Giacomo Leopardi's Zibaldone as a Digital Research Platform

Project Introduction

The project of building a Digital Research Platform for Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone of Thoughts aims to create a computational model for the semantic organization of this voluminous collection of research fragments and to design an interface that would allow users to explore the relationality of its networked textuality, engage in its performative interpretation through semantic queries, dynamic visualizations and remix, augment the authorial semantic annotations via participatory modules, share research in machine-readable format, and contribute to the editorial apparatus. The project is premised on the hypothesis that Leopardi's various semantic pointers—marginal additions, cross-referencing, thematic indexing, intertextual references—would gain discursive articulation in the digital medium, and that their computational processing would give insight into his epistemology. The editorial approach of remediating the Zibaldone as a digital research platform responds, on the one hand, to the reader's task of reconstructing the semantic framework of the fragments and, on the other, corresponds to the function the Zibaldone had for its author, namely a personal knowledge base whose paper manuscript technology was inadequate for mediating his phenomenological research methods into interpretative discourse. The Zibaldone project thus fundamentally explores qualitative methods of employing digital technology to support the process of interpretation and reflects on the ethical, aesthetic and mediatic criteria for constructing scholarly discourse.

The Zibaldone Genre. A private collection of 4526 manuscript pages of research notes and observations on human culture, divided by their date of composition, the bulk of which was gathered over the course of ten years, written in several languages, copiously annotated with marginalia and cross-references connecting related fragments, thematically indexed by the author at the paragraph level, the Zibaldone is not a formally finished work and a very small part of its contents found its way into Leopardi’s publications. The Zibaldone's textual genre and authorial annotations of semantic analysis can be productively compared to a personal knowledge base—a technology affording its users to capture, store, retrieve and express their acquired knowledge, whose form can range from the subjective recording of an idea to the identification of a relationship between two sources in the objective realm (Davies et al. 2005; Davies 2011). At the same time, the Zibaldone shares little more than its name with the early modern predecessor of the personal knowledge base, i.e. the commonplace book or zibaldone: the excerpts and bibliographic references amount to less than a tenth of its textual contents. Leopardi's collection of fragments, rather, belongs to the strand of intellectual notebooks that became custodians of their author’s unrealized opus: the Carnets of Joseph Joubert, the Notebooks of Coleridge, Novalis’ Allgemeine Brouillon, Valéry’s Cahiers, Benjamin’s Passagenwerk, among others, are kindred texts whose “infinitely resonant interconnectedness or relationality” (Gifford and Stimpson, 1998: 303) reflects an encyclopedic movement of thought in the romanticist sense of encircling a phenomenon from multiple angles. Fragment writing is engendered by the epistemological method of phenomenology—“the taking up of a certain attitude and practicing a certain attentive awareness to the things of the world as we live them rather than as we conceptualize or theorize them”—and its tension between the experience of the "presentation" of phenomena and their verbal "representation" (van Manen 2006: 720; 718). The discursive efforts of these notebook authors to convey the relational structure of their perception of phenomenal reality tend to fragment the constructs of language and of the manuscript page, and turn to graphical configurations and three-dimensional expedients to capture its semantics: cross-references, marginalia, and thematic tagging on index cards in Leopardi’s Zibaldone; “linking loops and marginal additions […] classificatory tables of all sorts, graphics, doodles […] sumptuous water-colors” in Valery’s Cahiers (Gifford, 1998: 38); “syntax [which] transforms itself into a diagrammatic disposition” in Joubert’s Carnets (Kinloch, 1996: 349); cross-referencing, layouts, tables, colors, diagrams, envelopes, folders, cutting up and re-arranging slips of paper, etc. in Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Notebooks (Marx et al., 2007), etc. The vast fragmented corpora of the intellectual notebook genre necessitate the collective editorial agency of a community of readers and the computational, hermeneutic and poietic agency of digital technology, in order to build the dimensional discourse constituted by their phenomenological attunement, profoundly relativist perspective, encyclopedic ambition, and continuously suspended telic intentionality. Conversely, the computational modeling and digital articulation of their semantic discourse could assist the development of fluid, processual, relational, distributed, performative, multi-modal environments for scholarly work, as envisioned by some digital humanists and new media theorists.

