Streaming the Renaissance

The Medici Archive Project puts centuries-old letters online

Lisa Kaborycha
September 13, 2012

The irony of my job is not lost on me. As I go to work each day, I make my way on stony streets where it seems, at times, that you can still hear the Guelfs and Ghibellines hurling abuses, and sometimes even projectiles, at one another. From time to time, I duck as an actual piece of rock comes down-falling masonry from a decaying palazzo. I arrive in the modern building that houses the State Archive near piazza Beccaria, where the staff in white lab coats has my materials ready for me (I placed my requests online while sipping my coffee at home earlier that morning). Then I take these 400-year-old documents to my desk, where, along with the other members of the Medici Archive Project team, I proceed to transcribe the handwritten words of members of the Medici court on my computer. The documents are then placed online, where they can be searched, commented upon and studied by people around the globe.



While admiring the glories of Florence's Medieval and Renaissance past, most people are completely unaware of the great technological innovations taking place in the study of the city's history. For the past two decades, researchers like me, working out of the State Archive, have been slowly and meticulously entering the contents of these centuries-old letters according to a sophisticated data-entry process. Since the 1990s, we have collectively entered 21,000 letters and created biographical profiles for 15,000 early modern people including duchesses and diplomats, goldsmiths, soldiers, abbesses, and masons. This is, however, a drop in the bucket, for the archival collection we are working on is immense; the Medici Granducal collection (Mediceo del Principato), gathered over the course of 200 years, encompasses 6,429 volumes of letters. We have accomplished approximately one-tenth of our project; when we are done we will have somewhere between four to five million letters online. No one really knows exactly how many letters precisely, because until now no one has had the means of systematically handling all of this vast information.


The work of Psyche, separating innumerable grains of wheat? Or worse, that of Sisyphus rolling a stone endlessly up a hill?


Astoundingly, the dream of completing this undertaking within our lifetimes and bringing all of this precious material to scholars and the public at large is at last becoming a reality. In October 2012, the Medici Archive Project, with the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will launch its new BIA digital interactive platform, which will be available worldwide as an open source for similar research projects to adopt. The name BIA was chosen because it means ‘force' in ancient Greek, a symbol of the power that digital humanities technology brings to this ambitious scholarly undertaking. It is also, not incidentally, the name of one of Cosimo I de' Medici's daughters and the subject of one of Agnolo Bronzino's most lovely portraits.


In addition to helping preserve the irreplaceable documents in the State Archive, the images available on this new system will promote research even in locations half a world away from Florence. With BIA, anyone will be able to access extremely clear images of the original archival documents. These can be navigated quickly and with ease because they are streamed online. You can turn pages-every portion of the volume is reproduced, including the covers and every single numbered folio-which can be zoomed in on to enlarge a particular phrase, word or alphabetic letter and be viewed in high magnification. What this means is that in addition to the research team here in Florence, scholars worldwide will be able to enter data on BIA. By increasing the number of researchers through this outsourcing, the Medici Archive Project will be able to hasten the conclusion of this Herculean task so that it can be finished in a period of years, rather than generations.


Furthermore, making use of social networking functions, BIA will allow scholars to make annotations on the document records and engage in dialogue with one another. As a scholar in Sydney, Australia enters a transcription of a letter, another in Johannesburg, South Africa, may enter a correction or comment on that letter. Scholars, who are accustomed to working in a lonely void while carrying out their research, often waiting months or years to present their work to the world and often much more time before receiving meaningful input from their peers, will be involved in a dynamic interchange with like-minded researchers throughout the world that takes place in real-time. And in addition to these community comments, the BIA platform will also provide various forums for users of the site to discuss a wide variety of Medici-related topics, responding to one another in comment threads.


Next time you are looking at the ancient remnant of Florence's city gate that stands isolated in the middle of the traffic circle at piazza Beccaria, look over to your right at the modern State Archive Building and think of the teams of researchers who are bringing the Medici to life and online to a computer near you. Just as the Medici once stood at the center of a world of Renaissance innovations, the Medici Archive Project is reinventing the way scholarly research is conducted and making the documents of the Tuscan Grand Dukes available to all the world.



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