A Medievalist in the Italian Archives

By Lezlie Knox

For the past three years I have been hunting for a manuscript. “Giaccherino, Codice GH” is one of three copies of the so-called Vite dei Santi Frati Minori, a collection of biographies of pious Franciscan friars compiled by Fra Mariano of Florence during the first quarter of the sixteenth century.  The reasons I needed to see this particular manuscript and the ways I tracked it down reflect some of the differences in how historians work.  Last July, this blog shared Cory Haala’s reflections on what he means when he says “he is going to the archives” to conduct his research on recent Midwestern politics.  I want to follow up on his remarks to discuss how a medievalist proceeds.  Following his example, I will start with access and then address my own research and search for Codice GH.

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In planning a trip to a public or private archive, you are expected to contact them in advance to seek access and present your specific research project (although confirmations are infrequent). You also need proof of your credentials to gain access once you are there in order to secure a reader’s card.  At this stage of my career, I bring a letter of introduction from our college’s dean.  When I first started working in Italy, though, I also had a letter from my dissertation adviser that went into more details about my specific training as a medievalist, as well as a document confirming my status as a Fulbright scholar, i.e. the holder of a prestigious research grant that allowed me to spend a year in Italy researching my project.  One of the things that has changed over the years I have worked in Italy is that I am treated with more respect when I come to the archives—it is partly due to experience, but it is also a product of time and, frankly, age.  As one friend has commented, it is easier to do research in Italy when you transition from being a dottoressa (a younger woman with a university degree) to being a signora (a mature woman).

You earn respect, of course, by demonstrating your skills. For medievalists, a fundamental task is learning how to evaluate manuscripts—both how to read these hands, as well as to assess the physical status of the material on which they were written. Medievalists refer to these skills broadly under the heading of paleography.  This term literally means old handwriting.  It thus refers to our training in how to identify and read different scripts, skills which can help us date and locate a manuscript, as well as assess who wrote it.  But when I first call out a manuscript (more on how I do that in a moment), I begin with a physical assessment of the entire volume.  I will examine the binding (contemporary or a modern), its physical material (vellum or paper), quiring (how the manuscript is physically collated or put together), indications of previous ownership, the state of preservation, assess its various hands, look at its abbreviations, review its decoration, and look for marginalia.  I also survey the contents before I start reading it.  I do this even if the manuscript has been catalogued, both because I may be interested in other details and since it helps orient me to the volume.

Knox 1#1For example, I called out this manuscript both because it had a text in which I was interested (Giaccherino’s constitutions) as well as a marginal note indicating that it was once owned by the friary at Monte Alverno, which Mariano of Florence had visited (noted in the hand on the bottom right). When I opened it, though, I was delighted to discover both the pastedown (a fifteenth or sixteenth century liturgical book that was cut up to help strengthen the binding) as well as this beautifully decorated vernacular translation of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues (BNCF ms Palatino 45).  Other texts included other Franciscan rules, an interesting combination.

My basic archival tools are a laptop, pencils, and some note taking materials, usually the only items you can bring into the manuscript room. A new law (August 2017) now also allows you to use a cell phone or camera to take photographs of most materials for personal study in public archives (as this notice from the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence—BNCF—describes).  This policy is a major game changer!  Previously, I had to order microfilm or more recently a digital copy, but both were prohibitively expensive (about $2/page for the latter).  Private archives will have different rules about access.  Generally, I have found them more willing to allow personal photographs but with more limited hours.  Part of planning a trip to Italian archives always requires plotting out the days and hours different collections are open, as well as the hours when you can request materials.

To request manuscripts or other documents, you will need a “call number,” generally referred to as a shelf mark. To some extent, medievalists still reply on published finding lists or catalogues of the archives, although recent digital projects have made the process of identifying manuscripts and their shelf marks much easier (see for example MANUS which focuses on digitalized manuscripts, CASVI for vernacular codices, and CODEX for Tuscan manuscripts, as well as Mirabile, which catalogues digital projects focused on medieval culture more broadly).  These databases can make searching for other characteristics easier, too—for example, CODEX helped me identify a manuscript that was once owned by Mariano of FlorencKnox 3ae and its helping me identity books that were in the communities where he lived.  But you should not think of this as a catalogue on par with a university one like Marqcat or that of the Library of Congress.  Like other European institutions that have grown over the centuries, Italian collections can be quirky and the cataloguing reflects that.  For example, shelf numbers may indicate previous ownership or where it was created.  I once called out a folio of charters and other economic records from the convent of Corpus Domini in the Archivio di Stato in Bologna.  I received a stack of records roughly organized by date—but the range was from the late fourteenth century to 1798.  While I might have thought this was the entirety of the archive’s holdings related to this community, an exhibit on notarial hands in the townhall showed me such an assumption would be incorrect.  Other Corpus Domini documents came to the archive through the notary who created them and were kept together with his other records.  Finally, while some manuscripts in a collection might be appear in these databases, others will not.  And that is the situation I was facing with Codice GH.

