, by integrating entries with bibliographic information, photographic reproductions, transcriptions, translations, and annotations. Each entry within the database, in fact, refers to a different review, announcement, or mention of a British novel on the pages of an Italian periodical. All of them contain the bibliographic information on the first edition of the reviewed novel, on the specific, foreign edition being reviewed (when applicable), on the periodical where the review has appeared, and on the periodical that served as a source for the relevant review (again, if applicable). All entries also include images of the material reviews, as well as their transcription and translation. This facilitates the exploration of the connections established between the various European periodicals of the time, as well as of the ways in which novels were transmitted, perceived, and proposed to different readerships. However, the insertion of a matter as ambiguous, new, and unstable as 18th century literary reviews within the flexible, but necessarily and sometimes too solidly coherent structure of a digital database poses problems, too. In Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences, an investigation of how categories shape and are shaped by all aspects of human interaction, Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star argue that “categories are historically situated artifacts and, like all artifacts, are learned as part of membership in communities of practice” (285). This interestingly reflects upon a seemingly insignificant detail, which I have been faced with as I started navigating my way around the 18thpress database. Given the widely varying lengths and scopes of the pieces collected in the database — which range from a few lines of mere mention, to many pages of analysis — , it has been deemed necessary to signal this difference by categorizing entries into “Announcements” or “Reviews.” This apparently simple distinction, however, becomes more ambiguous once applied to 18th century articles: while “Announcements” may often express clear, although brief, judgements on the quality of a novel, more long-winded “Reviews” may instead limit themselves to a detailed summary of its plot. The very idea that stands behind the category of “Review,” then, is a “historically situated artifact,” which inevitably implies a gap between the seamless expectation of a drop-down menu in a database and what it attempts at defining: that is, the cultural product of a different historical and social context. An announcement of a recently published text, then, may be a simple sentence, entirely extrapolated from a longer French article about the same novel; while a review may provide readers with all the details of a novel’s finale — something that we would certainly not find in our own journals’ literary news.

These seeming details are, then, centrally important, and they hold within them the necessary correlation between structure and interpretation that is at the core of Digital Humanities projects. In fact, the field of the Digital Humanities has opened up promising new pathways for archival work, providing researchers with flexible tools for storing, accessing, sharing and organizing data. Yet, there is always a dimension of compromise, of reflection needed, which can mediate between the “Digital” and the “Humanities,” and allow for discovery. As I go along with my current objective — populating the database with a sample of complete model entries and providing English translations for all the existing entries — I welcome similar opportunities for uncertainty, which summon an exploration of the cultural reality of late 18th century Italy, and its reception of the foreign novel.

Andrea Penso (FWO Postdoctoral Fellow, Vrije Universiteit Brussel)

As part of my postdoctoral project funded by the Flemish Research Foundation, and dedicated at the analysis of the Italian reception of the English novel in the Long Eighteenth Century, I planned to spend a semester at the University of Guelph, working in close contact with prof. Sandra Parmegiani and the THINC Lab led by Prof. Susan Brown.

Since early January I devoted most of my time to the population of the preliminarily created digital database, a Drupal-based software for corpora that will allow all the subsequent work of text encoding, visualization and stylometric analysis of the data. After transcribing a new review, the text is uploaded in the database, together with a digital image of the journal and bibliographical details regarding its publication (i. e. volume, issue, year, pages). From this moment, the more complex and exciting part begins. Often, the Italian journals used to import, when not to copy, reviews from foreign journals. My goal has been to identify these source articles in order to understand what was introduced to the Italian readership and what was omitted. It seemed immediately clear that a digital approach is, and will be, the key to map such a complex corpus. One of my main goals in the next months is to conduct a stylometric analysis to understand how the moral values of the novels were introduced to the Italian public, therefore clarifying the particular readers’ response that the novels encountered in Italy. Digital stylometry, word frequency and statistical analyses tools such as R, MiniTab and Intelligent Archive will be used during this enquiry. The analysis will unveil the peculiar stylistic features and elements of the Italian literary journalism of the time, a neglected aspect of the studies on the History of Italian journalism to date (with repercussions also on the History of foreign culture reception). The categorization of the lexicon will also reveal which novels were the most read and translated, and which translations were the most widespread in the country.

The time I spent in Guelph and at THINC Lab to develop the digital side of my research has been extremely positive. This experience has been a breath of fresh air for many reasons: I am now much more proficient on digital analysis of corpora, I developed new skills in database management, and I am acquiring valuable expertise in planning and development of digital projects.


The Transcultural Journalism project aims at digitally mapping and interpreting the reception of a significant sample of English novels in the Italian literary press, revealing patterns and trends of a phenomenon that has never been the systematic subject of critical analysis. I found in the THINC Lab a receptive scholarly community of DH experts, whose professionalism and dedication to nurture new ideas and projects played a key role in getting the Transcultural Journalism Project off the ground. I could not have asked for a more collegial and supportive environment where to test my foray into the world of Digital Humanities.

Sandra Parmegiani (University of Guelph)

Maria Moschioni (University of Guelph)

Andrea Penso (Free University of Brussels)

Works Cited

Botein, Stephen, et al. “The Periodical Press in Eighteenth-Century English and French Society: A Cross-Cultural Approach.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 23, no. 3, 1981, pp. 464–490.

Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. Sorting Things out : Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, Mass. London: MIT, 1999. Inside Technology. Web.

Mangione, Daniela, Prima di Manzoni. Autore e lettore nel romanzo del Settecento. Roma: Salerno Editrice, 2012.

Melton, James Van Horn. The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

* For a more extensive articulation of the project and a case study of the Venetian press see Sandra Parmegiani, “Textual Mobility in the Eighteenth Century: English Novels and the Venetian Press.” Crossways Journal, 1 (2017): 1–11.

A collection of thoughts on the world of Digital Humanities by members of the DH@Guelph community and THINC Lab.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store