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Private libraries as a microcosmos of knowledge: Travelling through time and space with Pieter de Graeff’s book collection

L’une des meilleures manières de recréer la pensée d’un homme: reconstituer sa bibliothèque
-Marguerite Yourcenar

If we were to select only one feature typifying the 17th century Dutch Republic, we would certainly need to single out its thriving book culture. A cultural industry that was the largest in Europe at that time (see e.g. Dijstelberge and Verkruijsse 2010, 143; Hoftijzer 2015), the Dutch book sector produced a higher number and had a more internationally oriented market than the painting industry (Pettegree and der Weduwen 2019, 2). According to the estimated figures discussed in Pettegree and der Weduwen, paintings on the walls of Dutch homes would collectively amount to about 3 million pieces, while the book production would have reached as many as 300 million, with at least 4 million books traded at auctions (Pettegree and der Weduwen 2019, 1).

Within my postdoc project on Visualizing Amsterdam Interiors, the case study of Pieter de Graeff has offered us the opportunity to investigate the presence of this important product of the Dutch cultural industries at his house on the Herengracht 573. From the probate inventory of his properties, which was drawn up after his death in 1707, we know in fact that his home was equipped with a library (‘boeken kamer’). Thanks to a reference to this room in one of the passages of his almanacs, we can also pinpoint its location in the house with certainty, namely in the room above the entrance hall. The few items listed in the inventory point towards a simple furnishing, as we would expect for rooms of this kind, and an additional note written in smaller caps at the end of this section of the inventory reminds that a more specific list is to be made of the books that are present in this room and elsewhere in the house. Although this more detailed registration of books doesn’t seem to have survived, one copy of the De Graeff’s book auction catalogue is currently preserved at the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg (fig. 1). Its digital copy is included in the Brill Book Sales Catalogues Online (BSCO), which gives access to thousands of facsimiles of book sales catalogues printed in the Dutch Republic before 1801. Until now overlooked in literature, this book catalogue comprises more than 2,300 titles, in several languages and covering a variety of subjects.

The title page of Pieter de Graeff’s book auction catalogue
Fig. 1: The title page of Pieter de Graeff’s book auction catalogue.

Reconstructing De Graeff’s book collection

Bart Reuvekamp and I have prepared an annotated transcription of the book catalogue, which is facilitating the quantitative and qualitative analysis of its content. We are also planning to make it available to other researchers through the DANS repository, in order to foster broader comparisons and quantifications across different book auction catalogues. With the collaboration of Leon van Wissen from the Golden Agents project, we aim in fact to further enrich this transcription with links to e.g. Wikidata and the Dutch National Thesaurus for Author Names (NTA). To this end, we added the corresponding VIAF identifier to each author in the catalogue, which both overcomes ambiguities in their identification (e.g. due to different spellings of an author’s name), and enables us to connect them to other resources. Titles will be moreover matched with the datasets of the STCN and Worldcat, which, besides offering an interesting technical challenge, will give us an idea about the amount and distribution of existing copies.

As well expressed by Marguerite Yourcenar in the quote at the beginning of this post, one of the best ways to recreate what one person thinks is to reconstruct their library. The books in the auction catalogue indeed clearly show an extensive attention for juridical and theological matters, and point to specific interests in historical events and geopolitical issues, as well as being indicative of the De Graeff’s political sympathies (a detailed analysis is in preparation). There are moreover several descriptions of faraway places, travel guides, manuals to learn foreign languages, and dictionaries. De Graeff’s library, encapsulating the 17th century microcosmos of knowledge, allowed travelling through time and places, exploring different locations and historical periods, and thus connected this small room in a house along one of the Amsterdam canals and its inhabitants with the broader international context.

