History of the Census Database

The idea for the Census arose through an exchange of letters in 1945 and 1946 between Richard Krautheimer and Fritz Saxl, Director of the Warburg Institute in London.

Krautheimer and his wife Trude Krautheimer-Hess were writing a monograph on the Renaissance sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti. Finding it difficult to locate specific information about the antique monuments visible in fifteenth-century Italy, Krautheimer asked Saxl if they should organise a ‘corpus of antiquities’ known to the Renaissance. This exchange gave birth to the idea of creating an instrument that would systematically record ancient works that were, or could have been, known to Renaissance artists.

In the Spring of 1946, the Warburg Institute and New York University formed a partnership to develop a Census of visual sources, which were limited at the time to sculpture and figural works of art, as well as textual sources from the Renaissance that respond to antique monuments. Their chosen method would be to gather information on index cards and combine these whenever possible with photographs.

In 1947, the American archaeologist Phyllis Pray Bober began to realise the ideas of the founders, and started to give the Census the shape which it still has today. Bober compiled hundreds of index cards organised alphabetically; each card listed the Renaissance texts and works of art which could be put in relation to a particular antique monument. Photographic reproductions of both ancient and modern works of art were acquired and catalogued by the Photographic Collection of the Warburg Institute. At this early stage of the Census, the scope of the project was restricted to antique sculpture and its Renaissance reception from 1400 to around 1530.

Ruth Rubinstein’s appointment in 1957 as assistant in the Photographic Collection of the Warburg Institute with special responsibility for the Census gave the project a further impetus, as well as another longstanding protagonist.

Over the next decades Rubinstein purchased photos of sketchbooks and drawings after the antique for the Census, making the Photographic Collection of the Warburg Institute one of the most important centres for the study of Renaissance drawings. The Warburg Institute also supported the work of the Census by publishing numerous catalogues of Renaissance sketchbooks in its Studies of the Warburg Institute series.

In the early 1980s, the Bibliotheca Hertziana under the directorship of the architectural historians Matthias Winner and Christoph Luitpold Frommel became a partner institution of the Census project. At the same time, the Census expanded to include ancient architecture, a category which had previously been excluded.

The idea of computerizing the index card system of the Census was proposed already at the end of the 1970s, yet the expansion of the project to include architecture offered another reason to move forward with the idea. The J. Paul Getty Trust had just begun its Art History Information Program in order to test the possibilities of electronic data processing for the humanities disciplines.

The Census won support from the Getty, and programming began. From 1981 onwards, under the direction of Arnold Nesselrath in Rome and in cooperation with the computer programmer Rick Holt, the data model was developed.

Funding from the Bibliotheca Hertziana terminated in 1995 and Horst Bredekamp, who had recently been appointed professor at the Humboldt University, succeeded in securing a permanent affiliation of the Census project with what is now the Institut für Kunst- und Bildgeschichte. The Census was tied to a professorship at the Humboldt-Universität held by Arnold Nesselrath.

In Berlin and under the direction of Arnold Nesselrath, the Census database underwent new technological change, first with a migration to the Dyabola system. While the database could previously only be consulted in London and Rome, in 1998 the Census data was published, first on CD-Rom and then on DVD. Then in 2000, the first internet version of the Census database was made available.

Between 2003 and 2017, the Census was included in the programme of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, where it received support for further technical development. In 2007, the database was published using EasyDB software created by the Berlin company Programmfabrik as an open-access and freely-available web resource. In 2008, the feature GeoCensus was developed to map geographical locations in the Census database.

In June 2020, the American art historian Kathleen Christian became Professor in the Institute of Art and Visual History and Director of the Census.

A campaign was begun in 2021 to renew the photographic resources of the database; a continually-updated list of new photographic resources added since 2021 is available here.

In the Spring of 2023, the Census database was made available on a new user interface using Programmfabrik's digital asset management software FYLR, an update of EasyDB. Between 2021 and 2023, the Census data was also semantically modelled and can now be accessed not only within the FYLR database, but as Linked Open Data. The Census data is regularly published in RDF/XML format so that it can be used for new purposes and integrated with other digital resources.

2021 marked the 75th anniversary of the Census project, which was commemorated by the online exhibition, 75 Years, 1946–2021: from Index Cards to Online Database. In this exhibition, one can find further information about the history of the Census project and database.

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