INTERVIEW - The Medici Archive Project:
Alessio Assonitis, A Monument of Letters (1537-1743)
The widespread assumption is that the historian seeks one specific document that will radically rewrite the past, and that the rest of the material is just useless dross to be brushed aside. Archival research is not a search for undetonated historiographic bombs, it is a meaningful journey.
Alessio Assonitis. Director of the Medici Archive Project
…Most Serene Cosimo, I discovered these stars unknown to all previous astronomers, I decided by the highest right to adorn them with the very august name of Your family. For since I first discovered them, who will deny, me the right if I also assign them a name and call them the Medicean Stars, hoping perhaps as much honor will be added to these stars by this appellation as was brought to other stars by the other heroes?
On a warm, early August morning in Florence, Alessio Assonitis, Director of the Medici Archive Project (MAP), and I met in a sun-dappled café on the south side of the river Arno.
As we sat drinking good Italian coffee near the home of Galileo Galilei (which sits quietly tucked away in the shade of Cypress Pines on an adjacent hillside), it seemed the perfect location to discuss the Medici Archive Project, the nature of the Medici Granducal Archive (1537-1743) and the over three to four million private letters and documents that scholars have committed to putting online over the next twenty years or so. When complete, the Medici Archive Project will not only preserve a part of our collective past in an easily searchable, well organized, user-friendly interactive platform, affording the researcher a unique portal into the past and by allowing the written word to come back to life and speak.
Thoughtful and unassuming, Assonitis proceeded to engage me in a discussion on the seminal importance of the research going on in the archive today. A native of Rome, Assonitis attended Saint Stephen’s School on the Aventine hill, graduated from Bennington College in Vermont, and received his doctoral degree in Renaissance art history from Columbia University. He has taught art history at Columbia University, Barnard College, Herron School of Art, and the Christian Theological Seminary and has also served as a Clowes Fellow at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He joined the Medici archive Project in 2004.
Medici Coat of Arms
WRR: Thank you so much for joining us. Can you summarize the historical significance of the Medici family, their pivotal role in society not only as active promoters of the arts and sciences, but as custodians of the past? In other words, why is this project so important?
Alessio Assonitis: Very few dynastic families have had such a penetrating impact on a city or state as the Medici family had on Florence for more than four centuries. Their financial success and political savvy can almost be measured by their pervasive presence throughout the urban fabric of this city, often punctuated by their well-known coat-of-arms.
The mark left on this city by Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464) and Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492) in the fifteenth century and, the Medici Dukes and Grand Dukes, from 1532 to 1743, is indelible. And yet, these architectural landmarks ― as well as the significant artistic production which they sponsored ― only provide a superficial understanding of this impact. In order to assess the extent of their power, one has no choice but to turn to the archives.
Here, a most extensive and dynamic world lives subterraneously. Their letters, inventories, account books, and legal documents reveal to us the blueprint of their court culture, diplomatic relations and artistic production. Let me use a metaphor of a mechanical watch.
You might immediately notice its face, the wristband, and the synchronous movements of the hands, but you can only intuit that there is a complex mechanism hidden in the case that makes all this work. One of the missions of our research institute is to reveal these hidden mechanisms – social, cultural, and political alike – to scholars and non-specialist audiences worldwide.
WRR: You have received support from Samuel H. Kress, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Florence Gould Foundation, and the Fondazione Monte dei Paschi di Siena, to name a few of your generous donors. You will eventually make the database available only by subscription in an effort to offset expenses. I am going to assume that ensuring continued financial support will always be at the forefront of your annual agenda as it is with the vast majority of research organizations.
In an age where a song by a pop icon such as Justin Bieber warrants half a billion hits online, we have to wonder what it would take to engender that type of enthusiasm from the younger generation for other facets of the arts. In your mind, what would be an ideal catalyst for the public (across all age spectrums) to value the work going on in the archives and then reflect this value by contributing in a monetary way?