Whomever works with book auction catalogues as primary sources is however confronted with the question as to what extent they are really representative of the book collection owned by the person advertised on their title page. For example, cases are known of publishers who, eager to sell their own stocks, included them in somebody else’s book catalogue (Van Eeghen 1978, 246). Were all the books in this catalogue really owned by Pieter de Graeff? And if so, how did they enter his collection? In addition, what other books did he own besides those that are listed? Thanks to the information we derived from archival documents and the De Graeff’s almanacs, we have sufficient evidence to shed light at least partially on these questions: We can not only prove that he kept books originally owned by several of his family members, but also clarify the circumstances under which some of the books in the book catalogue entered his collection. Through these documents, moreover, we are also able to pinpoint additional books that are not present in the catalogue, but that were in de Graeff’s hands at some point during his life, for example volumes that he lent to other family members or close acquaintances.

Reconstructing the physical space: De Graeff’s ‘boeken kamer’ at Herengracht 573

Besides reconstructing the content of De Graeff’s library, the other complementary aspect of this research was to reconstruct the physical space where (at least some of) these books were kept in his house. As already mentioned in a previous post, none would guess that a library existed at this location in the 17th century, given the numerous modifications that this space underwent over the course of several generations, and its different uses for which it has been destined (from domestic to exhibition space, as shown in fig. 2). The aim of the 3D reconstruction hypothesis (fig. 3) was therefore first of all to help visualize the original function of this area. In addition, it provided a way to suggest a rough estimate of the number of volumes that could be kept in there, thus giving us also an idea about how many would have been stored elsewhere in the house. The starting point has been the collection of evidence of similar contemporary libraries and study rooms depicted in paintings and engravings, as well as the comparison with the Thysiana library, a slightly earlier, still preserved, example in Leiden.[1] The Thysiana has been especially useful to check the thickness of the shelves and the number of books on each shelf, which are arranged according to their format.

Fig. 2: The appearance of one side of what used to be De Graeff’s library, transformed in exhibition space for the now closed Museum of Bags and Purses and completely unrecognizable in its original function.
Fig. 3: Current reconstruction hypothesis of Pieter de Graeff’s library, originally located on the second floor of his house at Herengracht 573.

As in the case of the reconstruction of the entrance hall (‘voorhuys’), ‘intellectual transparency’ in the reconstruction process plays an important role in this research (see Piccoli, forthcoming). In this case, besides a color-coded visualization of uncertainty, this issue is dealt with by proposing alternative reconstruction hypotheses (e.g., of the position of the closet, which I cannot derive with certainty from the inventoried list of objects in this room, and of the appearance of the shelves, which in one reconstruction is based on those in the Thysiana, while in another is rendered with a simpler wooden frame as often depicted in other visual sources). The thesis project of Alessandro Pantò, a student of the MSc in Computer Science at the Leiden University (LIACS), will allow us to explore the potential of the game engine ‘Unreal’ to create a VR-based walk-through of this room, which takes into consideration also how to convey the uncertainty in the visualization.[2]

Behind the scenes of the 3D modelling process: strategies to create the books in the library

One of the modelling challenges posed by this room was the need to create all the books that filled up the shelves: modelling them one by one in detail would be not only too time consuming, but would also lead to an excessively high polygon count, which can be problematic when using the model for real time interaction. I therefore modelled the rows of books as two-sided simple geometries and relied solely on the pictures taken at the Thysiana of their spines to give the impression of their details and volumetric properties. Figure 4 illustrates the result of this technique.  

Fig. 4: The low-polygon books that fill up the shelves are modelled (in Blender) as surfaces and not as complete 3D objects, thus decreasing the overall polygon count without compromising the results.

For the books I put on top of the closet, near the window, a more detailed geometrical representation was needed. For this reason, I used another technique called ‘Structure from Motion’ (SfM), which allows the estimation and reconstruction of the 3D geometry of an object from a series of pictures. To this end, I took several overlapping pictures of books from different perspectives, and used them as input in the open source photogrammetry software Meshroom, which, with some tweaking of the default parameters, allowed the creation of highly detailed 3D models (figs. 5 and 6). The models are then optimized in Blender and Meshlab. An example of the results is available for download following the link in the caption of fig. 6.

