The Art History

Published in 'THE ART NEWSPAPER' (London) May issue 1998


by Raichel  Le Goff

If you find the prospect of  spending endless sunless days knee deep in archives frightening then you will have to admire those who make it their life’s work. Pity also those D.Phil students in Art History whose thesis is not worth the paper it is written on without a previously unpublished nugget of information. Reputations are made in the finding
of a single document.

Archival research demands time, funding, tenacity and a peculiar kind of enquiring mind. The Archivio di Stato in Florence, that unlovely edifice marooned in a sea of traffic, is one of the primary research stations for scholars of Italian art and history. Labelled ‘Byzantine, hostile and bewildering’ by one Oxford colleague it would seem cause for
celebration that a small American/Italian team are making one of its most valuable assets more accessible. The Medici Archive Project is devoted to sifting through the 6,429 volumes of  Medici  correspondence covering the period 1537 to 1743. The Archive occupies a kilometre of shelf space and is thought to be the most comprehensive record of any princely regime in early modern Europe.

A team of four researchers examine each document selecting names, dates and transcribing abstracts they consider important. All details are then entered into an electronic database. The idea of the database is not to provide a technological alternative to searching the archive on site, but to create a tool that will make the search easier. “Call me old-fashioned, but I am a great believer in the archival tradition where people have to get in amongst old papers and dig for information.”, comments Dr. Edward Goldberg mastermind and Director of  M.A.P.

Dr. Goldberg has worked on the Archive for twenty-three years and explains that the Medici correspondence was periodically gathered up and bound haphazardly into volumes some containing more than one thousand folios. Minutes of the lowliest court secretary can inexplicably be found alongside letters from the King of Spain. A 1951 inventory tries to make sense of it all but lists only the volume titles and does not cite individual documents.
A scanty index does not even list the name of a single artist. Until the database is complete, the Medici Archive will remain problematic to consult due to it’s labyrinthine anatomy. The body of material is so vast that it defeats nearly every scholar.

Nothing will change in the way the material is arranged on the shelves, the database shall simply make it possible to go straight to the volume and folio desired. Be warned though, the procedure for accessing the Medici archive remains the same as for examining any other item at the Archivio di Stato so normal delays still apply. Whilst a précis of the entire volume is always entered onto the database, only documents relating to the Arts and Humanities warrant individual entries.

Exceptions are notables such as Michelangelo whereby every document he appears in is entered. Simultaneously, mention of Jewish persons or activities is being fed into a separate database.

Robert Carlucci on-site supervisor in Florence estimates that the entire Archive will be entered into the database by the year 2007 when it will be published in print and on CD ROM.  Already M.A.P. have created an index of 2,700 names many of which they claim we are hearing for the first time. The database is sophisticated with an astounding range of search options including categories for ‘Exotic Animals’ and Timepieces’. Asked if the amount of time put into elaborating search options unnecessarily delays the actual examination of documents Dr. Carlucci replied that their aim was to make each entry as comprehensive as possible and not to plough speedily  through the material.  The database was inaugurated in September 1997 thus only a fraction of the Medici Archive, possibly as little as 3% has been entered into the database so far. As their approach is chronological, those looking for information relating to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries will at this stage have to do the searching themselves. Increasing speed is neither a matter of funding more M.A.P. researchers to work on the Archive for as Dr. Goldberg was at pains to emphasize, the quality of scholarship has to be of the highest level. Those creating the database need to be absolutely familiar with the names, places and events they encounter. In fact M.A.P. hopes to use the Archive in the future as the training ground for taught courses in archival skills.

Such is the richness of the Archive that even the limited  number of volumes examined to date has led to the establishment of a Jewish History, Religion and Culture research initiative that will evolve into a separate database. The fate of Tuscan Jewry was inextricably linked to the House of Medici. Two volumes of the Magistrato Supremo from the Medici Archive describe the pre-history of the founding of the first Florentine ghetto and will soon be published in printed form. This focus on Jewish material reflects the personal interests of the Director who felt there was a gigantic gap in the the history of Jews in Italy. “Up till now,  Jews have commonly appeared in documents notarising loans, business transactions or government edicts and proclamations. What’s exciting is the Medici Archive holds more intimate material concerning Jews. New personalities are emerging such as Simone Basileo, a Jewish actor from Mantua whom Cosimo II permits to travel around Tuscany performing without an identifying badge.”

With running costs of around $500,000 per annum, the Medici Archive Project relies on grants and private donations. Funding is largely orchestrated by the President of M.A.P. Hester Diamond in New York. The Medici Archive Alliance offers membership at different donation levels with invitations to glittering events such as Sotheby’s benefit party at
the Palazzo della Gherardesca.

While work is in progress, goodies from the database are available on the Internet, updated quarterly. ( Meanwhile for those research students stuck for an original thesis topic, the Archive is a goldmine. At the moment the database can only be accessed at the Metropolitan’s Watson Library, New York and at the Archivio di
Stato, Florence. It is hoped that other sites shall be added soon. “We want as many people as possible to learn about the Archive and will give the database to appropriate institutions. They only have to ask.”, said
Dr. Goldberg.

Link to the Medici Archive Home Page