The Italian thing: A look at a new palaeography tutorial

Startscreen "Italian Palaeography

How can you embark on studying original manuscripts and archival records or the digital versions of these documents? The number of online tutorials for Italian palaeography is distinctly low in view of the sheer number of digitized resources concerning Italy’s medieval and Early Modern history. The new online tutorial Italian Paleography created by the Newberry Library in Chicago and the University of Toronto Libraries is most welcome. What are its qualities? How does it stand the comparison with the earlier project of both partners for French Renaissance Paleography? Of course I will also look at the presence of elements directly touching upon legal history.

At the outset

Logo of The Newberry Library, Chicago

The activity of The Newberry Library in the field of medieval manuscripts and archival records is not a new phenomenon. A number of its departments and centers deal with resources from Europe. There is a concise page about palaeography. The Newberry Library can be proud of its fleet of introductory guides, too. The Digital Newberry brings you to numerous collections and virtual exhibits. The Newberry has created five crowdsourcing and transcribing projects. In their fine Introduction to manuscript studies (Ithaca, NY, 2007) Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham liberally used manuscripts and other documents from the Middle Ages and Renaissance held at The Newberry.

Logo Medici Archive Project

The University of Toronto Libraries can point among their digital collections to no lesser project than the Medici Archive Project. The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library has digitized a fair number of its manuscripts, to mention just one example, and it has placed a number of its digitized collections in the Internet Archive. The presence in Toronto of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies is a gem for medievalists. I explored a number of scholarly institutions in a post about the international congress of medieval canon law held at Toronto in 2012.

The number of digital collections with archival records from Italy is every bit as high as you might suppose. I counted some thirty projects for Italy on my web page about digital archives. If you want to get an indication of the number of digitized manuscripts in Italy DMMap quickly shows you some thirty collections, excluding those digitized at the Vatican Library with currently well over 18,000 manuscripts. These high figures should make scholars in and outside the Italian peninsula happy, provided you are able to decipher these documents and manuscripts. In earlier posts here I looked for example at the Progetto Irnerio for medieval legal manuscripts in Bologna and at the book series edited by Giovanna Murano about autograph manuscripts of Italian authors. You can use the tag Italy of my blog to find more relevant posts.

One of the reasons there are only few online manuals for Italian palaeography is the presence at several Archivi di Stato and also at the Vatican of a scuola di archivistica, paleografia e diplomatica. Universities do offer courses in palaeography, too. I have found only three free accessible online resouurces for Italian palaeography, the Materiali didattici per la paleografia Latina created by Antonio Cartelli and Marco Palma (Università degli Studi di Cassino) who deal mainly with medieval manuscripts, and the Lezioni di paleografia of Renata di Simone (Archivio di Stato di Palermo) with an introduction to medieval paleography and book history (PDF), both of them in Italian. There is a tutorial in English for Early Modern and nineteenth-century Italian documents at BYU Script Tutorial. By mistake Spanish is used in the Italian version of this tutorial on the platform created by the Brigham Young University. The thirst for people in the Anglo-American hemisphere to be able to use an introduction in English is understandable. This is a real need, and the new tutorial does tackle this challenge.

The Italian thing

Much what can be said about the website for French Renaissance Paleography applies also to the new tutorial Italian Paleography which was launched on July 25, 2019. The section with manuscripts leads you to a hundred examples of handwritten books (80 items) and documents (20 items). You can filter them by genre, period, script type, reading difficulty, region and holding institution. This choice of examples seems to have been in favor of manuscripts. For the regions the general localisation “Italy” seems a bit vague. For all other aspects the choice seems quite balanced. 31 items touch the field of politics and government, twelve have been labelled “Law”.

Among the items at Italian Paleography concerning law is a register of criminals executed in Venice, written around 1775 (The Newberry, VAULT Case Ms 6A 34). Its resource type has been indicated as manuscript book, but surely this is not a manuscript in the codicological sense, but an archival document in book form, with bound leaves. The tutorial show only four of the 59 pages. With respect to the type of resource the descriptions have been made in accordance with the Library of Congress’ Thesaurus for Graphic Materials.

