Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine

APRIL 1997

H U M A N I T I E S    &    T H E   A R T S

Making the Medici Archive accessible electronically... thoughts on benevolence... a gay writer begins again

A grand project for a grand archive

Bia, daughter of Cosimo I de Medici
Fortunately for scholars, the Medici family believed in its own importance. The Renaissance Tuscan grand dukes and duchesses kept everything, assembling a massive archive containing two centuries' worth of official state correspondence, personal letters, records, journals, inventories, account books, maps, and drawings. Established by Cosimo I in 1569, the Medici Granducal Archive is the largest, most comprehensive collection of its kind in Europe.

Unfortunately for scholars, the archive has been all but impossible to use for the last 200 years because nobody knew what all was in it. It has never been sorted and cataloged...until now.

The Medici Archive Project is creating a catalog of all 6,429 volumes of documents in the Archivio mediceo del principato, the core of the archive. When this phase is complete in three to five years, the archivists will turn their attention to other aspects of the vast collection. Elizabeth Cropper, professor of art history and director of Hopkins's Villa Spelman in Florence, is part of the American committee overseeing the project (there are also Florentine and international committees). And Hopkins's Homewood Academic Computing (HAC) is supplying the technological expertise to create a comprehensive database and place the project's work on the Internet.

Joanne Riley of HAC is the project's technology coordinator. When the archivists first enlisted HAC's assistance, she found that they were creating a catalog entry for each document by using simple word processing software. "This method limited them because it created a static document," Riley explains. "All word processing really does is prepare a document for a printer." She told the archivists that if they were to create a relational database instead, scholars eventually would have a much more powerful research tool. For example, a historian who wanted to see all the correspondence between Pier Francesco del Riccio and Chiarissimo de' Medici from 1539 to 1542 that pertained to the decoration of lodgings, could do a computer search of the database, which in seconds would produce a list of all the pertinent letters and where they could be found in the archive.

Riley began working on the database about a year ago, first understanding what the scholars needed, then searching for software and devising the basic structure of the database. She also designed an Internet Web page for the project, which can be found at As the archivists make discoveries among the documents, their work will be posted on the Web for immediate access by other scholars. Eventually, the complete database will be accessible via the Internet. Scholars will still have to venture to Florence to see the actual documents--scanning so large a collection is prohibitively expensive--but they'll be able to find out what's in the archive from their desktop computers.

The project has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and other donors. It plans to publish The Guide to Art Historical Sources in the Medici Granducal Archive, which will index the archive by artist, patron, place, and topic in a multivolume reference book and on CD-ROM. The project is simultaneously documenting Jewish history, religion, and culture in Tuscany, and the history of fashion and textiles during the Medici period. It also aims to train new scholars in archival research. There will be a "virtual unveiling" of a portion of the database on the Web site in May.

Riley brought to the project a keen interest in Renaissance Italy, so she finds the archivists' work fascinating beyond its technical challenges. "You're looking through a window into another era," she says. "It's addictive." --Dale Keiger

The philosophical origins of charity
In "The Human Abstract," William Blake wrote:

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.

But we do "make somebody Poor," and not all are happy. Thus philosophical questions about philanthropy and charity remain pertinent. Philosophy professor Jerome B. Schneewind recently edited a volume of essays, Giving: Western Ideas of Philanthropy (Indiana University Press, 1996), that takes up some of these questions from a variety of perspectives.

In the essay Schneewind contributed, titled "Philosophical Ideas of Charity," he traces changes in thinking about charity from roughly the time of John Calvin in the mid-1500s to the early 19th century. During the early part of this period, thinkers who wanted to influence the public could not fail to acknowledge the central importance of God in morality--their discussion had to be couched in religious terms. But as Christendom fragmented during the Reformation, these thinkers sought non-sectarian --albeit Christian--approaches to resolving questions of benevolence and the morality of charity.

To Calvin, charity was a characteristic of grace. You could not obtain salvation from the vigorous pursuit of benevolence-- there's no buying your way into heaven. But proper love of God and man comes to us only through grace, and grace is something from God that we don't deserve but which pleases Him. As Schneewind puts it, "If you have been given grace, it will show by your being selfless."

Illustration by
Kevin O'Malley
Hugo Grotius, a 17th-century Dutch jurist and a Calvinist, distinguished between rules of law and rules of love. The former could be elaborated with precision and adjudicated in court. But duties of love could neither be enforced nor precisely specified. Thus the spirit of our actions matters, not just the nature of them. A creditor might violate no law by taking a poor man's last possession, but his heartlessness will violate a rule of love. And Grotius asserted that, Calvin notwithstanding, one does acquire merit via charitable acts.