Alessio Assonitis: Since its foundation in the early 1990s, MAP has been developing new strategies for research in the Humanities. During the early stages, MAP’s mission was to harness the technological innovations for data management to the needs of the archival researcher. A pioneering group of scholars, led by Edward Goldberg, began to catalog in a rudimentary electronic database the letters of one of the most exhaustive and complete courtly archives of early modern Europe: the Medici Granducal Archive. Comprising over four-million letters distributed in roughly 6500 volumes and occupying a mile of shelf space, it covers a chronological span of over two hundred years, from 1537 to 1743. Its contents trace the political, diplomatic, gastronomic, economic, religious, folkloristic, artistic, musical, architectural, scientific, military and medical cultures of early modern Tuscany and Europe. And there’s also plenty of information coming from other continents as well.
In the following decade, word got around about “the Project,” as it is more familiarly known. Graduate students, university professors, museum curators, and independent researchers regularly visited MAP’s workspace at the State Archive in Florence in order to access our unpublished documentary material or to seek help with their archival research. At the same time, thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities and other similar foundations, generations of MAP researchers have applied their specialized expertise and paleographic skills to the goal of continuously expanding this database with new material from the Medici manuscripts. Initially the database was accessible only in situ; since 2006, however, this vast repository of data has been available on-line, free of charge.
WRR: Who makes use of the Archives?
Alessio Assonitis: Naturally, the majority of users are scholars, from graduate students to senior professors. Every so often, I receive inquiries from advanced undergraduate students, especially from Europe. Naturally, our goal is to reach out to as many audiences as possible, particularly to younger people. This initiative, however, really requires the collaboration of schools and other teaching institutions, and at this moment they seem less and less willing to invest resources in providing their students with a humanist education—let alone an innovative, forward-thinking humanist education.We are fighting against the misconception that archival research must always be an inordinately time-consuming, inconclusive endeavor, mired in meaningless particulars and accessible only to skilled specialists.
The truth of the matter is that archives hold astounding quantities of information that can explode our pale and feeble received ideas of the past, and everyday more of these archives—of all typologies and periods—are becoming available online. We at MAP want to promote an intellectual culture—and new modes of inquiry—that can exploit this sudden bounty of information. We want younger generations to understand the past better, so that they will be better equipped to build their future. Contact with history can be liberating for the young: they can inform and feed their imaginations not only with the cultural icons of today, but with all the ideas, heroes, and heroines of the past as well. It gives them more cloth from which to cut their own coats.
From a funding perspective, historical and archival projects are at a disadvantage because they aren’t showered with private funding the way that the traditional cultural institutions, like museums or opera houses or even libraries, are. A question of glamour, perhaps, or maybe the wrong idea that archives might somehow be less important to the shaping of our own cultural objectives.
Archival documents receive media attention only when extraordinary events or historical figures, are concerned, like the discovery of Mona Lisa’s true identity or Caravaggio’s murder charge. This media attention is often as strong as it is fleeting; ultimately doing more harm than good by perpetuated a “needle-in-the-haystack” concept of archival research. The widespread assumption is that the historian seeks one specific document will radically rewrite the past, and that the rest of the material is just useless dross to be brushed aside. Archival research is not a search for undetonated historiographic bombs, it is a meaningful journey.
The general public is usually unaware that in most cases scholars assemble a vast jigsaw-puzzle of dozens and sometimes hundreds of documents, many of which are ambiguous or unassuming when examined individually; it is through their organic totality that we arrive at an interpretation of an event, a period, or even a historical figure. Numbers count; and that is why the digital archive is such a powerful tool.
WRR: What led you to take on the position of director, how has this research institute evolved under your direction…and as a scholar and Professor what excites you the most about the research being conducted at the Medici Archive Project in Florence right now?
Alessio Assonitis: I arrived at MAP in 2004 thanks to a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship. As a graduate student, I mostly worked on the history of pauperistic aesthetics from the foundation of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders in the early thirteenth century to the Counter-Reformation. Much of this research was executed in Florentine and Roman archives, especially at the Archivio Segreto Vaticano and at the religious archives of San Marco, Santa Maria sopra Minerva and Santa Sabina.
In recent years, I became interested in the “Anti-Renaissance”, a term coined by Eugenio Battisti in the 1960s in order to describe all those elements of counter-culture that undermine our traditional notion of this historical period or cultural movement. Many of these themes ― including astrological and cosmological beliefs, alchemy, and superstition as well as grotesque, monstrous, demonic as well as erotic currents ― appear frequently in Medici correspondence, and I think it is this unexpected heterogeneity and cultural conflict that gives depth to our understanding of these times.
