Interview with HMT Co-editor Casey Dué: NEH Awards Homer Multitext Grant to Publish the Venetus A

detail Venetus A
In early August, the co-editors of the Homer Multitext Project, Casey Dué (University of Houston) and Mary Ebbott (College of the Holy Cross), were awarded a prestigious NEH Scholarly Editions and Translations grant for over $275,000 to publish a diplomatic edition of the Venetus A.

The Venetus A is a 10th Century manuscript that is our most important historical witness to the Homeric Iliad.  In 2007 a team of international scholars traveled to the Marciana Library in Venice where the manuscript resides to acquire high-resolution, digital images of every page. [Don’t miss the Emmy-nominated documentary about this endeavor: Imaging the Iliad: A Digital Renaissance.] Over the next three years, Dué, Ebbott, and their collaborators will work from those images to publish every word and mark in this treasured manuscript.
I recently had the chance to speak with Prof. Dué about the grant, the Venetus A, and the future of this project.
promo_scrollCHS: Were you surprised to get the grant? Why do you think HMT was a the right project at the right time? What kind of work have you already done to prepare for publishing the Venetus A in the most accessible, and powerful way possible?
Dué: I was actually shocked that we were awarded the grant, just because various members of our team have applied for similar grants from the NEH before under various programs, and we were never successful. But upon reflection, I can see now that we are at exactly the right moment to undertake the work that we proposed, namely, to publish a complete diplomatic edition of the Venetus A (Marciana 822 [= Marcianus Graecus Z. 454]). Christopher Blackwell and Neel Smith have spent a decade at this point theorizing about and putting into place the CITE architecture of the project and the Canonical Texts Services, as well as the CHS Image Services (which you can read much more about here [], here [], and here []). Moreover Mary and I, together with Chris and Neel and our students, have spent five years studying the manuscript. We now have a very good understanding of everything that the manuscript contains, what has previously been published, and what has not, and the limits of those earlier, incomplete publications. We began working with teams of student editors at our home institutions several years ago, and in the past two years have expanded that work out to include teams of students from other colleges and universities, with the result that we now have a well-tested system in place for creating diplomatic editions of the text and scholia of the manuscript that are linked to the images that we took in Venice. In fact we are ahead of the schedule that we proposed to the NEH: we have completed seven books of the Venetus A already, after proposing to the NEH that we would have six books completed before work under the grant began.
But there are other reasons why I think we were successful. We were able to communicate the centrality of the Homeric poems to the Humanities, as well as the importance of the Venetus A manuscript for understanding the transmission of those poems from antiquity (perhaps as far back as the Bronze Age!) to today. We are, moreover, an open-source project and always have been, something that I think is attractive and increasingly seen as a basic requirement for a taxpayer-funded project. Also, we take advantage of the on-line environment, using open-source and cutting edge resources, many of which we have developed ourselves, to ask questions about the transmission of the Homeric poems that it has never before been possible to ask. Finally, I think the matching funds contributed by the CHS strengthened our proposal tremendously. The NEH could see that we have the support of and financial commitment from a major research institution in our field, which makes the chances of our being an under-theorized or otherwise risky project much more unlikely.
CHS: Why do we need a new edition of this text that’s already been studied for centuries?
Dué: The Venetus A is the oldest complete witness to the Iliad. That alone makes it an extremely important resource for the study of the poem, and yet, to our knowledge, no diplomatic edition of it has ever been published. The photographic facsimile edition of the Venetus A that Domenico Comparetti made in 1901 is a very rare book (there are only a handful of copies in the US), and the limitations of the photography of that time resulted in images that are not legible across the entire page. In fact, what is not legible in Comparetti is what is no doubt even more significant than the text of the poem itself in that manuscript. The commentary in the margins (referred to as scholia), some which is only a millimeter high, transmits scholarship from intellectuals who studied this poem in Alexandria, in Rome, and in Byzantium from the third century BCE until the middle ages. The work of these scholars, which was highly respected in antiquity, does not survive outside of the scholia of the Medieval manuscripts that transmit the poem.
There does not yet exist a comprehensive edition of this manuscript and its scholia, and thus no systematic way to evaluate the evidence offered in this manuscript. Our preliminary work on the manuscript has suggested that perhaps as much as 20% of its scholia has not been published in the most recent edition. Thus, our edition will include new evidence in that it has not been published or readily accessible. But even more than that, our scholarly digital edition will provide means of studying, evaluating, and reconsidering the evidence that this primary source contains in new and systematic ways. Our structured digital edition will allow for automated searches through the vast amount of scholarly commentary and will incorporate the location and visual features of each comment, allowing an understanding of the relationship between text and scholia and between the scholia themselves in ways not possible before. Our study of the manuscript thus far has revealed that the spatial arrangement of the text and scholia contains a great deal of meaning that is difficult to appreciate in a typical printed edition. In the vast majority of editions, the scholia are published separately from the text of the manuscript, as though they were not meant to be read together. Our digital edition will allow the text and scholia to be read side by side, and users will have direct access to the manuscript itself to see how they are connected visually.
CHS: Since this diplomatic edition will bring to light substantial new content, it should prove immediately useful to researchers. But what steps are you taking to ensure that this edition remains valuable and accessible long-term?
Dué: We are extremely grateful, in this regard, for the University of Houston’s Research Computing Center and the support we receive from its High Performance Computing group []. The RCC provides us with a secure environment for all of our computational needs, and in that environment our data is backed up in numerous and highly secure ways. Mirrors of our data also exist at the College of the Holy Cross and Furman University. Finally, because our data is freely available under a Creative commons license, we hope that there will soon be copies of it all over the world, if they don’t exist already.
In fact, it has been a primary concern of ours from the beginning to make our data easily accessible in archival formats. We are much more interested in doing that than we are in creating end user applications, which are by nature ephemeral. By making our data available under a Creative Commons license, we are inviting others to devise the cool applications that make use of that data. To cite just one example, some undergraduate students at the University of Kentucky a few years ago made an Iliad iPad app [], which combines the Venetus A images with an out of copyright translation of the Iliad. We hope that more people will do things like this. We ourselves are about to release a new Homer Multitext browser that will allow users to access and compare in various ways all of our manuscripts and their associated texts, but ultimately, we are more interested in providing data that is machine actionable than we are in creating a snazzy interface.
Casey Dué has written multiple books and articles related the mulitextuality of the Homeric tradition including Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) and The Captive Woman’s Lament in Greek Tragedy (University of Texas, 2006), both available on the CHS website. To learn more about the Venetus A, read Dué’s Recapturing a Homeric Legacy: Images and Insights from the Venetus A Manuscript of the Iliad.