January 1981: Florence, Italy
The rain, light until now, began to fall more heavily as Hopkins professors Richard Goldthwaite and Phoebe Stanton made their way down a narrow street in Florence on this chilly winter evening. Beckoned by the warm glow of a shop window, the two colleagues stopped to look in at its display, entranced by what they saw: beautiful tablets and pencil boxes wrapped in creamy parchment paper covered with Italian script. Nearby lay a leatherbound businessman's account book, opened to reveal line after line of penned entries. It looked to be centuries old.
In fact, Goldthwaite could tell at a glance that the ledger dated back to the 15th century. A Johns Hopkins history professor on sabbatical for the year, he had pored over such account books for his research on Renaissance Italy's construction industry. Goldthwaite knew that outside of library archives, these historic account books are hard to find. But they hold great value for Renaissance scholars. That's because, by recording the most minute details of everyday life, these documents offer an almost direct contact with the minds of the world's earliest capitalists. Perhaps he could buy this account book and take it back to Hopkins for his students to use in their research. It was worth asking about, anyway.
Stanton, a longtime professor of art history at Hopkins, was also eager to go in and look around, so the two stepped off the glistening pavement and into the warmth of the store. As Stanton browsed for gift ideas, Goldthwaite approached the owner, a tastefully dressed and very charming Italian who appeared to be in his 30s. The account book in the window, he told Goldthwaite regretfully, had been restored and was not for sale. But perhaps the signore and his friend would like to take a look upstairs?
The two professors filed up a narrow staircase and emerged into a large room. Against one wall stood a wooden bookcase, lined floor to ceiling with hundreds of leatherbound volumes. Flipping through one volume, then another, and another, Goldthwaite could see that they were all account books from the 17th and 18th centuries. Some dated back even further. The owner, smiling, said the signore could purchase one volume for 1 million lire--about 1,000 U.S. dollars. As Goldthwaite stood digesting this bit of information, he was distracted by some noise and motion in an adjoining room.
What the historian saw going on in there made him blanch. For there stood two women, unceremoniously ripping pages from several leatherbound ledgers, then brushing them with a clear-drying chemical preservative.
The shop owner followed Goldthwaite's gaze, then explained, helpfully, that the paper was being used to cover the pencil boxes, tablets, and other gifts sold downstairs--and in his other shop, an upscale boutique in Georgetown.
Goldthwaite and Stanton exchanged horrified glances, which they quickly tried to hide. They had assumed that the gifts downstairs were covered in photographed copies of historic parchment, as was customary. Here was a historic archive being slowly, inexorably destroyed.
The two historians, unable to hide their distress, quickly made their goodbyes and hurried out of the shop.
The next morning, as Stanton headed off to the airport to return to Baltimore (she'd been in Florence leading a 10-day Hopkins alumni tour), Goldthwaite placed a call to Dr. Francesca Morandini, who was superintendent of the State Archives in Tuscany. She was unhappy to hear of his discovery, and agreed to send one of her assistants out to investigate.
It didn't take her long to get back to him with the findings: the account books, 250 in all, did indeed span several centuries, and they appeared to have belonged to a single family.
Morandini, whose job it was to preserve Florence's cultural heritage, knew the family archive was worth saving. Though the law prohibited her from actually confiscating the collection, she could compel the shop owner to register it with the state as a historic treasure. And once that was done, he could neither destroy the books nor sell them to any buyer outside Italy. What's more, he could sell the collection only as a block. Since account books weren't particularly rare locally, there would be no market for them in Italy. Overnight, it seemed, the collection would lose most of its value for him.
When Morandini offered to relieve the shop owner of all 250 ledgers for 6 million lire (about $6,000), he snapped up the offer--and cursed the chilly evening when the American professors crossed his doorstep.
Goldthwaite felt an enormous sense of relief when he learned that he had halted the destruction of the account books. Now he could get back to researching his new book on wealth and the demand for art in Renaissance Italy.
