Episode 4: Marco Polo and the Art of Editing

“I had already discovered the digital version of philology and I just couldn’t go back anymore.”

You can listen to the episode on Anchor, Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, SoundCloud, Spotify, Stitcher, and TuneIn.

About this Episode

Recorded 8 April 2020. Edited by Tessa Gengnagel.

Guest: Elisa Cugliana

Content: In this episode, Elisa Cugliana speaks about the digital scholarly edition of Marco Polo’s travelogue that she is working on for her joint PhD degree at the universities of Venice and Cologne. We discuss the tradition of Italian philology and textual criticism, the transmission history of Marco Polo’s travel report which originated at the end of the 13th century, how Elisa’s scholarly editorial principles intersect with technological possibilities, and why interoperability is so important for digital scholarly editions.

Resources and Further Reading

EVT (Edition Visualization Technology), developed by Roberto Rosselli Del Turco and students at the University of Pisa: <http://evt.labcd.unipi.it/>.

Roberto Rosselli Del Turco, Chiara Di Pietro and Chiara Martignano, “Progettazione e implementazione di nuove funzionalità per EVT 2: lo stato attuale dello sviluppo,” in: Umanistica Digitale 7 (2019), <https://doi.org/10.6092/issn.2532-8816/9322>.

Prototype of Marco Polo Digitale: <https://vedph.github.io/dedm-evt/>.


automated transcription by <https://otter.ai>, manually corrected by Tessa Gengnagel and Elisa Cugliana

Tessa Gengnagel  0:08  
Hello and welcome to Coding Codices, a podcast from the Digital Medievalist Postgraduate Subcommittee. My name is Tessa Gengnagel and for this episode, I spoke with Elisa Cugliana who is currently working on a digital scholarly edition of Marco Polo’s travel account. More specifically, for her PhD, Elisa is working on a digital edition of a late medieval German translation of the report. Before we start, I want to say a few words about Marco Polo, although most people will have heard of him, I mean, there was even a Netflix series but still, just to be safe: Marco Polo was an Italian merchant who allegedly traveled to Asia in the 13th century and related his experiences after his return home in the book Il Milione. We should keep in mind that scholars are still divided over the veracity of Marco Polo’s quite colorful tales and whether he was in Asia to begin with or how far he got. Certainly, regardless of the factual truth of what he wrote or co-wrote – insofar as this can be determined at all –, the popularity and reception of it tells us a lot about the audience and audience expectations at the time. It provides us with a glimpse of how otherness was constructed and we see that with other medieval travel accounts as well where actual experiences, prejudices, stereotyping, tropes, and other literary devices mix in such a way as to make it more revealing about those who wrote it and those who read it than those who are depicted in these texts; nevermind that this is made obvious by the fantastical creatures that we can sometimes encounter in such writings (although we would probably have to differentiate between sub-genres there). I’m saying this because anti-Asian racism is rampant today, as anyone who has followed the news lately must know, and as scholars, we should be very mindful of how we reproduce simplistic renderings even or perhaps especially when we embed them in, in this case, Eurocentric narratives and analyses. And, to extend this thought, that’s why it’s so important to have contextualized access to and information about the source materials that we work with. On that note, let’s hear what Elisa had to say about her edition project.

So first of all, thanks so much for joining me and taking the time, and I hope you’re well, especially considering the crazy times.

Elisa Cugliana  2:59  
Thank you, too, for asking. And, of course, it’s such a pleasure to be here.

Tessa Gengnagel  3:05  
So let’s talk about you first. As far as I know, you studied language sciences at the University of Venice and you’re currently working on your PhD which is the Marco Polo edition project that we are going to talk about. So my main question here would be: How did you become involved in the field of digital humanities and digital medievalist studies in particular?

Elisa Cugliana  3:27  
Yeah, it’s a long story. Basically, I studied language sciences at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Already in my Bachelor I had, in a way, started that path. And I proceeded then in an MA, too, and at the end of my MA, I prepared a master thesis in which I basically prepared an edition for a reel-to-reel audio tape containing one of the last recordings of a native speaker of the Cimbrian language of the Seven Communities in Vicenza. This is also a long story but it’s not the story for today. And I had a course in digital editing in my MA and I wanted to do more in the field. Therefore, I decided to do such an MA thesis. After that, I wanted to do a PhD, too. But fortunately, I had been involved in a project in the meanwhile at university, where I was basically the encoder already for a bigger project that had to do with Marco Polo – and here he comes. Because basically, I was just the encoder in this project, but I started to love the subject. And I asked myself: There are so many manuscripts in so many languages but what about German? Is there any manuscript in German telling the story of Marco Polo in the Middle Ages? And therefore I started to look for sources and I discovered that there were manuscripts, there were witnesses, preserving a German version, a medieval German version, of the text that had not been edited yet. So I basically said, “okay, well, I will work on them.” And I really started from the sources, there was nothing, not many studies on the topic, and so on. So I really had to start from the beginning. The Venetian environment favored, in a way, my interest in the topic. And therefore, I went on with that. And I had already discovered the digital version of philology and I just couldn’t go back anymore to just traditional philology.