Supplication, 1469 - The Newberry, Wing MS folio ZW 1 .469 recto

Supplication, Milan 1469 – The Newberry, Wing MS folio ZW 1.469 recto (detail)

A document from 1469 is perhaps a better example to show here, a supplication to the lord of Milan to reverse a condemnation.

The address of the supplication, 1469 - image: The Newberry

The address of the supplication, 1469 – The Newberry, Wing MS folio ZW 1 .469 (detail of verso)

This document is of course shown in its entirety. The supplication has been written in a very fluent hand, but the address on the back and the note below it show a less polished handwriting. In fact the main text of the document was written by a writing master. For each item of the tutorial a link is provided to the catalog description, a transcription and a background essay. This is really helpful, and anyone learning to read these documents should learn also not to turn to the transcriptions too soon. I will come back to the detailed description of the script(s) in documents given in each background essay.

The second section of the website is a concise handbook on the development of scripts used in Italy and the rise of the vernacular language. Two much older items have been included among the examples to show the most important points of departure. At the core of this website is not just the study of books and documents from Italy, but also very much the study of books and documents written in the Italian language. The description of the writing hands for the examples is given in Italian. For each phase and script type the relevant examples are listed.

The next section, the appendix, offers you access to a number of digitized calligraphy manuals and historic maps. The resources section leaves little to desire. There is not only a handy overview of the transcriptions and background essays, but also a glossary of palaeographic terms, an overview of relevant dictionaries, a bibliographical section and a section on transcription standards and metadata standards. The sections on abbreviations and symbols, teaching materials and the history of the project do not yet contain information.

I have saved perhaps the best thing for the end. At the start page of Italian Paleography you will find a number of short introductions to palaeography as a subject, its history, some tips and tricks, and also two videos in the right hand menu. In particular the page New to palaeography helps you for quick orientation into Gothic, mercantesca, cancelleresca, humanistic and italic (cursive) script. After creating an account for this website you can make transcriptions at this website using T-PEN (Transcription for Palaeographical and Editorial Notation). Thus this online tutorial offers you also a way to familiarize yourself with this important integrated tool.

Some differences

Banner French Renaissance Paleography

When you compare Italian Paleography with its older sister French Renaissance Paleography it is understandable some sections have simply not yet been filled. The website for France has a very similar structure. A clear visual difference are the interactive map and the clickable tags for topics and time periods. Reference materials can be found under a separate heading, not as a part of the resources section. The main parts of the website are listed on the start page. The section “About French documents” is empty. The presence of its logo on the start page declares more openly the use of T-PEN. There is a page Get started which in my view helps you initially as good as the videos of Italian Paleography. These differences amount mainly to a judicious remix of elements.

Logo UTL

Both websites are hosted by the University of Toronto Libraries. Their logo deserves a place next to that of The Newberry at the top of both online tutorials. At the bottom other institutions are mentioned as well. A number of libraries and institutions in the United States have graciously provided materials for this website. It is fair to conclude after this quick tour that both tutorials fulfill their purpose eminently. The combination of attention to documents with the Italian vernacular and the use of Italian for a very particular part of the descriptions rightly stress also the need to master the Italian language to some degree if you want to study sources in Italian. This linguistic demand combines with the need to be able to read the various kinds of scripts, some of them really challenging, and makes it clear doing history is not just a matter of reading texts translated into your own language and reasoning about them. Thus material and very physical aspects can help teaching you to look beyond the content of a document to its context. You simply need training for a number of essential activities in doing historical research.

The Italian tutorial shows an agreement from 1466 with an artist about the decoration of a chapel in the Sant’Antonio basilica in Padua. Art historians might be tempted to contemplate the very interesting sketch of the decoration plan in this document, and to forget the legally binding agreement. Legal historians should be seduced to look not only at the agreement itself, but also at the matter at stake and the possibility of putting artistic purposes and procedures into a clear legal framework. It is my sincere wish to the team for Italian Paleography that many students and scholars may benefit from their work. Just like its counterpart for French palaeography the training it offers can greatly assist your research in Italian manuscripts and archival documents. It will save you time and the efforts to learn things only when you arrive in Italy or have found the digitized items you are looking for at your computer screen.

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