IT Life: The Priest Who Digitised Leonardo

Monsignor Francesco Braschi put Leonardo online, at one of the world’s oldest libraries

Monsignor Francesco Braschi is a priest and an IT professional. He manages the electronic catalogue of one of the world’s cultural pearls – and digitised Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest books.

Monsignor Braschi works at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, which combines a library holding a million texts and 35,000 ancient manuscripts, as well as the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana art gallery with paintings by Leonardo, Caravaggio and Raphael. His projects include the electronic catalogue of the museums works, including the digitisation of the Codex Atlanticus, a twelve-volume bound set of drawings and writing by Leonardo da Vinci.

Biblioteca Ambrosiana MilanPublic information

The Biblioteca was begun in 1609 by Cardinal Federico Borromeo, and in a way prefigures the Internet, as a pioneering source of public knowledge. It was the second public  library created in Europe, after the Bodleian in Oxford.

Today, Monsignor Braschi is extending access to the library’s documents across TV and the Internet. He is one of the library’s College of Doctors, although he is still little more than 40 years old, and prefers his friends to address him as Dom Francesco. He uses a full panoply of social media, including LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, in several different languages.

He isDirector of the Faculty of Slavic Studies of the Ambrosian, an activity that takes him around the world, from Russia to the Balkans. In 1609, Ambrosiana offered every visitor a pen, ink, and a stool, he says, and he sees today’s provision of new techn0logies as a continuation of that.

Today, anyone coming into Ambrosiana stumbles into a large touch screen table that shows the Codex Atlanticus, and is offered a  Samsung Galaxy S3 (provided by Samsung) with a dedicated app that explains the works on display. Three works in the Pinacoteca – The School of Athens by Raphael, The Basket of Fruit by Caravaggio and Leonardo’s The Musician – are accompanied by a high-definition multimedia video.

One of the Ambrosiana’s big IT projects is the electronic cataloging of the library’s works – 40 percent complete and taking four full time staff. “It’s a very delicate work with high costs, but a lot of satisfaction, because the electronic catalog is part of the National Library System (SBN), available to all,” he explains. 

The second project, which began three years ago and will take the next thirty years, is the Digital Ambrosiana on the Internet (DAI). It consists of actually digitising all the more valuable texts using high-resolution scanners, in collaboration with the Inter-University Consortium Cilea“On the Internet today high and medium resolution images, make these documents more usable,” explains Don Francesco.

Bringing Leonardo to the masses

Leonardo da Vinci crossbow design Codex AtlanticusWhat has been the best project of your career?
The high-resolution digitisation of the Codex Atlanticus of Leonardo Da Vinci which we achieved in 2008-2009 using a scanner built by the Italian company Metis System, and with partner Mida InformaticaThis work has allowed us to make the scans available to scholars and at the same time enrich the set of images for the publishing and media activity, such as the high definition 3D documentary made ​​a couple of months ago already transmitted in England and Italy.

We have a continuing project to create programs and documentaries in HD and 3D, working with De Agostini Multimedia and [Italian broadcaster] Rai . We have made ​​an app which lets users browse the Codex Atlanticus on Apple devices, allowing you to read the text which was written in mirror-writing. We will take this to the Android environment and will also offer other manuscripts.

I was also “intrigued” to adopt Gmail and  Google Apps at Ambrosiana, using  Google Calendar also to create a shared resource accessible on mobile devices by thirty people who work here. It is a challenge for such an ancient institution, and it is a great satisfaction to see even the not-so-young colleagues willingly use these tools.

I am an Android lover, and every day I also use Ubuntu Linux, Windows XP, 7 and 8 on the Ambrosian network. I think that culture should be multiplatform.

What technology did you use ten years ago?
I did not have a smartphone (I was given my first one in 2008), but I was working with  scanner, computer and  e-mailFor my first thesis in Early Christian Literature, in 1994-95, I used an analog modem connected to the telephone network for research (using gopher and telnet) to access Latin texts that resided in the universities of Northern Europe.

As I gathered the data that I needed, I really felt like a  mole digging in the tunnels of a network made ​​up of still largely text-based interfaces. The world wide web was really in its infancy. At the seminary, in the eighties and nineties, we used Ventura Publisher 2.0 for the internal magazine and my first computer, in 1990, was an IBM 8088, fitted with a 16-color CGA graphics card. It had a hard drive as big as 20 Mbyte!

Augmented reality will surprise us

WMonsignor Francesco Braschi Biblioteca Ambrosianahich technology do you think you will use in the next ten years?
I am very curious about the development of the combination of mobile internet, augmented reality and cloudI find tablets are still very immature, but we’ll also significant innovations in the technology of speech to test. Augmented reality will surprise us …

Who is your tech hero?
Two friends in the seminary:  priests who taught physics and mathematics, and in the ’80s taught the seminarians to program in Pascal.

What is your favorite technology? Which do you use most?
Although I greatly love the radio, I like to be connected 24 hours a day with smart phones, desktops, netbooks and tablets … but with intelligence.  You can also (and should, in my opinion) be silent also technology.  

Social media can greatly facilitate the pastoral relationships with faithful friends even when they are distant. With Skype, I make video calls to chat with my parents, or friends as far away as Moscow to Kiev. I also love Twitter, for the challenge of brevity.

Which company you admire her for the work they are doing in IT?
A small company of three young people who became friends over time, called Alphabeti. They are very professional and create very effiective and creative cultural applications.

What is the biggest challenge for an IT department today?
It worries me that there is a fragility behind the way in which we now preserve data, information and culture. Ancient stone inscriptions and scrolls, while containing little information, have survived hundreds of years of history. Today we have terabytes and terabytes in a pocket, but just a little accident or a failure to make everything useless. If tomorrow the backbone fails would be able to resist this impact?  We need to preserve the memory of man, never forgetting that our brain is a more sophisticated memory, which can give a “soul and sense” to information!

To Cloud or not to Cloud?
I use the cloud, as it is useful for a globetrotter like me. But you should keep it at a certain critical distance and watch it with ironyAnd I always have a memory stick in my pocket to back up!

What did you want to be as a child?
I had many ideas. As early as the fourth grade I wanted to be a priest, but I never imagined it could really be an experience so full, rich and full of beauty.

This article first appeared in TechWeekEurope Italy. Translation by Peter Judge

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