Tessa Gengnagel  5:34  
What I wanted to ask about the philological side of things– it’s about the Italian tradition of textual criticism. So when I think about it, I mostly think of Giorgio Pasquali and his methodological writings with reference to Paul Maas and Bédier and the theoretical underpinnings of the field that arose from that in the 1930s. So to me there’s this sense that the Italian tradition is a very robust and sophisticated development of the so-called Lachmannian school of thought, by which I mean the kind of 19th century textual criticism that’s often linked to Karl Lachmann. And, having said that, I want to ask how you feel about that characterization? And whether that’s the Italian tradition, the sort of neo-Lachmannian approach?

Elisa Cugliana  6:22  
Yeah, I actually like the way you described it. I think it’s really to the point. We can actually, we can really talk about an Italian school in philology, in fact, and to mention Pasquali and together with him, which we should also name some others like Gianfranco Contini, [Cesare] Segre, Domenico De Robertis, and some others, but they were always all part of the same school. And they also, I must say, they really started this tradition. We can probably say that the Italian school wants to take the best of both worlds. Because what the scholars, Pasquali, Contini, et cetera, tried to bring into the method was more historicity. So they tried really to inject historicity in a still mechanical and scientific method, which was the Lachmannian one. For instance, the way they tried to do it was to think of the text as going through different stages. So the text was no more something stable, but it was something that developed in time. And how does it develop? Well, in the copies that were made of it. And if Bédier is right when he says that we should pay attention to what was actually in the witness, at the same time, we should not, like, give up on trying to reconstruct a critical text. But when we do it, when we do reconstruct this text, we still want to go through the actual historical stages of it. What does that mean concretely? Because it might sound very nice and smart, but how does it happen? How can we make our critical process really more concrete? Well, in the critical apparatus, actually, because there, we can really give our reader the possibility to see the actual development, the actual history of the text. So the apparatus is really the key for the Italian school. In particular, to sum up, I think, Contini’s idea of this edition in time as a response to the text in time, to the concept of the text in time is quite meaningful in this context. This opposition between, let’s say, documentation and reconstruction was really always there in the Italian school.

Tessa Gengnagel  9:07  
Maybe this is a good opportunity to start talking about your project in particular. So what’s the transmission history of [Marco Polo’s] account? And what’s up with this German version? Where does that come in and what’s the origin of it? How many manuscripts do you have, et cetera?

Elisa Cugliana  9:25  
Well, let’s start from the beginning. It’s really– we mustn’t forget that it’s really a complex tradition. So we are actually dealing with more than 140 manuscripts. Witnesses, I should say, preserving–

Tessa Gengnagel  9:40  
So manuscripts and early prints, right?

Elisa Cugliana  9:42  
Exactly, exactly. Yeah, we’re talking about two centuries. So from the– you can think of the 14th and 15th century, basically, as a timespan in which we’re actually working, so in these two centuries, 140 copies, more than 140 copies were made of the text, in many languages, so in around 13 languages, at least. Yeah, so it’s really a lot and we do not have the original text. We know that we do not have it so we just, we can just formulate hypotheses, but the most welcome hypothesis among the scholars is that the text was actually written by Marco Polo and another person; that is Rustichello da Pisa, also known as Rusticiano. He was actually a novelist. They were in prison in Genua together. And Marco Polo, according to the legend, actually dictated the text to this guy who was very interested in these stories because they were really marvelous stories. And Rustichello was quite used to writing about things that would catch the attention of the reader, so he knew how to do it. Their collaboration, we do not really know that much, or at least not with certainty, about; how this collaboration actually took place. But in the end, there was a text. And the language was probably a mixture of Franco-Italian, so French and Italian, because Rustichello was used to writing in French. Marco Polo, however, was a Venetian. There was a kind of mixture in the end taking place. That mixture, in a way, was already an established language, so we should also think of this in these terms, because that was not uncommon. And so these many copies are distributed in two centuries. And the German tradition, the German version, there are two, actually, but the one I’m working on is really late, so it’s really at the bottom of the stemma. So if you look at the stemma, you just miss it, because it’s so very, very much down at the bottom. But still, it’s very interesting, because it descends from a Tuscan version called TB. We do not have the witness that was used by the German translator. So we do not have the Tuscan witness used by the German translator to make his edition. Through the study of the German tradition, called DI (so I will refer to this version I’m working on as version DI), through the study of DI we can actually try to reconstruct some parts at least of the witness of TB, so the Tuscan version that was used by the translator. And this is another piece in the puzzle, you know, if you are working with the Tuscan version in this case, so it’s all connected. So all these manuscripts are in a genealogical, of course, relationship to each other, and therefore, they are all connected, and they are all part of this system. And yes, as far as the DI version is concerned, we do not have that many manuscripts, actually, that many witnesses, I’m working–