Fig. 5: A phase of the photogrammetric reconstruction of the book’s 3D geometry in the open source software Meshroom.
Fig. 6: The 3D model resulting from the SfM processing (available for interactive viewing and download at this link). This book is the Antiquitatum Romanarum Corpus Absolutissimum by the German antiquarian Johannes Rosinus (1551 – 1626), published in Leiden in 1663 by the Officina Hackiana (private collection). De Graeff owned the 1646 edition in the same quarto format.

Future outlook

Unfortunately the ‘Museum of Bags and Purses’ has been closed as a result of the corona crisis, which has halted our plans to make available these 3D reconstructions at their original location in the future. These digital assets will however remain as geospatial interfaces to visualize the reconstruction hypotheses of this domestic space, and will give access to the structured web of data underlying their creation. Ultimately, in fact, all these sources and the datasets will be linked to the 3D reconstruction of this room via the web-based viewer that Hugo Huurdeman is designing in the context of this project. The viewer will allow the user to experience the 3D reconstruction in both desktop and VR-mode, and is aimed at intellectual transparency by providing various options to access additional information about the reconstruction process: from a color-coded overlay displaying the degree of uncertainty in the reconstructed 3D environment, to the possibility to explore both its underlying sources and additional linked datasets.

Works cited

P. Dijstelberge and P.J. Verkruijsse 2010. ‘Een schitterend moeras: boek en wereld in de zeventiende eeuw’. In Jaarboek voor Nederlandse Boekgeschiedenis 17, 141-170.

P.G. Hoftijzer 2015. ‘The Dutch Republic, Centre of the European Book Trade in the 17th Century’, consulted at

A. Pettegree and A. der Weduwen 2019. The Bookshop of the World. Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age. Yale University Press.

C. Piccoli (forthcoming). ‘Home-making in 17th century Amsterdam: A 3D reconstruction to investigate visual cues in the entrance hall of Pieter de Graeff (1638-1707)’, in G. Landeschi and E. Betts (eds.), Capturing the senses: digital methods for sensory archaeologies, Springer.

I. H. van Eeghen 1978. De Amsterdamse boekhandel 1680-1725. Deel 5. De boekhandel van de Republiek 1572-1795, Amsterdam.

[1] I would like to thank Paul Hoftijzer, curator of the Thysiana and professor of Book History in Leiden, for the time he made available to discuss both the content and the appearance of De Graeff’s library and for his useful observations and feedback. Thanks also to Gabri van Tussenbroek for checking the structural elements of the reconstructed room.

[2] Alessandro contributed also to the 3D modelling of some objects in the room, specifically a first version of the window, one reconstruction hypothesis of the shelves, and the closet. His thesis is supervised by Maarten Lamers (LIACS) and myself.

The Importance of Context in Search User Interfaces for 3D Content

How to design user interfaces for searching and retrieving 3D models in a digital humanities context? This was the question investigated in our short paper entitled “More than just a Picture” – The Importance of Context in Search User Interfaces for Three-Dimensional Content [1] (PDF), published in the proceedings of the CHIIR conference 2020. Since the conference couldn’t physically take place due to the COVID-19 situation, we briefly present our work in this blogpost.


This paper was inspired by the growing number of historical environments which are reconstructed in three dimensions, for instance the 17th century houses in Amsterdam within the Virtual Interiors project. However, search and retrieval of three-dimensional assets are so far underrepresented in research and practice. Thus, it is unclear how to support complex searches for these types of content, for instance in the context of digital humanities (DH) research.

To investigate interfaces for searching and retrieving 3D models, we looked at three questions: 

1. How do digital humanists conceptualize search in the context of historical reconstructions? 

2. Which spatial support by 2D, enhanced 2D and 3D maps do they prefer for exploratory searches?

3. Which dimensions of spatial context do digital humanists refer to when searching for 3D objects?

The questions were researched via an exploratory user study with six Digital Humanities researchers, using a so-called “think-aloud” protocol, in which participants verbalize their thoughts and actions. We evaluated interactive mockups of a prospective search engine, contextualized by 2D, enhanced 2D and 3D maps.

