Sara Tonelli will give an invited talk at the Graduate Conference organised by Università degli Studi di Napoli L’Orientale. The topic of the graduate conference is “Evolving Cities: Representations, Metaphors and Memory”. The title of Sara’s talk is “Smell and the City: The language of Odours in Urban Descriptions” and it will discuss ongoing activities related to olfactory information extraction in the Odeuropa project.
Our senses are our gateways to the past. Much more so than any other sense, our sense of smell is linked directly to our emotions and our memories. However, smells are intangible and very difficult to preserve, making it hard to effectively identify, consolidate, and promote the wide-ranging role scents and smelling have in our cultural heritage. While some novel approaches have been recently proposed to monitor so-called urban smellscapes (Quercia et al., 2015), relying both on smellwalks in different cities and on the extraction of olfactory information from social media, when it comes to urban smellscapes from the past little research has been done to keep track of how cities have been described from an olfactory perspective. Fortunately, some key prerequisites for addressing this problem are now in place. In recent years, European cultural heritage institutions have invested heavily in large-scale digitisation: we hold a wealth of object, text and image data which can now be analysed using artificial intelligence. What remains missing is a methodology for scent extraction, as well as a broader awareness of the wealth of historical olfactory descriptions, experiences and memories contained within the heritage datasets. In this talk I will describe ongoing activities towards this goal, focused on text mining and linguistic annotation for olfactory information extraction. I will present some examples related to travel narratives by analysing a corpus of English writings that describe trips to Italy in the 19th and 20th Century. This analysis will be also extended with lexical patterns characterizing cities in different time periods, as extracted from Google Ngrams. I will discuss the main findings and the challenges related to modelling textual descriptions of smells, including the metaphorical use of smell-related terms and the well-known limitations of smell vocabulary in European languages compared to other senses.