Tessa Gengnagel  12:47  
Well but even just a few can be complicated.

Elisa Cugliana  12:50  
Exactly. That’s true, that’s true. But, let’s say, I cannot complain, because really, there’s much worse out there. I’m working with five witnesses of which two are codices descripti. So they are actually, let’s say, witnesses that were copied from another witness which I already have. So in the tradition, we have the tendency, at least at first, in the first stages, in a way, to concentrate on the witnesses that have higher stemmatic value. So in my stemma, there are three witnesses that are particularly important, and they are a manuscript, so a full manuscript, a very, very short fragment, and an incunabulum. So a very early print. And this print is actually– I mean, there’s a fun fact there, because it was actually the first time that Marco Polo was ever printed. And this happened in the German version of the text. But the funny thing is also that the Germans have never cared about their own translation of Marco Polo, you know, so they just– the text that Germans read today is actually always a later translation. So they do not have access, unless they are philologists and know how to deal with manuscripts, but they do not have access to their own translation. Which is a pity, I would say. So this is about DI. So we have these three main witnesses. Of course, the fragment is very short, so the contribution it can give to my work is limited. But there is another translation I just wanted to mention very quickly. It’s actually preserved in a codex unicus. So we only have one witness preserving this other translation. It’s called VG3, usually. And it’s, let’s say, we can still say it’s from the 15th century, too. Some people, some scholars have said it’s a little bit older, but there is evidence showing that it cannot be older than the 15th century. And it’s already edited, so that’s why I focused on the other one first; because it was unedited basically.

Tessa Gengnagel  15:06  
What do you think is the advantage of editing this in a digital edition?

Elisa Cugliana  15:11  
Well, I think it all– of course, I could have made a printed edition. I mean, that’s always possible. But that depends on the choices you make. And it depends also on how you want your edition to be. So in this case, I wanted too much for paper. So I wanted for example to– as I could, because it’s something we can do now. I couldn’t, you know, refuse to presenting also a facsimile. This is one of the most simple reasons I could give. I thought it was important because I think when we can, then we should give the users as much data and as much access as we can. Therefore, that was one of the reasons. The second reason why I think the digital helps me in this work, in this project, is that I can connect to other projects going on out there. I mentioned at the beginning this big Venetian project on Marco Polo, they are actually, we are, I should say, we’re actually making a new comprehensive edition of the main– like of the whole textual tradition, but using basically all the redactions that are stemmatically relevant. So we’re at the top of the stemma, a little bit more than where I am with my German translation. They are considering around 13, 14 redactions to build this edition. And they are also– it’s a very big project, so they have involved many scholars and as a Germanic philologist, for example, I cannot really know everything about all the things that have to do with the Eastern world that Marco was actually getting to know and describing. I could not have the competencies to comment on all the names he mentions or on the facts that he tells about. And therefore, in that case, I need other scholars that have really studied that and that are experts in the field to give me the, let’s say, the contents I need to, you know, to make my edition complete. And therefore, I wanted to have the possibility of linking my data with other projects. And in particular, of course, with this project, which I had more present, in a way, in my mind and in my environment, but still, not only, of course. And the last thing I would like to say is that I’m actually trying to explore the methodology even further and I’m asking myself questions that have to do with the methodology and not really specifically with Marco Polo in this case. And so for instance, I’m trying to give for the same witness different stages of edition and I’m trying to present the text contained in a witness in different degrees of normalization, for example. And this I could never do in paper because I should print for each witness three to four books at least and then compare them with the other; and that would become impossible. Also because I cannot really establish a critical text, you know, in this case, I really cannot because I’m dealing with, for most of the text, I’m dealing with just two witnesses because the fragment is very short. And these two witnesses, not only are only two, so the majority rule of Lachmann does not apply, but also they did belong to two different editorial traditions. So I have the manuscript and a print and the way printed texts came into being was completely different from the scribal tradition to which manuscripts belonged. And therefore, you cannot really make the same assumptions. That is the point. And also, for example, we’re talking about this Italian school which is very traditional and so on. But in this case, De Robertis said, yes, the reader should always be able to reconstruct the editorial process and should be able also to disagree with the choices. Well I’m actually giving the material to retrace all my decisions and also all my work. And I think this is so important and it’s where the digital actually realizes even more some principle that had been developed even before the digital came into place, you know. So it’s where the tradition actually meets innovation and where they do each other a favor, in a way.