My recent research trips to Italy have focused on the manuscripts connected with Mariano of Florence (d. 1523), who is the subject of my current book project. He was a prolific author, leaving us with fifteen treatises in both Latin and Italian.  These range from a short devotional prayer (2 folios, or 4 manuscript pages) to lengthy accounts of his religious order (300+ folios).  One of the things I find so striking about Mariano is that despite his prolixity (because of?), he was relatively unread by his contemporaries.  Several of his works exist in only one copy and another friar who consulted Mariano’s chronicles in the 1580s lamented that many of his works were already lost.  None of his writings were printed during his lifetime (although some passages were taken by later authors and incorporated into their works).  Some of his texts subsequently have been edited by modern scholars, although four treatises remain only in manuscript. This list includes the Vite dei Santi Frati Minori, which preserves stories about contemporary communities and brothers, many of whom otherwise would be forgotten.  I am arguing that we should pay more attention to his historical writings as they offer an important insight into the most successful religious movement in medieval Europe on the threshold of the Reformation.

Mariano’s Vite survives in t2 knoxhree copies.  Florence, BNC, ms. Landau Finaly 243 is the oldest copy and includes some sections in Mariano’s own hand (its shelf mark indicates that it came into the library through the collection of Baron Horace Landau, a wealthy nineteenth-century bibliophile).  Due to its date, multiple vitae, and Mariano’s own notations, it is the most interesting of the three to me.  My own favorite page includes this marginal note that tells us he was still working on the text. Questa legenda non est bene ordinata et pertanto non sia lecta in publico: this life is not well organized and therefore should not be read in public!   (NB—to respect copyright on these manuscripts and their reproduction, I have cropped all pages and left them in lower resolutions.)

Rome, BNC ms. Sessoriano 412 dates from 1541 and was copied by sisters at Sant’Orsola in Florence at the direction of Fra Dionisio Pulinari who drew on many of Mariano’s biographies for his own chronicle of the Franciscan Order in Tuscany.  The order of the lives differs from the BNCF text.  It does have a table of contents, which tells us that some biographies are missing.  These are the biographies of Pier Pettinaio, a fourteenth-century lay Franciscan, and John of Capistrano, the fifteenth-century leader of the Franciscan Observance, as well as (in)famous inquisitor and leader of a crusade against the Ottoman Turks in Belgrade.  Pulinari was also probably responsible for Codice GH, which also dates from the mid-sixteenth century.  This copy contained the only surviving copies of these two vitae missing in the Florence and Rome libraries.  Reading them is an obvious reason for wanting to see it, but I also hoped I could photograph it in its entirety since the mid-sixteenth-century hands tend to be more legible, especially when the copyists were nuns.  Compare below Mariano’s autograph with the opening of his Life of Saint Francis prepared by a nuns at the convent of San Lino in Volterra.  Mariano’s hand is described as a bastarda, that is a combination of a Gothic textura (book hand) with cursive writing.  The image on the left (Tractatus de origine, nobilitate, et de excellentia Tusciae, Biblioteca Provinciale di Frati Minori di Toscana ms. 334) shows that this unique treatise was very much a work in progress compared to the polished book hand represented in volume on the right (Vita di San Francesco, Volterra, Bib. Guarnacchi ms. 5966).