Modularity and Semantic Networks. Whereas the relationality of research fragment collections is flattened and obscured by their paper technology, they lend themselves to digital remediation because their textuality is inherently modular and, in the case of Leopardi's Zibaldone in particular, the semantics of the fragments is painstakingly analyzed and numerically coordinated—by date divisions serving as semantic markers, by cross-references semantically linking textual nodes, by thematic indexing at the paragraph level, and with precise bibliographic references to the editions of texts cited or consulted. The logistical challenges that readers of the Zibaldone have to confront in the attempt to define any given subject of inquiry and account for all its ramifications originate in this very modularity that is generated by the authorial perspective—distributed over an extensive period of time and refracted through multiple contexts, as well as in the polysemy of the fragments gained in its iterative process of composition. With the intention to sort the recollected material thematically for the publication of scholarly works, Leopardi furnished his collection of fragments with an alphabetical thematic index (the 1827 Index) and with the titles of projected works (the PNR Index), listing altogether over 10 000 references to relevant paragraphs and pages, distributed under ca. 1000 themes and sub-themes, some of which are cross-referenced. The thematic indexing combined with the cross-references within the Zibaldone sketch a detailed conceptual design of the semantic framework of the text, where each fragment is connected to multiple others at various degrees of association.

Although Leopardi’s analytical procedures probe extensively the semantic associations between individual fragments, their relational structure cannot be retrieved from the chronological order of the collection or from the alphabetical order of the index headings which Leopardi had adopted from his eighteenth century "reasoned dictionary" models of knowledge organization, i.e. Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique and the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers edited by Diderot and D’Alembert. The proto-hypertextual expedient of cross-references, to which both the Zibaldone and the Encyclopédie resort in the endeavor to convey their relativist epistemological perspective, can activate the associative network of the fragments in the mind of their dedicated reader, who may on occasion grasp, as a flash-like image ("un colpo d'occhio"), how its various parts hang together, after having examined them carefully one at a time (Zibaldone pp.3269-70). However, the hyperlinks lack the rhetorical and hermeneutical capacity to translate their connections of individual fragments into a discursive framework. The aggregation and retrieval of the information recorded in the Indexes and by the cross-references for the purpose of evaluating the thematic field of passages listed under an index theme, or even that of a single fragment, demand a labor-intensive sequence of manual steps which the Digital Platform's further development should render automatic.

Platform Development. The Digital Research Platform aims to address the limitations of existing remediations of the Zibaldone, i.e. print editions, digital transcription, CD-ROM, wiki page, to confront the manuscript’s distributed semantics, by taking advantage of XML and RDF technologies which allow to critically address the Zibaldone from the perspective of its modular and relational textuality. The evolving development of the Platform explores a methodological dialectics between the Zibaldone's discursive gestures of transcending its paper medium and the prerogative of digital technologies to construct multi-dimensional forms of discourse, and is informed by methodologies of digital scholarly editing and knowledge visualization, the principles of the semantic web, the history of scholarly hypertext, and the design of platforms for the organization of research material. 

Technologies and Functionality. Our editorial efforts thus far have been dedicated to document analysis and encoding of the manuscript’s semantic annotations in XML; reconstructing the Zibaldone’s intertextual networks based on quotations and bibliographic references; and providing basic tools to query, extract, and align the text’s semantic layers. The encoding of the text and its authorial indexes according to the guidelines of TEI P5 defines the Zibaldone's modular features, with the occasional need to circumvent the TEI OHCO model. The eXist XML server allows for XQuery processing and XSLT transformations of the files and offers Lucene full-text searching and a built-in web server. While the eXist XML database provides a full application framework, Drupal was used for the website interface. With the addition of a few plug-in modules, the versatile Drupal content management system simplifies the addition of existing and future features, such as authentication, authorization, commenting, tagging, caching, and theming to the website. The Platform's current functions include: settings which give users the option to display or hide specific layers of authorial and editorial markup according to their individual research objectives; hyperlinking the intratextual cross-references and the references of the Indexes to the text, which required defining the relevant textual segment for each reference; several navigation menus; a search menu; a paragraph information window aggregating all directly referenced passages (outgoing, incoming and reciprocal) along with the themes from the 1827 Index and the PNR Index which reference the given paragraph; extracting the text of the passages referenced under an index theme and visualizing their thematic cross-references as a network graph. Among the Platform’s desiderata are a sophisticated concordance search, dynamic semantic queries and visualizations of the text's syntactic features and of its relational networks, modules for user annotation, a database of user-generated semantic indexing, links to a timeline of Leopardi's other writings, a database of Leopardi's readings, an indexed critical bibliography on the text, and other contextual information.

