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Digital Renaissance Studies: Student Research via the Medici Archive Project’s Online Platform

Brian Sandberg
Northern Illinois University

The Medici Archive Project [MAP] online platform offers a vital digital tool for students to become researchers in Renaissance and early modern studies during the age of COVID-19. Digitized document collections are more crucial than ever when archives and research libraries are closed due to pandemic quarantines. Travel restrictions and containment measures will likely make trips to archives difficult for some time, ensuring that digitized databases will remain essential for research in early modern studies for the foreseeable future. Digital Renaissance studies also have the potential for transforming the classroom. Undergraduate and graduate students can use this online platform to access an enormous collection of digitized manuscripts and to explore the diversity of everyday life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—from court culture and art patronage to news circulation and food provisioning. Students can even consider how early modern societies responded to epidemic diseases through public health policies and quarantine practices.

This essay offers a practical guide to utilizing the MAP platform and its digitized documents in Renaissance and early modern courses. Included are suggestions for how professors might employ archival video conferences, paleography training sessions, and manuscript workshops to teach research methods, manuscript studies, and historical thinking using Medici documents. The essay also proposes document analyses, analytic papers, and thematic research papers as potential research projects for student researchers in history, art history, literary studies, and interdisciplinary humanities field.

Online Research in Renaissance Studies

The MAP platform opens a window onto the Renaissance world through the historical archives of the Medici family and Grand Ducal Tuscany from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, which are conserved at the Archivio di Stato di Firenze (Florentine State Archives).1 Millions of manuscript letters and reports reveal aspects of politics, religion, law, economics, medicine, society, culture, and everyday life in Renaissance Italy. Medici family members were active patrons of art, architecture, music, literature, philosophy, and science at their Florentine court. Medici grand dukes, their ministers, and ambassadors conducted regular diplomacy with other Italian city-states and princely courts throughout Europe, leaving rich correspondence for understanding European court culture and diplomacy. In addition, the Medici maintained an extensive network of agents whose correspondence and avvisi (manuscript newsletters) communicated news and information about Europe, the Mediterranean, and the wider world. The diverse sources in the Medici archival collections make this online platform a versatile pedagogical tool for Renaissance, Reformation, and early modern studies courses.

Registering as a Medici Archive Project Platform User

Undergraduate and graduate students are invited to become Renaissance researchers and delve into the Medici archives online. Student researchers should navigate to the MAP website and click BIA [Building Interactive Archives] to navigate to the online platform log in page (or, alternatively, go directly to the BIA login page). Once there, they can log in or register if it is their first visit (click Register here to access the registration page). Students may register as a user for free by filling out the form.

Locating Medici Documents

The MAP platform acts as a search engine to the Medici family and state papers from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. Many undergraduate students will need to locate documents translated into English, but some students can use documents in Italian, French, Spanish, Latin, or other languages.

Navigating the Medici Archive Project Platform

There are multiple ways to search for documents in the MAP platform. When researchers first enter the database, they can do a Simple Search by entering search terms in the search field toward the top of the page. Or they can open the Advanced Search window. There, 4 icons lead to different webpages with distinct search interfaces:

  • Documents: researchers can do a word search (for concepts, objects, or events) and can also use the drag down list of topics (for arms and armor, medicine, painting, etc.) to limit the search. [examples: portrait, necklace, ceremony, festival, procession, relics, Lent, mass, charity, marriage, banquet, republic, amore, battle, Lepanto, illness, medicine, plague, burial]
  • Volume: researchers can do a word search (for broad concepts, issues, or events) and can also limit the dates for the search. [examples: disease, treatise, dispute, mathematics, engineering, troops, fortification, Siena War, Papal court, Mantuan Succession]
  • People: researchers can do name searches for people or can select particular role categories for people (such as dukes, bishops, artists, etc.). [examples: Cosimo I de’ Medici, Galileo Galilei, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Benvenuto Cellini, Emperor Charles V, Pope Leo X, friar, nun, duc de Guise, duke, luogotenente, provveditore, artisan, doctor]
  • Places: researchers can search for specific countries, regions, towns, villages, or buildings. Also, it is possible to search for specific types of buildings (castles, churches, hospitals, etc.). [examples: Lucca, Pisa, Milan, Venice, Madrid, Palazzo Medici, Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Maria Novella, Holy Roman Empire, Ottoman Empire, Mediterranean Sea]

Medici Archive Project Platform Search Results

Each simple or advanced search will produce a search result in the form of a list of documents, volumes, people, or places. When looking at a list of volumes, people, or places, researchers will need to click on the link to related documents to see a series of documents. From a list of documents, click on a document summary to see the details of an individual document. Click on any of the headings to sort the search results.

Reading Medici Archival Documents

After locating interesting documents, student researchers should print out the documents and read them closely. Each document’s listing has a “Synopsis” in English and an “Extract,” a section of the original document transcribed in its original language. Undergraduate researchers should first read the “Synopsis,” which is an analysis of the document by an advanced researcher that often includes direct translations of the original document or quotations from it. Students should also read the document’s “Extract” if their language skills permit them to do so. Hundreds of volumes have already been fully digitized, allowing student researchers to access thousands of high-resolution images of the original manuscripts. Student researchers may access digitized documents to view the handwriting, study paleography, and examine material features of the manuscript documents and their volumes.

