AR.C.H.I.ves | Research Programme
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Research Programme

Most historians work in archives, but generally have not made archives into their primary object of research. While we tend to be preoccupied by documentary loss, what is really striking is the sheer amount of paperwork that was preserved over the centuries. The AR.C.H.I.ves project studies the history of the archives and of the chanceries that oversaw their production, storage and organization in late medieval and early modern Italy: essentially from the creation of the first chanceries in city-states in the late twelfth century to the opening of the Archivi di Stato that, after the ancient states’ dissolution, preserved documents as tools for scholarship rather than administration.

Italian states were at the forefront in the institutionalization of documentary preservation on a large scale, and the country as a whole has an extraordinary rich and diverse archival patrimony. Because of its fragmented political history, concentrating on Italy means having access to the archives of a wide variety of regimes; in turn, as institutions pursuing similar functions, archives lend themselves to comparison and therefore such research may help us overcome the traditional disconnectedness in the study of Italy’s past. On the other hand, the lack of central repositories, and the diversity of the organizing principles of each archive, have meant that Italian archives have often seemed disorderly to scholars who have no local knowledge. Yet this project builds precisely on the basis of the plurality of Italy’s archives, and on their overwhelming closeness to the premodern institutions that created them, to demonstrate the importance of their history.

This project is significantly innovative in two main ways. First, while histories of archives are generally done on a local basis, the proposed research intends to approach their history in a doubly comparative framework, by: a) in-depth focusing on a series of seven case studies of chanceries disseminated across Italy (Rome, Venice, Florence, Modena, Milan, Naples, Palermo); and by b) comparing Italian chanceries with those of other European and non-European states and cities, chiefly by organizing and encouraging exchanges between scholars working in different countries. Secondly, while histories of archives are generally inscribed in the framework of institutional history, our research wants to insert the chanceries’ history in a wider social and cultural context, by focusing on six themes in successive phases of the project:


1) The politics of archives. How much energy did different governments invest in the management and preservation of astonishing amounts of records, why and since when? How large was the staff of chanceries and how important their reward? How were the chanceries of republics different from those of principalities, and how did archives evolve following regime change? When and where did secular institutions start relying on their own authority rather than utilising the services of imperially licensed notaries? What does the almost simultaneous creation of secret chanceries in both republican city-states and princely capitals in the fifteenth-century tell us about the management of power and knowledge at the time?

2) The organization of archives. How were the documents divided and what precautions were taken for their retrieval? How did chancery methods evolve over the centuries and how did archivists cope with the burgeoning mass of information? Most Archivi di Stato hold separate series of pre-modern “carte di corredo” (indexes, inventories, calendars), but how does their function change once we study them as part of the archives to which they belonged? How did the finding tools of archives compare to those in libraries and inside printed books? What were the intellectual principles inspiring the documents’ divisions and did they reflect changing political conceptions?

3) The material culture of archives. What were the material support, writing style and binding material of documents? These are the usual questions of palaeographers and diplomatists, but what about document repositories: bookcases, boxes and bags? Moreover, can we extend to the early modern period the insight of historians of medieval documentary culture? What would the methodological attention for the material aspects of print as studied by historians of the book tell us about the meaning of archival documents? What were the symbolic as well as practical functions of the spatial location, buildings and furnishings, of archives?

4) The sociology of archives. Who was responsible for the production, organization and maintenance of the records, from the earliest notaries to the staff of more organized chanceries? How was archival staff selected and prepared? Is it possible to talk about the early modern professionalisation of archivists? Did they come from certain social groups, and was the chancery post an avenue for social mobility? How did employees view their status inside the government and the social structure? And what do we know about their education and culture beyond their professional duties?

5) Archives in context. What impact did social movements and practices have on the running of chanceries? What sort of access was possible to archives? How did chanceries devote themselves to the service of the public, through offices that distributed authenticated copies for a fee? Who had access to such services? Were private citizens in a position to draw from the public archive for the purpose of asserting their rights, or did they invariably have to rely on different, non-written, forms of memory? Finally, why were archives so regularly targeted at times of civil strife (for example in Venice in 1310, in Florence in 1343 and in Naples in 1585 and 1647)?

6) Historians in the archive. When did historians begin using archives, and what kinds of archives, for writing history? Why did institutions see a value in old documents whose immediate administrative purpose had ceased to exist? What sort of interest did they take in the documents of the regimes they supplanted? What sort of archival access did they give historians, and at what price? What about non official historians? In turn, did historians create works that were then placed inside archives, whether because they were censored, or because they were found useful by secretaries?

As implied in the choice of these themes, the project is deliberately interdisciplinary, and aims at the mutually beneficial exchange between archivists, social, political, cultural and art historians.

Outputs will include: 1) a collection of sources, prosopographical and chronological information, to be edited by the PI and the two RAs; 2) an online resource further extending that collection, including the work of all team members; 3) scholarly publications including journal articles by the different team members; 4) a volume of essays from the workshops and conference; 5) a book by the Principal Investigator; 6) a series of international workshops and a final conference; 7) the development of teaching modules and classes and seminars.


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