2012 Seminar on the History of the Book: Jane Everson, “The Italian Academies 1525-1700: a Themed Collection database and its research applications”

from Martha Repp

The fourth in the 2012 series of the Oxford Seminars on the History of the Book was held at All Souls College, Oxford, on 10 February, 2012. Professor Jane Everson, of Royal Holloway College in the University of London, spoke on “The Italian Academies 1525-1700: a Themed Collection database and its research applications”.

The main focus of Professor Everson’s paper was the project she has been much engaged in to create a comprehensive database of Academies active in Italy between 1525 and 1700, and of the people and publications associated with them. The project began in 2006, and currently involves Royal Holloway College, the British Library, and the University of Reading. The resulting database is one of the Themed Collection databases, accessible through the British Library web-site, and can be found on-line at http://www. italianacademies.org .

The term ‘Academies’ is used to refer to the 600 or so societies of like-minded people with similar academic interests that existed in Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most of these societies did identify themselves by the title “Accademia”, although some used the alternative identification “Convegna” (congregation). These societies could consist of anywhere between one and several hundred members, and were found throughout the Italian peninsula, both in major cities, and in smaller centres of population. The range of intellectual interests of such Academies was enormous, including languages, history, natural science, astronomy, technology, and music. They were international in their membership, and open to women as well as to men. Nor were female members entirely restricted to the passive roles of dedicatee or muse; many were actively involved as authors, contributors and illustrators. The Academies largely disseminated their ideas through the written word, and their links with the book trade were therefore critical. Some writers, such as the nineteenth century critic Francesco de Sanctis, have tended to dismiss the Academies as groups of idle dilettantes, dedicated to the production of sterile, worthless, and frequently vulgar or obscene “vanity publications”. However, the importance of the Academies for the intellectual history both of Italy itself, and of Europe in general, should not be underestimated. They are probably the earliest examples of learned societies, and their publications were widely distributed, translated, and read.

Despite the importance of the Academies, comparatively little scholarly work has been done on their publications. There have been studies of particularly well-known individual Academies, such as the Accademia della Crusca in Florence, or the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome. Equally, there has been research on the Academies in particular towns. Until very recently, however, the only available overview of the Academies as a whole has been Michele Maylender’s “Storia delle Accademie d’Italia”, published in Bologna between 1920 and 1930. A large part of the reason for this lack of scholarly interest has been the difficulty of accessing the primary material. Conventional catalogue records frequently do not record the involvement of an Academy with a particular publication at all, and even when they do, this information is generally not accessible through the search strategies allowed for by the catalogue. In fact, a study of library catalogues revealed that conventional catalogue searching for materials related to Academies only uncovered about 20% of the potentially relevant material actually in the library. Therefore, in order to access the material at all, researchers have had to rely on a combination of determination, inspired guess-work, and serendipity.

It was in order to supply this deficiency that Professor Everson’s project, “Italian Academies, 1525-1700: the first intellectual networks of Europe” was created. The aim of the project is to create a comprehensive database of all material associated with Academies held by the British Library. The first phase of the project ran from 2006 to 2009, and aimed to cover all material associated with Academies in Bologna, Siena, Naples and Padua. These cities were chosen because of the presence in them of a large number of Academies with a wide range of academic interests. The second phase of the project began in 2009, and extends the coverage of the database to include Academies active in Rome, Venice, Mantua, Verona, and the south of Italy, with a particular focus on Sicily.

Professor Everson gave a practical demonstration of the database, and how it can be used to answer particular research questions, enabling searches from as wide a range of starting points as possible. These potential starting points include the name of an Academy, a particular city, an individual member (either by real name or by nickname or pseudonym), a specific publication, the motto of a particular Academy, or even specific pictorial elements in an Academy’s emblem. Full records for particular Academies include all the names by which the Academy was known, the dates when it was active, and lists of members and publications associated with that Academy, together with a digitized image of the Academy’s emblem.

Questions from the seminar touched on the importance of the Academies in linguistic policy and in the dissemination of Italian as a language. Interestingly, the majority of the publications associated with the Academies are in Italian, with surprisingly few of them in Latin.