Tessa Gengnagel  19:49  
How would you summarize the technical components or maybe also some of the difficulties that you faced?

Elisa Cugliana  19:56  
The components of my edition are basically the facsimiles, of course; then for each facsimile three stages of edition, for now. I am working with Gioele Barabucci on this topic. We have developed a system to extract basically from a micro-transcription, from a very diplomatic transcription, three different stages of normalization auto- or semi-automatically, I should say. So, these three levels of edition that result from this process are then presented to the reader and the reader can also compare the three different stages with each other and also with the other facsimile; and with the other editions of the other facsimiles I’m presenting. There is another part of the edition which I believe is extremely important and this is the actual program that extracts these stages because I actually work on one single file, so with a master transcription, and then some XSLT rules basically extract the edition from this master file. This is extremely important because we actually tried to separate the data from their analysis. So for example, there will be a rule saying, “this sequence of signs should always be realized as this other sequence.” So, for example, to expand the abbreviations, you know. So this kind of intervention, that is actually the philological intervention– the philological interventions that always take place are given in a formal language which is XSLT. We do not have just one XSLT stylesheet, we have many that are actually organized together with XProc pipelines, so it’s a kind of complex system. And this can be explained better by Gioele and not by me. But at the same time, the important thing is that also this is part of my edition. I mean, this is part of my work, too. Many of these modifications, many of these interventions actually happen without being that explicit. In this case, all is very, very, very explicit, because it has to be, it has to be otherwise the program doesn’t work, you know. And also, of course, the metadata in terms of TEI encoding, this is also part of it. And then, of course, there will be commentary and then there are lists of named entities and realia and there will be a list of references; so these are all the components of my edition and these components are then visualized in EVT which is a software, so open source software for the visualization of digital editions. It’s the abbreviation of Edition Visualization Technology and it was developed by Roberto Rosselli Del Turco and other students– many students actually, this should be said, at the University of Pisa. And it is very much used, at least in Italy, but not only. And I decided to use that as my visualization software as a way to organize all my contents, of course, also for reasons that have to do with the preservation of the software.

Tessa Gengnagel  23:17  
A lot of places are mentioned, I imagine. I haven’t read this particular travel report myself, I’ve read others from the 13th century but more, sort of, pilgrims accounts. And I don’t know if you have historical maps of, well, the places that he traveled…

Elisa Cugliana  23:30  
Well, let’s say, for now, I’m focusing on the European maps, let’s say. For example, I’m considering a map, a German map, from the 15th century, a Venetian map from the 15th century, because I’m dealing with these German sources of the 15th century. So I want to explore really the reception of the geography that is retold by Marco in that area. I haven’t considered Eastern sources at all, I mean, yet. And I have also a limited amount of time because you know, PhD in Italy, a PhD, like, cannot last more than three, four years.

Tessa Gengnagel  24:09  
Three, four years, and then it’s over? So you have to–

Elisa Cugliana  24:11  
Then it’s over.

Tessa Gengnagel  24:12  
That’s really rough. But I mean, it’s fantastic that there’s already so much potential for doing more things with this kind of material. You have to finish your PhD first, of course–

Elisa Cugliana 24:22
Yes, exactly.

Tessa Gengnagel 24:24
–but also others could take this up–

Elisa Cugliana  24:26  
Absolutely, absolutely.

Tessa Gengnagel  24:27  
–and start exploring it in a different direction. I’m very excited to be using your edition.

Elisa Cugliana  24:32  
Thank you very much. Yeah.

Tessa Gengnagel  24:55  
And with that, we are at the end of this episode. I want to thank Elisa for the great conversation. I want to thank you for listening. As always, you can find more information on our website, which is podcast dot digitalmedievalist dot org. You can also find us on Twitter as @digitalmedieval and I hope you have a nice day and stay tuned.




  • Featured Image: Woodcut portrait of Marco Polo in a German printed edition from 1477, taken from the digitization of a facsimile reproduction created by William Griggs and published by Bernard Quaritch (London, 1889); ed. by Tessa Gengnagel.