Immanuel Kant in the 18th century sharity as a duty. We are to make the good of others our own aim, whether we love them or not. Schneewind says: "[In Kant's view] you can't be obligated to feel love. Some of us are just sweet-natured people. Some of us are crusty sons of bitches. It's not your duty to feel affection for everyone. But it's your duty to help."

Until the late 18th and early 19th century, thinking about charity presupposed private property--"There are no socialists or anarchists here," Schneewind says--as well as scarcity. That is, no matter how virtuous we might be, there simply wasn't enough wealth, property, or resources to go around. No amount of generosity or justice would alleviate all poverty.

But as populations grew and wealth increased, it occurred to philosophers that perhaps there could be enough for everyone, and that the apportionment of adequate means was a matter of justice, not human generosity. Thinkers began to question the morality of property. Says Schneewind, the Christian doctrine of love and charity was transformed into a secular view of the production of benefits for everyone. Advocates like the English social philosopher William Godwin believed charity should be replaced by social justice. If you have a just, equitable distribution of wealth, you won't need charity.

"I don't think that's going to happen for a long, long, long time," Schneewind says. "But luckily, people can be genuinely charitable. That's a great virtue."

Schneewind's book is aimed at people who, in his phrase, "are in the philanthropy biz." He enlisted contributions from scholars in philosophy, economics, anthropology, and history. Among the essays are "Philanthropy in the African American Experience," by Adrienne Lash Jones, associate professor of black studies at Oberlin College, and "Losses and Gains" by Mary Douglas, an anthropologist. --DK

Gay poet starts "telling the truth"
Take a few snapshots of John Sakowicz (MA '79) in the early 1980s. You see a Wall Street job...New Click the shutter in 1997 and you activist...Colorado The difference, he says, is simple: "I just started telling the truth."

Sakowicz, a graduate of the Hopkins Writing Seminars, recently received a $1,000 grant from PEN, the international writers' organization. PEN made the grants late last year to writers with HIV or AIDS. The panel of judges that awarded the prizes praised Sakowicz for his "distinct voice and the weave of life experiences that inform [his] artful poetry."

After graduating from Hopkins, Sakowicz, who is also a Vietnam vet, worked for a succession of investment firms, ending up as national sales manager for Dean Witter. He married and fathered four children. But, as he says, "I had lived as a closeted gay man all my life. The woman whom I married knew my orientation, but that was sublimated and repressed in the early years of my marriage.

"The argument for my coming out sort of accumulated over time. But the real breaking point was when a friend of mine who was an orthodox Jew started getting sick with AIDS. I and two other friends cared for him. His family started sitting shiva and saying kaddish even before he died--literally mourning the loss of their son to homosexuality, before his body had died. His death, and the denial, rancor, and cruelty of his family, was one of those illuminating moments in my life."

Sakowicz moved to Massachusetts, where he established an AIDS housing and hospice program in Gloucester. The Massachusetts Legislature awarded him a commendation for his leadership in fighting the AIDS epidemic. He worked with other AIDS programs in Massachusetts, and continued this work when he moved to Colorado. He is currently adjunct professor of English and director of placement at City College of Colorado Springs. After a bitter court fight, he has custody of two of his daughters.

For many years he stopped writing, and he says he began again out of necessity: "Joseph McEllroy, one my teachers, said, 'Writing is the release of otherwise unrelievable tensions in writers.' In 10 years of denying myself as a gay man and denying myself as a writer I got to the point of extreme and unrelievable tension. I had to start making the right choices. For me, that was coming out, leaving Wall Street, working in the AIDS epidemic, and writing."

He has assembled a new volume of poems titled Bisexuality. One of the most striking aspects of it is the frankness with which Sakowicz expresses his regret at the passing of the sort of hedonism that characterized gay life before the advent of AIDS. In the poem "Homo," he writes:

I hate safe sex.
I hate public health & outreach workers.
I hate their condoms & common sense.

Later in the same poem:

I know sex with these men is dangerous.
All of them are Rilke's angels.
All of them are fatal birds of the soul.
I don't care.

"There's a counter-movement in the gay community right now," he says. "Gay men feel this epidemic has choked their spirit, and they want to bring the celebration back."

Sakowicz has published work in mainstream periodicals like The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, but lately has been concentrating on the gay press. He says, "I have a view that's not necessarily politically correct, and that needs to be heard by my own kind." --DK