Learning Palaeography in the Italian Archives

Jessica O’Leary reports from Prato.

From the 14 to 18 December 2015, five postgraduate students from across the Prato Consortium for Medieval and Renaissance Studies completed a one-week intensive seminar on Italian palaeography and archival studies under the auspices of the Medici Archive Project (MAP) in conjunction with the Prato Consortium. Over the course of five days, Roslyn Halliday (MA; Monash University), Kathryn Havelock (MA; Birkbeck College), Jessica O’Leary (MA; Monash University), Julia Rombough (PhD; University of Toronto) and Gordon Whyte (PhD; Monash University) were introduced to Italian archives with an emphasis on the Medici and Florentine archival collections, learned how to approach research in Italy’s numerous archives and libraries, and, importantly, received in-depth instruction on various documentary typologies, how they relate to each other, and how to read the diverse early modern scripts present in archival collections. We were very fortunate to be hosted and taught by the expert team of MAP scholars in their office at the Archivio di Stato di Firenze as well as Professor John Henderson (Birkbeck), other MAP-affiliated researchers, and a special site visit to the private archive of the Capponi Florentine noble family which was generously opened to us by eminent historian Count Niccolò Capponi.

19.12.15 Capponi Archive Photograph
L to R: Count Niccolo’ Capponi, Gordon Whyte (Monash), Kathryn Havelock (Birkbeck), Ros Halliday (Monash), Julia Rombough (Toronto) and Jessica O’Leary (Monash)

Our week began with an introduction to the vast network of Italian archives and libraries by the director of MAP, Dr Alessio Assonitis. Dr Assonitis meticulously explained each type of archive and library, what kind of materials they might contain, and where to find materials related to individual research topics. We also were introduced to document typologies and conventions and methods and formulae for approaching different sets of documents with their own conventions and palaeographical traditions. Dr Assonitis also shared his expert knowledge of the Medici Archive, the Medici Archive Project, and the vast untapped nature of this enormous archive of over four million letters and what kind of research opportunities a fondo of this nature offers graduate students and senior scholars alike.

Armed with this foundational knowledge, Tuesday morning’s seminar on legal contracts and the notarial archives of Florence presented by Dott.ssa Nicoletta Baldini allowed us to engage further with the vast inventories and catalogues of the Archivio di Stato di Firenze and learn how to read and historicise the catasti, decima, and wills of Renaissance and early modern Florence. After lunch with the MAP team, we were treated to a thought-provoking seminar by Professor John Henderson, Professor of Italian Renaissance History at Birkbeck, University of London and Director of the Medicine and the Medici in Grand Ducal Tuscany Research Program at MAP. Professor Henderson’s seminar made us think about the nature of history and the historian, the sources we use (and how they are problematic), and the myriad methodologies which can be applied (and again, problematised) to our research. We also discussed the history of medicine and archives and Ashley Lynn Buchanan, Junior Research Fellow and PhD candidate at the University of South Florida introduced us to her research on the culinary, medicinal, and alchemical recipe collection of the last Medici princess, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici (1667-1743) with special emphasis on the way in which she approaches the documentary genre of the recipe.

Wednesday and Thursday’s classes continued with more seminars on Florence’s financial and, especially, taxation history led by Dr Giuseppe Parigino who explained how he compiled a database of Medicean contracts in order to fully draw out the implications of how the Medici princes controlled their citizens through carefully managed land acquisition and taxation. Dr Sheila Barker, director of the Jane Fortune Research Program on Women Artists in the Age of the Medici, led us on an enlightening two part seminar on the Guardaroba medicea and the inventories of the Medici granducal court to reveal how through sustained analysis of the records generated by this office one can form new social, political, and cultural understandings of early modern Florence. Dr Barker also particularly emphasised the potential pitfalls that a junior scholar may encounter in analysing this kind of documentation and useful strategies for orienting ourselves with respect to the catalogues, but also with respect to the difficulties of early modern scripts and abbreviations through guided palaeographical practice.. On Thursday afternoon, Dr Samuel Gallacher, MAP Assistant Director, and Dr Maurizio Arfaioli, MAP Senior Scholar, introduced us to “War and Peace” in the Archivio di Stato di Firenze, teaching us how to conduct military and diplomatic research in the collections and with particular attention to palaeographical and methodological strategies which provided an opportunity for us to again apply our new-found knowledge.

Finally, our week drew to a close on Friday with a site visit to the Palazzo Capponi delle Rovinate, built in the fifteenth century and home of Count Niccolò Capponi and his family’s private archives. Count Capponi generously shared with us his vast and expert knowledge of Florentine history and his family’s collections and paid particular attention to each of our research projects and identified useful documents relevant to our studies. The warm hospitality of our host and excitement of new archival discoveries was a terrific end to our week of intense study which was capped by a collegial lunch hosted by Dr Gallacher at a traditional osteria brimming with the local lunchtime crowd. After an informal discussion, on MAP, digital humanities, and the exchange of emails, we went our separate ways on the Ponte Vecchio, a suitable ending to our sojourn in Florence and with the promise of returning again soon. The seminar was an incredibly useful and enlightening experience and we are very grateful to MAP and the Prato Consortium for organising the seminar. We encourage all interested graduate students to participate in future sessions!