MAP is made up of an exceptional staff of early modern scholars and experts in technology. We are driven by an enthusiasm for uncovering archival material and presenting it to as wide an audience as possible. That enthusiasm is shared also by our Board members, a number of whom have doctoral degrees in humanist disciplines.
About two years ago, we decided that MAP’s trajectory had to be changed. Rather than merely providing primary sources to restricted academic audiences, we set out to become a research institution with the mission of actively generating scholarly discourse and embracing disparate dimensions of scholarly experience.
WRR: You've embraced technology at a cutting edge level.
Alessio Assonitis: At the center of this operation is MAP’s new online Digital Interactive Platform, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which will replace the current on-line database in July 2012. Our Director of Technology, Lorenzo Allori, has designed this platform in light of the extensive feedback that we’ve received from scholars and by studying other online archival databases. Aside from providing a faster and more user-friendly interface for document entry, the Digital Interactive Platform will enable scholars from all over the world to view digitized images of archival documents. It will also allow this global community to enter transcriptions, provide scholarly feedback, and exchange comments in designated forums.
The management and elaboration of this platform, which was once the prerogative of MAP Fellows situated at the State Archive in Florence, can now be performed with assistance from a new category of researchers called Distance Fellows, who will work on assigned digitized documents from anywhere in the world. I take this opportunity to thank the Dr. Luciano Scala (Direttore Generale per gli Archivi) and Dr. Carla Zarrilli (Direttore dell’Archivio di Stato di Firenze) for granting MAP permission to digitize the folios of the Medici Granducal Archive.
MAP is also promoting other important initiatives. This year we launched a peer-reviewed publication series. We’ve created a very successful educational program, featuring on-line paleography courses and archival studies seminars. Thanks to the support of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, MAP offered this past June a two-week graduate seminar at the library of Santa Maria Novella in Florence that was devoted to the study of Florentine historical archives. Finally, we also place a great importance on the organization of and participation in international conferences that allow scholars to disseminate the discoveries they’ve made in the archives.
WRR: The idea of the Medici Grand Ducal’s archive of surviving letters and documents being one of the most significant historical ‘monuments’ left by the Medici empire is compelling, and one which shifts the popular notion of what a monument is; while at the same time serves as a dynamic testament to the enduring nature of the written word itself. As you slowly unveil your monument in the upcoming years, what challenges do you anticipate you will face?
Alessio Assonitis: Consider the epistolary archive of the Medici Grand Dukes as a vast archeological site ― like Pompeii or Ostia ― of which only a small fraction has been uncovered. We are very well aware of the size of this dig, its general structure, but are constantly coming to terms with the magnitude of its content. As of October 2011, this database comprises over 21,000 letters, 13,000 new biographical entries, and 80,000 geographical and topographical tags. MAP researchers have examined and entered about 10% of the Medici Granducal Archive. Every new area that is “unearthed” leads inevitably to a reassessment of previous ideas about the past based on new information. I assume our greatest challenge is making sure that we always keep exploration and assessment in synch with each other. At the same time, we want to pick up the pace. Our plan is to move faster and publish more and more material online for the benefit of scholars worldwide, without compromising the quality of the scholarship.
WRR: Is there a particular protocol that you follow with respect to which letters and documents scholars will work on and put in the database first?
Alessio Assonitis: At the beginning, each fellow operates on a geo-historical area of the Medici Granducal Archive in which he/she is an expert. Gradually, they begin to expand into uncharted territories and break the ice in new areas. Usually after a slow start, one gets into the thick of things pretty quickly. Lisa Kaborycha, a former NEH fellow, worked on documents pertaining to Francesco de' Medici’s wife, Johanna von Habsburg; then moved to ambassadorial dispatches from England; then finished her tenure at MAP examining letters arriving to Florence from the court of Louis XIV. Another fellow, Elena Brizio, who is an expert in the history of jurisprudence with a particular emphasis on gender studies, has published online seventeenth-century avvisi (an archetypal form of newsletters) from Poland and the Netherlands. Roberta Piccinelli, who published a number of books on Lombard art, began looking at the correspondence between the Medici and the Savoia. Our researchers are not fettered to their specialization but are free to explore as they wish; it is their specialized expertise and intellectual curiosity, quite frankly, that determines in large part our exploratory trajectory.