Figure 1: Basic (‘baseline’) search user interface (first 2 results). Result item: (A) 3D model thumbnail. From archival info.: (B) Title; (C) – (D) descriptions; (E) house address, room; (F) – (H) various metadata. (I) – (J) Degree of uncertainty in proposed 3D reconstruction.


Our findings are fully described in the paper referenced below [1], but here we summarize the main points:

Conceptualizing a 3D search engine (1)

During our user study, DH researchers imagined how a search engine for 3D objects would work, and what it would look like. They emphasized textual aspects, such as “a list of paintings that were in the house”, item descriptions, links to sources and various enrichments. Also, visual aspects played a key role. For instance, the 3D search engine should be “visually attractive”, one “should know what things looked like” and “not just get the image”, but also the overall spatial and historical context was emphasized. This means not just knowing “where something is”, but also how an object “relates to other objects and environments”, according to the participants.

Comparing 2D & 3D map variants (2)

In a subsequent part of our study, we looked further into which spatial support should ideally be provided in a 3D search engine. Participants tried out interactive mockups containing static 2D, and interactive 2D and 3D maps of a prospective search engine in a randomized order (see Figure 1 and 2). The responses of post-task surveys can best be summarized by participants’ satisfaction ratings: this was clearly highest for the 3D maps (4.2 out of 5) as opposed to enhanced 2D (3.8) and static 2D maps (3). As one participant indicated, the 3D maps “give a better perception of space”. At the same time, a need for combining map modalities came up: the usefulness of the 2D and 3D maps depends on the type of task a researcher is conducting.

Dimensions of spatial context (3)     

Our third question focused specifically at the role of spatial context, via a thematic analysis of the transcribed think-aloud sessions, which derives the main themes and subthemes that occurred for the combined set of participants. The main identified themes were:

  • Object properties ❍, referring to location and size of objects
  • Object relationships , referring to relations between objects with other objects, or the environment 
  • Perception of space , including proportions, structural elements, space functions and lighting

These categories are visualized in Figure 3, which depicts the subcategories of the three main themes, and how many study participants referred to them. The findings represented in this diagram can help to inform design of future search interfaces for 3D objects, and to decide which kind of spatial context is needed.


Summarizing, our exploratory study showed the prime role of context in retrieving historical 3D objects, such as object properties, object relationships and cues in the environment. Participants expressed a preference for 3D contextual maps when presented with different types of maps in a prospective search interface. Our findings suggest a need for hybrid visualization modalities depending on the task at hand, which can be informed by the identified spatial context dimensions. Please refer to our published paper for full details and references.

[1] Hugo Huurdeman & Chiara Piccoli (2020). “More than just a Picture” – The Importance of Context in Search User Interfaces for Three-Dimensional Content. In Proceedings CHIIR 2020. ACM. (PDF).

Geographies & enhanced publications at ECARTICO data sprint

On Thursday 12 March, a data sprint regarding the datasets ECARTICO and ONSTAGE took place at the University of Amsterdam, organized by Amsterdam Time Machine / Golden Agents. Since the used datasets are very relevant for the Virtual Interiors project, several team members joined the sprint. 

As indicated on the data sprint website, “ECARTICO contains biographical data about painters, engravers, publishers, goldsmiths, writers and other creative people working in the Low Countries” in the 16th and 17th centuries, and provides information about their networks. Additionally, ONSTAGE contains the complete performance history in the Amsterdamse Schouwburg from 1638 to 1940. Since these datasets are very extensive (ECARTICO alone contains more than 50,000 entries), and since they also provide extensive links to e.g. Wikidata, DBNL and RKD, it was very worthwhile to experiment with these datasets in the sprint.