For a detailed background of the project's research objectives and the technologies employed, see the project Publications. For information on the current status of the Platform's functionality, see the User Guide

Ballerini, Monica and Ceragioli, Fiorenza, Eds. Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone, CD-ROM. Zanichelli: Bologna, 2009.
Davies, Stephen. “Still Building the Memex”. Communications of the ACM. February 2011, vol. 54, no. 2, pp.80-88. doi:10.1145/1897816.1897840.
Davies, Stephen et al. "Building the Memex Sixty Years Later: Trends and Directions in Peronsal Knowledge Bases. Department of Computer Science, University of Colorda, Technical Report CU-CS-997-05, August 2005. http://www.cs.colorado.edu/department/publications/reports/docs/CU-CS-997-05.pdf

Gifford, Paul. “Thinking-Writing games of the ‘Cahiers’”. In Reading Paul Valéry: Universe in Mind, Eds. Brian Stimpson and Paul Gifford, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp.35-52.
Gifford, Paul and Brian Stimpson. Reading Paul Valéry: Universe in Mind, “Conclusion”,Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp.297-305.
Kinloch, David. Reading and Writing in Joubert's "Carnets"Author(s): The Modern Language Review, Vol. 91, No. 2 (Apr., 1996), pp. 342-354.
Marx, Ursula et al. Walter Benjamin's Archive: Images, Texts, Signs, London and New York: Verso, 2007, Kindle edition.
Pacella, Giuseppe, Ed. Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone. Milano: Garzanti, 1991.
Peruzzi, Emilio, Ed. Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone di Pensieri, edizione fotografica dell’autografo con gli indici e lo schedario. Scuola Normale Superiore: Pisa, 1989-1994.
van Manen, Max. “Writing Qualitatively, or the Demands of Writing”. Qualitative Health Research 16, 5 (2006): 713-722. 

Participants and Support

The Zibaldone project was initiated by Silvia Stoyanova (PhD in Italian Literature, Columbia University) and developed in collaboration with Ben Johnston (Senior Educational Technologist, Princeton University). The project has benefited from the consultant assistance of Dr. Clifford Wulfman (Center for Digital Humanities, Princeton University) and Prof. Christian Wildberg (Classics, Princeton University); from the editorial assistance of Stephen Blair, Emilio Capettini, Michael Hanley, Kathleen Galeano, Monica Gordillo, Gigi Stoyanova; and from the computational programming assistance of Matthias Schneider, Mariona Coll Ardanuy, and Guoqian Xi. The project development has received support from Princeton University, the Trier Center for Digital Humanities, the University of Macerata, and volunteer work. The editor is thankful for the assistance of the staff at the Manuscripts and Rare Books Department at the National Library in Naples in July of 2014 – Emilia Ambra, Vincenzo Boni, Maria Rascaglia, Gabriella Mansi, and for the feedback of Prof. Laura Melosi (University of Macerata) and the students enrolled in her Italian Literature course in the Fall of 2016.

Feedback / Volunteer

If you have comments, suggestions, would like to report any mistakes, or would like to volunteer on the project as editor or developer, please email Silvia Stoyanova (sms116 [at] caa [dot] columbia [dot] edu).


Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone as a digital research platform: a methodological proposal for its semantic reconstruction and discursive mediation. Silvia Stoyanova. In Semicerchio: rivista di poesia comparata, LIII, 02/2016, pp. 98-106, Ed. Francesco Stella.

Remediating Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone: Hypertextual Semantic Networks in the Scholarly Archive. Silvia Stoyanova and Ben Johnston. In Proceedings of AIUCD ‘14, Bologna, Italy, ACM (08/2015). Ed. Francesca Tomasi et al. Alternative access.

"The Zibaldone Hypertext Research Platform". Silvia Stoyanova and Ben Johnston. In Authoring Software/Narrabase (07/2014), Ed. Judy Malloy

"Fragmentary Narrative and the Formation of Pre-Digital Scholarly Hypertextuality: G. Leopardi’s Zibaldone and its hypertext rendition". Silvia Stoyanova. In Proceedings of Hypertext 2013, ACM (05/2013)

“Lo Zibaldone di pensieri di Leopardi: progetto di una piattaforma di ricerca ipertestuale”. (“Leopardi’s Zibaldone of thoughts: a project for a hypertext research platform”) Silvia Stoyanova. In Lo «Zibaldone» di Leopardi come ipertesto, Atti del Convegno internazionale (Barcellona, 26-27 ottobre 2012). Ed. María de las Nieves Muñiz Muñiz, Florence, Leo Olschki, 2013, pp.333-342.