WRR: On your website you use the word ‘animating’ when describing the act of bringing back to life over three million letters and documents, which reminds one not only of the dynamic nature of the material being presented, but also of the enormous ocean of possibility that the internet makes possible to the reader in a 24/7 digital format.
What do you consider to be some of the most interesting letters or documents that you and your researchers have come across in the Grand Ducal archive?
Alessio Assonitis: It would be a great misconception to think that this collection is just about the Medici and just about Florence or Tuscany…
WRR: Absolutely, good point and important to keep in mind.
Alessio Assonitis: Approximately two million letters arrived in Florence from Medici ambassadors stationed in Rome, Venice, Madrid, Paris, London, Amsterdam, and Constantinople, often relating news from the remotest areas in Africa, Asia and the Americas.
Last spring, a researcher working on a volume of letters from Amsterdam dating 1600-1610 came across an account describing Rubens taking horses for the Duke of Mantua to Spain; only a few folios later, a detailed report on a cargo ship named the Mayflower sequestered in Livorno; a report on another Mayflower roaming the northern seas; and news of the definitive discovery of the Northwest passage, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the Artic ocean. All of these are leads that can shed light – once properly researched – on important aspects of history.
I am very partial towards a document that I found some years ago about exotic animals (some of them extinct) and botanical marvels, written by a capuchin friar doing missionary work in Congo in the late seventeenth century.
Shifting continents, I should mention the written reports of Filippo Sassetti from India, especially rich of descriptions of peoples, customs, and goods (some of which he sends to Florence). There are other remarkable accounts: the apocalyptic report of the earthquake and storm in Burgos in 1540, where – the anonymous writer claims – hell had come to earth; the descriptions of medieval London by Florentine ambassadors and travelers before the great fire in early September 1666; 70 mostly unknown reports documenting Bernini’s life in Rome and Paris. In just the past two years, new documents have surfaced on Rubens, Velasquez, Giambologna, Bronzino, Vasari, Titian, Veronese, as well as the female painters Sofonisba Anguissola, Elisabetta Sirani and Giovanna Garzoni.
Rumors, oddities, and natural wonders were of great interest to the Medici Granducal entourage. Even the most ludicrous and bizarre had serious import. For instance, the papal excommunication of swarm of insects and reptiles that invaded in Rome in 1540; the luncheon enjoyed by indigenous Floridians in 1565, whose main dish consisted of the three French soldiers they had captured; the "fire that fell from the sky" off the coast of Azores on the night September 1562; the finding of a unicorn horn secreted from a trunk of a fallen tree near Pisa in 1546; the miracles performed by the body of Saint Andrew after the church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople was burnt down in 1565; the arrest of a certain Apollonio in Milan, expert in necromancy and feared by the authorities because of his diabolic powers; the raids on the Atlantic coast of the feared Jewish-Moroccan pirate Samuel Pallache.
WRR: The ‘Cabinet of Curiosities,’ true to its 16th century name features rare objects, plants, animals, geological oddities, antiquarian discoveries and scientific instruments, many from the Near East. One of the most interesting examples of the degree to which the Medicis were interacting with the Near Eastern world may be seen by their invention of the Medici Oriental Press; a press which was active between 1584 to 1614 and featured printed books and letters with movable type in Persian, Arabic and Turkish. As such, it was the earliest example of a western press publishing books in Arabic and possibly for Turkish and Persian as well. Unfortunately a large number of the original documents from this press were destroyed in the early 1800s by a man who had purchased the collection with the intention of selling it and in an attempt to raise its value, had close to three quarters of the works burned, making surviving documents scarce. According to your archives, they even had three different types of movable type for Persian….can you discuss some of your more recent findings in this area?