The Case of the Pencil Box Ledgers was closed. Or so he thought.
May 1981: Florence
Deeply engrossed in a document, Professor Goldthwaite looked up in surprise one May morning to find Dr. Morandini standing beside his carrel in the Reading Room of the Tuscany Archive.
She told him that her assistants had spent the past several months making an inventory of the 250-volume collection he had salvaged, and as a professional courtesy, she thought he might enjoy seeing the results. She set a folder down in front of him, made her goodbyes, and left.
Goldthwaite set aside his document and picked up the inventory of the Spinelli-Baldocci-Petrucci family archives. Hmmm...those names seemed so familiar, he thought. And as he began scanning the inventory, names and phrases jumped out at him. Neri di Agnolo Baldocci. Villa di San Leonardo in Arcetri. No, it couldn't be! What were the odds?
The normally unflappable historian shook his head, amazed. For it quickly became apparent to him that the Spinelli-Baldocci family whose financial accountings were laid out in those account books that he had saved was the very same Spinelli-Baldocci family that once owned Villa Spelman, Johns Hopkins University's villa in Florence.
Goldthwaite was well acquainted with the ochre-colored villa that surmounts a hilltop overlooking Florence. In summers past and during the sabbatical year now nearly ended, he had passed many a delightful hour at the idyllic villa--strolling in the gardens amid the lemon trees and gardenias, supping with other scholars in the vaulted dining room. Bequeathed to Hopkins in 1971 by Timothy Mather and Leolyn Everett Spelman, the villa had just this year begun serving as the university's center for Italian studies. The idea was to make the villa a place where historians of all types--Hopkins faculty and dissertation students, as well as other Renaissance scholars and students from other institutions--could gather regularly for seminars and discussions of matters Italian.
Goldthwaite had even done a little research on the villa's history. He knew, for instance, that tax records as early as 1427 described it as a chasa da signiore, or "a gentleman's house." He had also traced the villa's ownership through the centuries. That's why the Spinelli-Baldocci-Petrucci names had rung a bell. Now he was eager for greater detail. The account books could probably tell him how and when the interior had been changed over the centuries, for instance.
More important was what the account books could tell him about the Baldocci family--admittedly a minor upper-class family of the period, but of interest precisely because they were so typical. This was a neglected area of scholarship, he knew; little attention had been paid to the social history of the upper class in Renaissance Florence--what they bought and wore, how they spent their free time.
Balancing this new project with his ongoing research would be tricky. But though his stay in Italy was nearly over, he would be returning to the state archives each summer to do further research for his book. He decided to examine one account book each day that he was in Florence. With 250 volumes to look through, the project could take years.
Undaunted, Goldthwaite pushed back his chair and walked out of the Reading Room to find Morandini. It was time to get started.
Fall 1988: Stanford, California
After seven years of reading and note-taking whenever he was in Italy, Professor Goldthwaite had finally made his way through all 250 account books. And he'd found some fascinating material. He was ready, at last, to write up the history of the Baldocci family. He'd be in California throughout the year as a visiting fellow at Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences, and he'd have some time to work on the project.
One thing niggled at him, though: There appeared to be some account books--a sizable number, in fact--missing. He could tell because the volumes were numbered and lettered consecutively. He tried not to waste time wondering about the missing books. After all, he reminded himself, historians rarely recover archives that are intact. And he'd managed to sift out plenty of good information from the hundreds of account books that he did have.
Assembling his notes in front of him, Goldthwaite looked back over what he had gleaned.
He had determined, first off, that the villa officially came into the Baldocci family in 1659, when it passed to Neri di Agnolo Baldocci as part of his mother's inheritance. She had been born a Petrucci, so that family's archives, dating back to the late 1500s, were passed on to her son. Through those records Goldthwaite had tracked an early mention of the villa to 1621, when Giovanni di Vincenzo Petrucci had paid to have a pergola, an arbor with a roof of trelliswork and a terrace, built on the grounds.
