A week in the Florentine Archives with the Medici Archive Project

by Lydia Goodson

Thank you, CHASE, for funding my attendance in January at the week-long Winter Seminar in Paleography and Archive Studies, in Florence, with the Medici Archive Project.

I am researching a PhD on patrons of art in the Umbrian towns of central Italy, in the years 1480 to 1510, and in particular I am interested in tracing networks of patrons in this period that saw the flowering of patronage in Umbria.  Having spent time of researching the existing scholarship, last year I came to a point no doubt familiar to many scholars, when I needed answers to questions that were not going to be found in the secondary literature.  Not only that, I knew that there was archive material mentioned by other scholars which I needed to verify for myself.  Transcription, and then translation, from the original is, of course, never neutral.
There are other reasons for seeing the original page; seeing the hand of the person who recorded the information half a millennia ago can convey important information. The annotations, the speed at which it appears to have been written, how it was folded, the apparent level of education of the author – all these may be relevant to my understanding. This, of course, is in addition to that fact that there is something hugely exciting about handling the records or correspondence made by a person who lived hundreds of years ago, who I have researched.

I made my first research trip to an Italian archive in 2015.  While it was just as exciting as I had hoped to handle the records of the notary Ser Pietro Paolo Pacisordi, whom I knew had made the contract for the Magalotti Altarpiece in 1505 in Citta di Castello, which I had been researching, as this page indicates, his hand is not easy to read, and the document is written in a mixture of Italian and a form of Renaissance Latin.  I started to wonder how long it was going to take to find the documents I wanted, and then learn to read them.

It was a scholar I met at the AAH conference last year who told me about the education programme of the Medici Archive Project. (Often the most important things you learn at conferences are not academic facts, but tips like this.  It does underline the fact that a PhD is not best pursued in isolation.) The Medici Archive Project, based in the Archivio di Stato in Florence, is a research institution with the mission of making available on line previously unpublished records from the Medici Archive and of actively generating scholarly discourse. It additionally seeks to educate the scholars of the future in paleography and best archival practice, and offers a number of course throughout the year. 
The week-long course I attended this year in January was a fascinating experience.  I learnt in a week what it would have taken me months to work out for myself.  Italy has THOUSANDS of archives; owned by the State, and by private families, containing the records of institutions of State, of convents, orphanages, confraternities, private families – and more. Accidents of history can mean that the records of one family, for example, end up stored in the archive of another, when a property is sold.  Sometimes some serious detective work is required just to track down the archive which might contain the document you seek – after which you have to decipher it! A week working with scholars carrying out ground-breaking research on documents newly uncovered from the archives in Florence was hugely valuable in learning how to go about archive research in a scholarly and directed way, which gives the greatest chance of success.  We were able to study documents not only in the Archivio di Stato but also in private family archives. The experience will stand me in good stead not just for my PhD, but also for my research for years to come.

Lydia Goodson is in the third year of a part time PhD in the Art History Department at Sussex University, funded by the AHRC through CHASE.

Follow Lydia @UmbrianArt