Life after the Warburg: Barbara Tramelli


Warburg graduate, Barbara Tramelli, works as a researcher on a project that focuses on the visualisation, automatic retrieval and iconographic indexation of early modern illustrations. She is also writing a book on sixteenth-century book illustrations printed in Lyon.

In this 'Life after the Warburg' interview, we caught up with Barbara to find out more about the project, the importance of early printed books from Lyon, how studying at the Institute helped shape her research interests and more. 

What is the project you are working on?

I work as researcher at the Free University in Bozen (Italy) on the promotion and fruition of the Cultural Heritage utilising digital technologies. Specifically, I am currently working on my project on the visualisation, automatic retrieval and iconographic indexation of early modern illustrations. On the subject I am also writing my second monograph on sixteenth-century book illustrations printed in Lyon. It will be published in 2024.

Fig. 1 Colophon: Cy finist le Mirouer de la redemption de l'humain lignage (GW M43034), Lyon (Huss), 1478, fol. 12r

What is special about early printed books from Lyon?

Between around 1480 until the end of the sixteenth century, the city of Lyon became one of the most important printing hubs in Europe, second in France only to Paris. Developed along the banks of the two rivers Saone and Rhone in a unique strategic position bordering Italy, Switzerland, and the south of Germany, the Renaissance city was a crossover of people, goods and ideas.

The number of books printed in the space of one hundred years is estimated to be around 25000 (according to the research undertaken from 2007 by Dr William Kemp for his Lyon 15-16 database), published by the over one-hundred printers living in the city and strategically located for the most part in the Rue Mercière. Around 10/12% of these books are illustrated with iconographically relevant images. From the Mirouer de la Rédemption de l’Humain Lignage (1478, fig. 1), the first illustrated book printed in France, translated by the monk Julien Macho into French and published in Lyon by Mathieu Huss with woodcuts taken from the previous German edition printed in Basel in 1473, the production of illustrated books flourished in the city until its apogee in the 1530’s, when different printers published (and re-published) illustrated editions of a wide range of books.

Between around 1480 until the end of the sixteenth century, the city of Lyon became one of the most important printing hubs in Europe, second in France only to Paris.

What kind of editions have you dealt with in the project?

During my work for the 3-year funded project Le livre illustré à Lyon, directed by Professor Richard Cooper (Oxford) and Dr Raphaële Mouren (Warburg), I had the possibility to see and study many books from the collection of the bibliothèque municipale de Lyon and the Bodleian Libraries. Printers from Lyon published illustrated editions of a variety of books (from religious books to emblem books, from herbalia to astrological and pattern books). Among the various types of illustrated books printed in the city, particular attention should be given to religious books, usually printed in small format, which became common in the middle of the century. For these books, we know that printers in Lyon used German blocks at first, such as for the images for the Mirouer, but they soon began to employ local artists and engravers, and by the third decade of the sixteenth century a style and format of illustrated book was developed, similar to that of the English chapbook: it consisted of small format books (mostly octavo) which integrated image and text, creating a unique balance of text and illustration. This format was used for religious books with popular intent (such as such as The Quadrins Historiques de La Bible printed by Jean de Tournes or the Figures de la Bibles printed by Guillaume Roville in many different editions, see fig. 2), which did not have a profound exegesis of the biblical text, but they mostly cherry-picked different episodes of the old and new testaments, framing the illustration on top of the page and inserting an explanation of the image in verses. This format was inspired by the emblem book format, as different books of emblems were circulating in the city and were also an inspiration for the famous illustrations for the Dance of Death by Hans Holbein, which the artist drawn between 1523 and 1524 and of which two editions were published in Lyon in 1545 and in 1562. All these illustrations were collected, thanks to a funding obtained from the French Biblissima programme (CNRS), in the Warburg Institute Iconographic Database; I also gathered them in the Lyon16ci website, born thanks to the collaboration with the Visual Geometry Group directed by Prof. Zisserman in Oxford. The corpus was subsequently expanded and the website edited thanks to the research grant I received from the Venice Centre for Digital and Public Humanities at Ca’ Foscari University.

How have you sourced the images for the project? Some of the images have been taken from existing resources; can you say a bit more about how these resources have been useful?

Certainly, the Biblissima project would not have seen the light if it weren’t for the major digitisation works carried out by institutions such as the bibliothèque municipale de Lyon (where I had the privilege of working for the first part of the project) in collaboration with Google Books, the Centre d’études supérieures de la Renaissance in Tours and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, that digitised a lot of 16th-c. books from the library in Lyon in addition to their own. Also, the Warburg Institute kindly sent its former official photographer, Ian Jones, who took wonderful pictures of editions which were not previously available online.

Fig. 2: Bernard Salomon (left), Noah’s Ark, woodcut, in Claude Paradin, Quadrins historiques de la bible, Lyon (de Tournes), 1553 and Pierre Eskrich (right), Noah’s Ark, in Guillaume Gueroult, Figures de la Bible, Lyon, (Roville), 1564

Why did you opt for the Warburg's Iconographic Database as a suitable platform for the project?