But to read it, I had to locate it. The manuscript’s shelf mark indicates that it had been housed at the library of the important Franciscan friary at Giaccherino, located near Pistoia (now available for wedding rentals and other festive occasions). In 2005, what was left of the Giaccherino library was donated to the Biblioteca Comunale Forteguerriana in Pistoia (which already had other Giaccherino volumes due to the Napoleonic suppressions, although a 1907 article apparently indicates that the Vite manuscript had remained in Giaccherino—I say apparently as I have not been able to obtain a copy of that article through ILL or in Italy, and know its details only from a summary in a later article).  I emailed the archivist in Pistoia to arrange a visit, but she replied that they did not have that manuscript.  She suggested perhaps it was with the Franciscans in Florence?  I then emailed them, hoping they had it as I had already done research there and had a good relationship with the librarian.  But alas, she too replied they did not have Codice GH from Giaccherino.  When I did research there in June, we found no references.  Back to the hunt.

Searching the manuscript databases listed above remained fruitless, as did searches for the shelf mark in research databases, Google Scholar, and Academia.edu (the latter is particularly useful for medievalists as European scholars regularly post articles, information about smaller conferences, etc.). An article on the 2005 Giaccherino donation had been published in 2007, but ILL also could not access the journal Storia Locale (Local History).  I had continued to scour footnotes on John of Capistrano’s biographical tradition hoping to find a reference to the manuscript’s current location, but was having no luck.  Pier Pettinaio—Peter the Combmaker—is considerably less well known and previous searches had also turned up nothing on his hagiographic record.  But in August I looked again and I found it.

In 2016, Lucy Donkin published an article on Pier Pettinaio’s visions that referred to the Giaccherino manuscript, including the information that it had a new shelf mark: Biblioteca dei Frati Minori, Fondo Giaccherino, MS I.G.2. It was in Florence at the provincial archive, but it had been renumbered (without an easy reference to its old numbering). An email confirmed they had it and I made an appointment to see in early October.

As expected, the Giaccherino manuscript was both less and more than I hoped. First, it is not really a third copy of Mariano’s Vite dei Santi Frati Minori (which is really interesting!).  While a biography of Bonaventure overlaps with the other two manuscripts and it does have John of Capistrano and Pier Pettinaio, the other lives instead overlap with a different treatise by Mariano focused on the Franciscan Third Order.  This is where the physical layout of the manuscript raises important questions.  The binding is modern—when was the volume compiled?  There is no contemporary table of contents, so what was the principle of organization?  And most interestingly, why does the manuscript begin rather abruptly with the vita of John of Capistrano with the first folio numbered 134r (see below).   Does that mean there were another 133 folios that were once considered a part of this work?  If so, were there other lives by Mariano now bound in a different volume or were they something else (this manuscript has two texts that are not his work)?  I do not have an answer yet to any of these questions.  The other manuscripts ‘adjacent’ to this codex in the numbering do not seem to be connected to it and we have not otherwise located this putative volume.

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This situation—more questions than answers—is typical of my experience working with medieval manuscripts and in Italian archives. Medievalists generally tend to have significantly fewer materials with which to work compared to our modernist colleagues, so each manuscript carries more weight as evidence (even as we must address the vagaries of survival).  These volumes also may not appear interesting at the start—I admit that reading a collection of pious lives or sermons and jet lag can be a bad combination.  However, once you start assessing the physical object and considering its relationship to the text, it often raises new questions and suggests new manuscripts to explore.  Now that I have seen all the manuscripts of Mariano’s texts known to me, I want to learn more about the books—both manuscripts and early printed volumes—that were in the communities in which he lived, as well as to keep looking for evidence of how Mariano’s contemporaries may have read his work.

A possible way of thinking about this problem came from the unique autograph copy of Mariano’s Compendium Chronicarum (Florence, Biblioteca Moreniana ms. 97).  This text is basically an abridgement of his longer Franciscan chronicle, the Fasiculus Chronicarum (a work which has been missing since the end of the eighteenth century 7 knoxwhen it was sent to Rome for use in a canonization process) and it ends on a poignant note.  After writing his last entry concerning the 1521 General Chapter, Mariano switched to red ink and wrote: Omnia in hoc volumine conscripta sunt per me Fratrem M[arianum] edita que fratribus meis corrigenda relinquo—everything in this volume was written by me, Brother Mariano, and I leave it to my brothers for correcting.   Did they?

Lezlie Knox is associate professor of history at Marquette University.  She is the author of Creating Clare of Assisi: Female Franciscan Identities in Later Medieval Italy (Brill, 2008) and co-editor of the just published Visions of Sainthood in Medieval Rome: The Lives of Margherita Colonna by Giovannie Colonna and Stefania (Notre Dame Press, 2017).

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