Citing Documents

When quoting Medici documents, students should indicate clearly when they are quoting from the document “Synopsis” (which is an analysis by an advanced researcher), from a passage of the original document within the “Synopsis” (translated by an advanced researcher), or from the transcription of the original document in the “Extract.”

Researchers should cite each document with footnotes or endnotes, using this model: [sender] to [recipient], [sender place], [date], Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Collection [volume number], f. [folio number] (Medici Archive Project [DocID #]).

For example: Cosimo I de’ Medici to Francisco Álvarez de Toledo, Firenze, 31 July 1545, Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Mediceo del Principato 6, f. 149 recto (Medici Archive Project DocID 3954).

Online Classroom Activities

Archival Video Conferences

The MAP database can be used for remote teaching with Zoom or other video conference platforms. Professors teaching synchronous online classes can perform searches and demonstrate search results using screen shares, allowing for students to discuss research methods and engage in collective analyses of individual documents. Asynchronous classes can employ group research projects via video conferences to build historical thinking skills.

Paleography Training Sessions

Graduate and undergraduate researchers with language skills may attempt their own transcriptions from the digitized images of the manuscripts. Professors can teach paleography skills through handwriting demonstrations and transcription exercises in synchronous online classes. Advanced students can engage in extended transcription and translation assignments.

Manuscript Studies Workshops

Thousands of documents in the MAP platform have been digitized with high-resolution digitized images and many volumes have been digitized in their entirety. Professors may use these images to teach manuscript studies and material culture, focusing on the materiality of parchment, paper, watermarks, leather bindings, volume organization, and archival conservation.

Renaissance Research Projects

Student researchers can use the MAP online platform to locate archival documents dealing with aspects of Renaissance studies that interest them. They can then choose a particular document to analyze closely, utilizing supporting sources to contextualize the chosen document in a document analysis. Some students may want to delve deeper into the archival collections in order to compose analytic papers assessing several documents together or to write thematic research papers on major events or issues in Renaissance studies.

Document Analysis Papers

A document analysis paper asks student researchers to locate a single document that is both interesting and complex, allowing them to build an in-depth analysis around it. Student researchers should assess the author and intended audience for their document, considering how the document was probably intended to be used, analyzing the arguments made in the document and considering how they present the author’s purported goals. Students should use at least two additional sources (additional documents drawn from the MAP platform or assigned readings for the course) to contextualize the chosen document and support their analysis of it. Document analyses allow students to develop manuscript research, critical thinking, and analytic writing skills through a targeted project.

Analytic Papers

Student researchers or research groups may engage in more expanded research projects to produce analytic papers involving multiple documents and additional supporting sources. After locating several Medici documents on a common issue, students may search for connections with other period sources. Renaissance and early modern document readers offer additional documentary sources that may be used to contextualize Medici documents under analysis.2 Edited volumes with thematic essays written by specialists provide especially useful contextual sources for analytic research papers.3 Analytic papers develop students’ research skills through extended textual and contextual analysis of a range of different sources.

Thematic Research Papers

Using Medici documents and complementary sources, students can craft original thematic research papers on a wide variety of topics in Renaissance and early modern studies. Professors can teach research skills collectively and then guide individual students’ research projects to completion over the arc of a term. Specialized document readers that are focused on particular issues (such as humanism, women and gender, witchcraft, or warfare) may support student research topics for thematic research papers.4 Contextualizing sources could include academic books, book chapters, and journal articles in early modern studies (available through JSTOR, Project Muse, Proquest Ebook Central, and other databases). Research papers challenge students to learn historical methods though individualized research, analysis, and writing involving numerous documentary and supporting sources.

Brian Sandberg is a Professor of History at Northern Illinois University who works on religion, violence, gender, and political culture during the European Wars of Religion. He has published Warrior Pursuits: Noble Culture and Civil Conflict in Early Modern France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), War and Conflict in the Early Modern World, 1500–1700 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016), and numerous articles and essays.

1Alessio Assonitis and Brian Sandberg, eds., The Grand Ducal Medici and their Archive (1537–1743) (Turnhout: Brepols, 2016).

2Nicholas Terpstra, ed., Lives Uncovered: A Sourcebook of Early Modern Europe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019); Merry E. Wiesner, ed. The Renaissance and Reformation: A History in Documents (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Kenneth R. Bartlett, ed., The Civilization of the Italian Renaissance: A Sourcebook (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011); Kenneth Gouwens, ed., The Italian Renaissance: The Essential Sources (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004); and James Bruce Ross and Mary M. McLaughlin, eds., The Portable Renaissance Reader (New York: Penguin, 1977).

3Michael Wyatt, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Italian Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Guido Ruggiero, ed., A Companion to the Worlds of the Renaissance (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006); and William J. Connell, ed., Society and Individual in Renaissance Florence (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002).

4Helen L. Parish, ed., Superstition and Magic in Early Modern Europe: A Reader (London: Bloomsbury, 2015); Margaret L. King, ed., Renaissance Humanism: An Anthology of Sources (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2014); Peter H. Wilson, ed. The Thirty Years War: A Sourcebook. (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); and Lisa Kaborycha, ed., A Corresponding Renaissance: Letters Written by Italian Women, 1375–1650 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

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