In 1650 a windstorm damaged the home, and Petrucci paid for repairs to the pergola and to the villa's colombaia, or dovecot, that sat atop the roof. Though pigeon roosts were standard fixtures from the mid-1600s onward, this was the first documented mention of one, Goldthwaite was pleased to note. And while the typical dovecot was centered on the roof, above the principal block, the positioning of this colombaia, flush with the villa's facade, was (and remains) unique.
In addition to these repairs the Petrucci family also remade the roof and constructed a terrace on the villa's south side (where today it's the "winter garden"). It was paved with flagstone and planted with lemon trees, pomegranates, and laurel. Gradually, the plain old country house was becoming more elegant.
Still, throughout the mid- to late-1600s, the villa primarily served as a weekend home for the Baldocci brothers. It had a podere or farm, where a sharecropper named Bastiano Casini grew grapes, olives, grains, and vegetables.
By looking at the Baldocci expenditures over many decades, Goldthwaite had learned that the four Baldocci brothers (Neri, Piero, Nunziato, and Giovanni) became increasingly wealthy beginning around the time the villa came into the family. All but Neri (who was involved with the silk industry) worked as administrators in the papal bureaucracy in Rome--evidently a lucrative line of work. They owned several properties in that city, as well as huge farms throughout the Florentine countryside, each equipped with many servants, the records showed. In the 1660s the Baldoccis acquired a palace in the center of Florence. That same year they also built a chapel in the Church of Santa Felice in Florence, and commissioned a painting for it from a renowned artist of the day, Salvatore Rosa. (The painting, "St. Peter on the Water," still hangs there today.) The year 1712 marked the Baldoccis ultimate "arrival." That was the year that Agnolo Guiseppe Baldocci (son of Nunziato) became a senator--a prestigious title of nobility.
By 1767, accounts showed that the hilltop property was no longer simply a weekend house in a farm setting; it had become instead a villa with a garden, "una villa con giardino." That was also the year when the last of the male Baldoccis, Nunziato Guiseppe Maria, died, effectively ending the family line. The villa (assessed at 2,500 ducats) and all its surrounding property passed on to the grandson of Nunziato's aunt, Margherita Spinelli. Thus the sprawling property became known as the Villa Spinelli-Baldocci, a title it would retain until this branch of the Spinellis died out in the early 1800s.
Looking back over the genealogical chart he had pieced together, Goldthwaite was reminded of how the Baldocci family had deliberately avoided dividing its estate over the years. This was a common practice among upper-class Florentine families of the day. The idea was to preserve patrimony by means of a type of "marriage control policy"--families would discourage marriage among daughters and sons other than the firstborn son, who would inherit everything and keep the property together. Younger siblings were encouraged to join the church or the military. In the Baldocci family, for instance, the firstborn Senator Agnolo Guiseppe (1667-1736) had one brother, who became a cleric, and three sisters, two of whom became nuns. So, Goldthwaite mused, the Baldoccis had indeed succeeded in preserving their patrimony. To the point of extinction.
The professor's thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the phone. Goldthwaite rose to answer it, surprised to hear New York Times reporter Douglas McGill on the line.
McGill was calling about a recent notable acquisition made by Yale University. In fact, Yale's librarian was calling it the "acquisition of a lifetime"--an enormous trove of letters, account books, ledgers, and legal documents, some 150,000 in all, that detailed the life and times of a 15th-century Florentine merchant family named Spinelli. Knowing that Goldthwaite was an authority in Italian Renaissance history, the reporter wanted to get his perspective on the account books in the collection. Just how important were they?
Pretty important, conceded Goldthwaite, who recognized the Spinelli family as one of the most well-connected families of 15th-century Florence, though not well known to history. Spinelli family members had held a number of local political offices and had helped finance the papal government in Rome. What's more, they were a prominent banking clan. In their financial dealings they made loans to cardinals and bishops in dioceses throughout the world, and had crossed paths with the prominent families of the Italian Renaissance: the likes of Medici, Vasari, Bardi, Strozzi, and Borgia. These financial wheelings and dealings would prove a rich vein for Renaissance scholars to tap.