Alessio Assonitis: Just a few weeks ago, a Harvard University graduate student working on material culture exchange between Constantinople and Europe asked to see documents in our database dealing with this topic, with specific reference to objects arriving at the Medici court. The result of this query was most impressive: we uncovered copious references to documents which point at a thriving market that was often brokered by Jewish merchants and Florentine travelers. What struck me, however, were the detailed reports that arrived to Florence illustrating daily life in Constantinople and at the Sultan’s court. It almost seemed that the Grand Dukes and their entourage were fascinated with a world which seemed so utterly foreign from theirs and against which they fought in more than one occasion. It is also true, however, that Florentines traveled throughout Asia since the thirteenth century. The Medici themselves began collecting Islamic metals in the fifteenth century; the earliest records of this date back to Piero the Gouty (1416-1469). The letters in the Medici Granducal Archive (as well as accounts in other archives) indicate how Cosimo I and his sons and grandsons were purchasing or receiving as gifts all sorts of goods coming from various parts of the Ottoman empire and from Persia, India, and China. These included textiles, precious metals and stones, porcelains, and animals.
The Typographia Medicea or the Medici Oriental Press is becoming better known to the academic community also thanks to Brill’s impressive publication initiative. Notable is also Alberto Tinto’s monograph, published in 1987, which includes a short documentary appendix. Our most recent findings regarding this astounding Medici effort to proselytize in the Islamic world by means of the printed word—the printing press was seized upon as a means of conducting a final, verbal Crusade—are coming from the volumes of the Granduchess Christine de Lorraine. Giovanni Battista Raimondi, linguist and “director” of the Press, was able to produce dictionaries and grammars in “Persian, Turkish, Syriac, and Arabic” thanks to the collaboration of a vast network of intercultural mediators: native speakers of those languages in Tuscany, Florentine travelers who undertook extraordinary risks and Florentines who lived, somewhat integrated, in Islamic societies. This verbal crusade was not anything like the preceding crusades because in the end it was motivated by an appreciation and respectful fascination for the culture of the lands in which the Medici wanted to evangelize. A great number of documents in the Medici Granducal Archive indicate how the Typographia Medicea was also intended as a financial enterprise. Surprisingly, many of these volumes were sold in Italy.
Nasir al-Din al-Tusi's version of Euclid's Elements, Typographia Medicea, Rome, 1594.
WRR: This is all extremely interesting. The ongoing research of visiting scholars to the archive such as Sheila Barker have yielded the evidence of what is a remarkably large number of women patrons and artists operating within the Medici court. What have been some of the highlights of this research?
Alessio Assonitis: Two independent research programs have been created under MAP’s tutelage: the Jane Fortune Research Program on Women Artists in the Age of the Medici (with its own internship program for undergraduates) and the Jewish History Program. The first research program, in its initial year, focused on Artemisia Gentileschi, a 17th-century woman artist who lived and painted in Florence for seven years. The Jane Fortune Research Program uncovered new information about Gentilischi's difficult personal life, her habitual evasion of debts, her lifestyle and work habits, her management of a workshop with male assistants, and her apparent abandonment of her husband. They also uncovered documents about several other women artists living and working in Granducal Tuscany at the same time. One was the daughter of the Sienese painter Ventura Salimbeni, but she wasn't taught to paint by her father: she was taught to paint by the prioress of the convent where she lived. This project has proven that the more one looks, the more one finds.
WRR: Through the assistance of the Medici Archives Project, and a collaboration between the Instituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza (Florence, Italy) and Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, the Franklin Institute was privileged to host the 2009 exhibition: “Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy." This exhibition featured original documents from the Medici Archive and the Instituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, along with one of only two surviving telescopes known to be made by Galileo; the crown jewel of that exhibition.
Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures / Corbis (Jupiter) / Scala / Art Resource, NY (Galileo)
Many people are probably not aware that Galileo was the in-house science instructor to the Medici children. When speaking about Galileo, the author David Zax once wrote for the Smithsonian:
‘Four hundred years ago, the Italian scientist looked into space and changed our view of the universe… Inside a glass case sits a plain-looking tube, worn and scuffed. Lying in the street, it would look like a length of old pipe. But as I approach it, the Franklin Institute's Chief Astronomer Derrick Pitts—only half in jest—commands: "Bow down!" 
And bow down we should. Thank you, Alessio, for joining us.
For more information about the Medici Archive Project, click here: MAP.
For the transcript of Galileo’s Letter to Cosimo II, please click here: Galileo.
Opening quote: Galileo, excerpted from a letter to Cosimo II Medici (March 4, 1610). Courtesy of the Medici Archives Project.
 David Zax, “Galileo’s Vision.” Smithsonian Magazine (July 1, 2009) For the complete article please go to: http://www.medici.org/press/galileos-vision