During the event, team members of Virtual Interiors joined a workshop focused on Geographies and networks of style and subject matter (Workshop 3), and on Enhanced publications (Workshop 4). Workshop 3 looked at the opportunities to use and combine ECARTICO, Wikidata and RKD data to create geographies of style, and social networks. Using “semantic queries” in SPARQL, we could retrieve painters from certain periods, and get statistics on the cities they worked from. For a full overview and explanation of methods, please refer to the page for workshop 3. Workshop 4 focused on enhanced publications, i.e. single-screen applications which allow for simultaneously accessing biography texts, artwork images and other updated biographical information. Also in this case, the full information on project objectives, approaches and results can be found on the dedicated page for workshop 4.

For Virtual Interiors, the results of the data sprint are particularly interesting since they provide inspiration for our integration of linked data, the potential opportunities and difficulties, and because they can inform our explorations into creating enhanced publications.

Visualizing domestic interiors in 17th century Amsterdam: 3D/4D data integration and hypothesis testing platforms

This project in a nutshell:

My postdoc project investigates how individuals created, used, displayed and experienced cultural goods in their homes during the Dutch Golden Age by developing virtual reconstructions of a selection of domestic interiors. These three-dimensional (3D) models aim to act as data integration and hypothesis visualizing platforms to spatially connect, manage and research the rich and heterogeneous data sources on this period. This project aims also to deal with the modelling process in a transparent way and, when possible, to visualize changes through time (4D).

Virtual Interiors at DH2019

On Friday July 12th, Chiara Piccoli and Weixuan Li will present our project at the Digital Humanities Conference 2019 in Utrecht. They will talk about the first experiments with the creation of complex 2D/3D/4D interfaces on top of the Semantic Web, that express uncertainties in/allow users to interact critically in multiple ways with data. For more info, click here

Also, on Wednesday July 10th, Weixuan Li will present her thesis research ‘Deciphering the art and market in the Dutch Golden Age’ and join a panel on the theme of complex time-space. For more info, click here and here

Virtual Interiors kick-off meeting 31 January

Een moeder die het haar van haar kind reinigt, bekend als ‘Moedertaak’, Pieter de Hooch, ca. 1658 - ca. 1660, Rijksmuseum, SK-C-149

Please be invited to the kick-off meeting organized by the Virtual Interiors as Interfaces for Big Historical Data Research project. Join if you are interested to learn more about this NWO Smart Culture – Big Data / Digital Humanities funded project on spatially enhanced publications of the creative industries of the Dutch Golden Age, which is hosted at Huygens ING and CREATE (UvA) and works in close collaboration with Brill and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision.

Thursday 31 January 2019 between 1:00-6:00pm in the Doelenzaal at the University Library (Singel 425, 1012 WP Amsterdam).

13:00 – 13:30 Tea and coffee
13:30 – 13:45  Opening Virtual Interiors
Charles van den Heuvel (Huygens ING; University of Amsterdam)

13:45 – 14:00  Artists and the Creative Urban Space: Understanding the artist’s location choices in Golden Age Amsterdam
Weixuan Li (Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands)

14:00 – 14:15  3D reconstructions as research and communication tools: The way ahead for the Virtual Interiors project.

Chiara Piccoli (University of Amsterdam; Leiden University)
14:15 – 14:30  Hardware Amsterdam. Building in Stone and Pixels
Gabri van Tussenbroek (City of Amsterdam: Monuments and Archaeology; University of Amsterdam)


15:00 – 15:15  Amsterdam Time Machine: Exploring Urban Creativity through Space and Time
Julia Noordegraaf (University of Amsterdam)
15:15 – 15:30  Embedded research: Annotating and Archiving Virtual Reconstructions as Enhanced Publications

Jesse de Vos (Sound and Vision) and Marti Huetink (Brill)
15:30 – 15:45  Scholarly Editions in 3D: An Aberration or a Logical Next Step

Susan Schreibman (Maastricht University) and Costas Papadopoulos (Maastricht University)
15:45 – 16:15  Keynote: Deep Mapping, Immersive Spatial Humanities and the Lived World
Trevor Harris (West Virginia University)

16:15 – 17:30  Discussion followed by drinks

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