After finishing his conversation with McGill, Goldthwaite hung up and resolved to pay a visit soon to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. The Spinelli archive, though as yet uncataloged, was certainly worth checking out. He had just started researching a new book on the history of banking in 15th-century Florence, and those account books would surely have something to tell him.
March 1990: Yale University
Goldthwaite gathered together his lecture notes and left his place at the lectern to join Robert Babcock, curator at Yale's Beinecke Library. Goldthwaite had just finished giving a talk on consumerism in Renaissance Florence and now the two men were heading off to have dinner with several other colleagues.
The salad course had barely been served before talk turned to the Beinecke's recent much-publicized acquisition. Cataloging of the Spinelli archive was nowhere near complete, Babcock said, but already they'd discovered treasures: there were detailed 15th-century records of Vatican finances; the papers of a Spinelli who was a spy for Henry VII and later served as Henry VIII's ambassador to the Netherlands; and the records of Lionardo Spinelli, who was ambassador to the court of Henry VIII in England.
Though these 15th-century finds had drawn the most publicity, Babcock said his librarians had found that the Spinelli collection was primarily comprised of account books and letters from the 17th and 18th centuries.
As talk continued to flow, Babcock mentioned, in an aside to Goldthwaite, that these later records were those of a family with which he was unfamiliar. A family by the name of Baldocci.
Goldthwaite froze, his fork midway to his mouth.
Baldocci! Then Babcock's 15th-century Spinellis must be the very same family that later inherited the Baldocci villa. And if that was the case, then the Spinelli collection here at Yale might contain the account books that were missing from the Baldocci archive in Florence!
The very next morning Goldthwaite went to the archive to see if his hunch was correct. And indeed it was. It took only a few minutes to confirm that he had found the other half of the archive he had saved from destruction in Florence. In addition to account books, this half included official letters--including those kept by Nunziato Baldocci, comptroller ("computista") of the papal treasury during the 1650s. With this additional treasure trove of information, the historian would be able to fill in the remaining gaps of the Baldocci family history, as well as the history of Villa Spelman.
As Goldthwaite stood amid the shelves filled with portfolios of cream-colored parchment, he shook his head in pleased disbelief at the way the events of the last decade had unfolded. He couldn't help wondering how the Spinelli-Baldocci archive had ended up in two parts, on different sides of the Atlantic.
After talking with Babcock, he had an answer. It seemed that after the Spinelli family had all but died out in the 1850s, the family archive remained in the Spinelli palace in Florence, under a succession of different tenants, until the 1920s. At that point someone apparently split the archive in two, taking one half out of the country. That half was later sold and, sometime after 1980, fell into the hands of the Swiss book dealer who sold it to Yale in 1988. The other half of the archive remained in Italy, where it eventually showed up on the shelves of the Florentine shop owner.
Winter, 1996: Johns Hopkins University
Professor Goldthwaite looks up from the paper he's grading to glance over at the large, golden-hued photo on his office wall. Shot by fellow history professor Phil Curtin, it shows the cobble stoned street winding up to the impressive walled entrance of Villa Spelman.
Goldthwaite's teaching schedule and book deadlines have kept him from making the trip to Yale to finish his research on the Baldocci family and the villa. He's hoping to free up a month sometime next semester. That's all the time it would take, he figures, to tie up the loose ends and put a tidy close to The Case of the Pencil Box Ledgers. After 15 years, he's more than ready.
The professor's gaze travels from the photo of the villa to the pencil box that sits on his desk. It's one he purchased in Venice a few years back. He picks it up, as he's wont to do, and turns it slowly around, reading the Italian script that slants across its sides. The paper covering this particular pencil box is a reproduction, but there are countless other boxes out there covered with the real thing. Shaking his head with regret, the historian wonders, for perhaps the thousandth time, just what has been lost forever.
Sue De Pasquale is the editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine.
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