Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 10, 1997

Arts and
Medici Archive

Randolph Fillmore
News and Information
Not since the early 18th century has the Medici family had such reach.

The Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany, Italy, dominated Italian culture from 1537 to 1743. Called the most brilliant and innovative patrons of the arts in Renaissance and Baroque Europe, they bequeathed to the world of art and humanities a huge legacy. Churches, monasteries, residences and gardens built by the Medicis dot the Florentine landscape. And their dynastic records- -the Medici Granducal Archive--has held a bounty of information for scholars ever since.

But that archive--which has been called "the most comprehensive record of any princely regime in early modern Europe"--has been sequestered in a Florence library for decades, accessible only to those users undaunted by the disorderliness of its more than 6,000 volumes.

Now, Joanne Riley, of Homewood Academic Computing, has changed all that. As it once coursed through Europe, the Medici sphere of influence now reaches through cyberspace.

"It's history! Live! From Florence!" announced Edward Goldberg, director of the Medici Archive Project based in Florence. As an Oxford doctoral student in the 1970s, Goldberg was doing research among the archives in Florence and questioned why the thousands of volumes in the archives were so disorganized. Why hadn't someone taken the time to straighten them out?

In the early 1990s, Goldberg took it upon himself to organize them, so he started a nonprofit corporation to help tackle the job. He also drummed up funding. But the task of cataloging the complex collection of diaries, letters, lists of tapestries, official orders and court records moved at a Tuscan snail's pace.

That's when Hopkins' Italian Renaissance and Baroque art professor Elizabeth Cropper stepped in. Cropper, who also is director of the Charles S. Singleton Center, Villa Spelman--the university's center for European studies in Florence--is a board member of the American Committee of the Medici Archive Project and a faculty client of Riley's. About a year ago, Cropper shared with Riley Goldberg's efforts to organize the vast project, using WordPerfect 5.1. Riley agreed to lend a hand, and the melding of art, archives and technology took its first step with Riley taking on the daunting task of building a database for the Medici Granducal Archive.

"I had always been distrustful of using information management systems in the humanities. That's because most databases were designed for making airline reservations or tracking shoe sales," Goldberg joked. "Joanne Riley dragged us kicking and screaming into the modern world. She is the only person in the cosmos who could put together this database and make it work. Not only is she a computer whiz, Joanne studied Italian and is a Renaissance musicologist."

Riley has been using sophisticated relational software that can support massive data and also export HTML for the World Wide Web to build a database for the archive. The purpose of the database was to create a tool that would enable researchers to quickly focus on the aspects of the archive they found most useful, then allow them to pose unique questions about the content of the archives.

But Riley's first task was to find a way to describe the volumes. This required an intimate look into their content to discern the proper fields for tables and make data entry as efficient as possible.

On a trip to Florence to upgrade the Villa Spelman's computer system, she found Robert Carlucci, art historian and chief researcher for the project, at the Archivio di Stato meticulously typing archival content into the word processing program. The documents, which if stacked in racks would stretch a kilometer, were in a difficult-to-discern order and would have taken several lifetimes to catalog, Riley said. It didn't take her long to discover what Goldberg had as a graduate student: the archives were chaotic.

"An art historian's mind is a terrible thing to waste!" laughed Riley.

Working with Carlucci, Riley attacked chaos by working out the categories into which the rich Medici family data should be sorted. Then she worked with Carlucci to figure out which aspects of the various archival pieces related to one another as a way to help users more easily access the information. Once the database structure was built, data entry time became a fraction of what it had been with the word processing approach.

"Building a database for the Medici Archive Project pioneers a whole new area of data management in the humanities," Goldberg said at the preview of the database last week on the Homewood campus. "It is built on what scholars need and want, and based on what works for them. Our goal is to make the archives easier to use and to cut down on the start time."

In addition to sorting out the official and private lives of the Medici family, the database will also help document Jewish history and cultural life in Tuscany and, thanks to the newly discovered diary of a 16th-century Florentine manufacturer of luxury fabrics, describe the history of fashion and textile in the period as well.

"The database has enormous value for the future of research in Florence," Cropper said. "It will not make it unnecessary to go to Florence. Rather, it will give researchers a headstart. It will let us get at more of the archive than most of us have time to do."

"The database is not a substitute for the archives," agreed Riley at the preview. "It is a way to narrow down and prioritize what you want to look at. Ours has been a cross-cultural collaboration between art historians and computer technologists. The result is a powerful, flexible, user friendly database that will extend its usefulness to an incarnation on the World Wide Web."

The Web site, at is a treasure trove of indices, places, images, genealogies, maps letters and other data. With JHUniverse (the university's Internet server) hosting the site, the richness of Medici history and cultural life can be appreciated at the click of a mouse. Visitors to the Web site can get images of Florentine buildings, works of art, maps of Florence and information about cultural events.

According to Riley, the database will be uploaded onto the Web site in May, making it available to those at remote sites.

"It will be an oracle, she said. "The questions we pose to it will be limited only by our imagination and curiosity. The answers will echo the richness and complexity of another time."

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