The two PIs of the project, Richard Cooper and Raphaële Mouren, weighed up the options of creating a new database or using the existing Warburg Iconographic Database. They decided without hesitation to use the Iconographic Database, for a range of reasons: one is that it didn’t make sense to create a separate tool, for scientific reasons but also in terms of the long term preservation of the data and images. Another one was that this project fitted very well with the Warburg Library Online project that Dr Raphaële Mouren, then the Librarian at the Warburg Institute, was developing at that time. Last but not least, the Iconographic Database was the perfect host for the project. The Warburg database allows a great deal of flexibility for what concerns the iconographic indexation of images, and this is a great advantage to give a detailed description of a book illustration. Moreover, it allows the insertion of external links to the digitised editions and to parallel projects.

Will there be a continuation of your project or are other comparable projects in the planning? How does your project connect to or derive from other projects of this kind?

At the moment I am working to envisage the possible future perspectives to further expand the project. A collaboration has been established with Dr Matilde Malaspina and resulted in the demo 1516, which presents a corpus of over 15000 fifteenth and sixteenth century printed illustrations, available and searchable in order to find possible similarities and influences.

I am also currently working on expanding the corpus of the database by inserting new possible illustrated editions printed in Venice.

Dr Richard Gartner, the Digital Librarian at the Warburg Institute, is in contact with the Biblissima programme, whose aim is to host all data created with their financial support on their platform. Adding the data to the Biblissima platform will create links with other projects. The Centre Gabriel Naudé (Lyon), the research centre that is hosting the project, is also interested in adding our data to their other databases, but there is still a lot of work to do on this.

To whom is your project useful? How does your project help historians of the book?

The project can be useful for a wide range of scholars, from art historians to historians of the book. It offers a corpus of images online which are readily searchable and findable (both in the collection of the Warburg Institute Iconographic Database and in the Lyon16ci database). Moreover, the digital resources create knowledge which can be useful to analyse and understand these images iconographically. We know that the Iconographic Database is used by specialists of many disciplines for their teaching.

The project can be useful for a wide range of scholars, from art historians to historians of the book.

An important moment of the project was the Summer School that was organised in Lyon at the end of the project. It was taught by Prof. Cooper, Dr Paul Taylor (curator of the Warburg Institute Photographic Collection) and myself, and it attracted a range of audiences, from students to heritage professionals. The summer school took place just before the annual workshop ‘Biblyon: Books and Literature in 16th-c. Lyon, that is organised every year in June, and the teachers of the course were invited to give a paper at the workshop. Since then, I have regularly taken part in the workshop, including this year when I gave a paper on 30 June on ‘La fonction des images dans les livres du XVIe siècle: quelques exemples dans les éditions illustrées imprimées à Lyon’. This workshop allows us to share the results of the project with academics, archivists, librarians and students.

How did studying at the Warburg prepare you for participation in a prestigious funded project of this kind?

The Warburg provided me with solid methodological skills, which were (and still are) very useful for my academic career. My permanence at the Institute widened my knowledge of different interrelated subjects, such as the history of printing, early modern art theory and iconography. But most of all, it opened my mind and taught me the value of building a scholarly community with whom to share and discuss your own work, ideas, and questions. This is vital to thrive and keep being inspired during your own research.

But most of all, it opened my mind and taught me the value of building a scholarly community with whom to share and discuss your own work, ideas, and questions.

What did you study during your time at the Warburg Institute?

I did my Master of Arts (graduated with Distinction) in Cultural and Intellectual History (1300-1650). At the time the Institute offered only one MA, I worked under the supervision of Professor Charles Hope and Professor Elizabeth McGrath, and later under Professor Jill Kraye, and I am incredibly grateful to them, as well to all the scholars who helped me in my formative years. Later I came back as Frances Yates Fellow on an article project on the relationship between Giovanni Lomazzo and Early Modern Alchemy (published in Renaissance Studies in 2019).  

What did you enjoy most during your time at the Institute?

First, and perhaps many scholars previously answered the same, the Library, a unique place in which ideas arise just browsing the books, and which helped me immensely in shaping and clarifying my thoughts - I come back whenever I get the chance, especially when I am in the middle of writing an article or a new paper.

Second (but in no particular order), the community of scholars. I am still in contact with many of them, almost fifteen years after my MA, and whenever I am back, it seems like no time has passed. I find this wonderful and unique.

What is the best piece of advice you have received?

Try to become the specialist of a specific subject but remember to always keep your mind open. It is something a very wise scholar at the institute told me. I would add go outside your intellectual comfort zone whenever you find the opportunity and discuss with as many scholars as you can inside and outside your field. You never know whence inspiration comes from.

Find out more about our postgraduate programmes


Dr. Barbara Tramelli currently works as researcher at the Free University in Bolzano. After her MA in Cultural and Intellectual History (1300-1650) at the Institute, she obtained her PhD in Art History at the Freie Universitaet in Berlin in 2015. From 2011 until 2015 she worked at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in the project ‘Art and Knowledge in Pre-Modern Europe, 1300-1650’. After her PhD she worked as ingénieur de recherche for the 3-year project ‘Le livre illustré à Lyon, 1480-1600’, funded by Equipex Biblissima (CNRS), and from 2019 she has been working as Digital Art Historian at the Venice Centre for Digital and Public Humanities of Ca' Foscari University in Venice. She is associate editor of Magazen - International Journal for Digital and Public Humanities (Edizioni Ca’ Foscari). She has been visiting scholar in many prestigious institutions, among which Frances Yates fellow at the Warburg Institute, post-doctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute and visiting fellow at Saint Benet's Hall (University of Oxford). She teaches Investigating Museum Collections and Digital Cultural Heritage. Her first monograph on the painter and writer on art Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo was published by Brill in 2017.