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Considerations from the Venetian State Archive: Reflecting on Data

By Umberto Signori

Umberto worked with us for two months, assisting Stefania Montemezzo in the data standardisation and transcriptions for the database. Read more about the database on Stefania’s project page.


Inventory of Francesco di Giosafa, merciaio (5 January 1551).

Like many kinds of historical documents, post-mortem inventories from the early modern period might at first sight be taken for handy repositories of straightforward facts. The use of “object-based” research methodologies, which are traditionally used in elaborating such inventories, has been a tendency of scholars of consumption practices to identify a “modern” type of consumer, and to expand our understanding of the emergence of various “consumer societies” along with expanding connections across the globe. According to this point of view, probate inventories are utilitarian documents that seem to have no hidden motives or ulterior designs to stand in the way of modern data-mining operations, whether large or small in scale.

Indeed, this was my first approach in working on the inventories kept in the Venetian State Archive which were used for the database. As an expert researcher told me at the early stages of this experience, making a database may get you the buzz at the beginning, but it requires a lot of patience in the end. In fact, when I started, I was thrilled by the idea of understanding how a method-oriented database works (something that, in my previous attempts to work out a proper system of categorisation for my research project’s database, I had found very difficult). Eventually, the actual data transcription and standardisation for the database is a bit laborious and time-consuming. The final outcomes of such a quantitative approach can be very rewarding: they can show if the members of the middle ranks of Venetian society (especially the artisans and the shopkeepers) were fashionable consumers, up to date and demanding or not. They can also demonstrate whether the evolving tastes of Venetian consumers for fine things pervaded many levels of society. Yet, the stages that precede the final one may appear quite static and monotonous. Are the final outcomes of the database the only thing that really matter?

Even though it appears that an inventory can give us only a static picture of a patrimony at a precise moment in time, it is important to realize that the “reality” at stake in the inventories was a fabrication: they functioned as a rhetorical tool. Thus, the inventories do not state the reality sought by the historians. While we were transcribing the early inventories’ data (which were all male inventories), I noticed that they contained a lot of female clothing and garments. I started to wonder what really an inventory recorded: the deceased’s properties or his own possessions? At first sight, it appears that post-mortem inventories did not distinguish the exclusive personal use of objects from the general ones. It is usually impossible to distinguish between what had been personally acquired and used by the deceased and what instead had been used by other members of his family, or had just been collected as money equivalent-objects. My main questions while transcribing were these: how did the procedure of making an inventory actually work in the Early Modern period? Did the inventories just portray in a static way objects possessed at one moment in time?

Once the transcription had been done, we started the actual data standardisation, which was more focused on cataloguing the transcribed information, including the materials, decorations, conditions, and colours of the clothing, accessories and jewellery recorded. The data recorded at this stage that struck me more was about the condition of the object: whether it was used, new, old, or broken, and whether it was pawned or not. The number of times I was recording the data “used”, “old” or “pawned” amazed me. This made me more aware of the existence of a second-hand goods market in the Early Modern Venetian society, something that I hadn’t really realized before starting this work. As many studies on second-hand exchange have already demonstrated, in Early Modern period all the items of clothing, and not only the precious ones, then, could be easily sold or pawned. Indeed, shifts in fashion, as well as the adaptability of the textiles, lining and accessories (objects which were recorded very often in these inventories), might have made this “old” items recirculation faster, and without much expenditure.

Furthermore, it is very interesting to notice that these inventories made a marked distinction between clothes and accessories which were “used”, “old” or “broken”. Before the French Civil Code of 1804, which established the absolute, exclusive and private property as the main form of property legally possible, the regime of early modern possession clearly separated property rights into two distinct levels, an eminent right and a usage right, that could be divided and attributed to several individuals. This regime of property usually accorded the primacy to the actual possession over formal deeds. This meant that, in case of disputes concerning property ownership, the real use of an object could legally prevail over the presentation of formal entitlements. This awareness is of important interest to material culture historians because it raises many new questions on the relationship between the possessors and their objects. It has been widely assumed in the consumption historiography that clothing or jewellery consumed automatically become a “possession” of someone or of a household. Certainly, that immaterial transformation from commodity to possession is what distinguished some goods as the “possessions of one’s own”. One might in fact be interested to understand whether the probate inventories, with their “used” or “broken” indications, even gave room to the possessors to prove their rights over the goods. Others might be stimulated to look more deeply in how the action of possession of individuals, who were not the full owners of the objects and who found themselves in a “delicate” situation in respect to the management of heritage, could claim their property rights.

Far from being static documents, inventories could allow us to view material worlds of artisans, workers, shopkeepers and their relations to possessions. Therefore, even during the transcription and standardisation stages the work can be stimulating and thought-provoking. Of course, so as to study the relationship between the possessors and their objects the inventories need integrating with other sources, like last wills and testaments. Despite the fact that the inventories alone cannot be enough to run out all these topics, they might constitute an extraordinary opportunity to shed light on the actors’ interpretation of material culture.

Umberto Signori hard at work with the Refashioning the Renaissance database.

 

Dirty Laundry in Aalto University

Can chanterelle mushrooms take the stains out of silk? Might elderberries dye yarn blue? Will scented rose petals make an artisan’s linens smell like those of a great lord? On the 11th and 12th of April 2019 the Refashioning the Renaissance team and two advisory board members explored these and other questions by recreating early modern recipes for cleaning and dyeing clothing and textiles.

Looking to the Danish and Italian contexts, we selected recipes that appear repeatedly in cheap and easy-to-obtain texts and pamphlets from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These texts were intended for use at home; they feature terse instructions and call for ingredients that were relatively easy for people to obtain, some of which may have even been growing in domestic gardens and pots. Some scholars have also suggested that many of the uncomplicated recipes found in printed and manuscript texts simply recorded folk practices that had long been carried out as part of everyday life.

Title page from Mangehaande artige Kunster at berede godt Blæk, Copenhagen 1578, the Danish text from which we took several recipes.]

Title page and image from Opera nvova intitolata dificio de ricette… (Venetia: Giovanantonio et fratelli da Sabbio, 1529). This is one of the texts we used in the workshop and is also one of the earliest printed recipe ‘pamphlets’.

Over two days, we followed instructions for removing stains, dyeing yarn and making scented sachets for linen chests to see if these popular recipes actually worked. On the first day, we had a brief introductory session, and then got to work in the dye kitchen at Aalto University.

Introducing the workshop and recipes.

Our first set of recipes were for stain removers, and Anne-Kristine and I spent some time the evening before staining the fabrics – many of which we had dyed during our visit to the Making and Knowing lab in New York in March. We used red and white wine, oak-gall ink and olive oil to stain the fabrics.

Michele and Anne-Kristine staining different fabrics the night before the workshop.

For the experiment, we split into three groups: Me and Sophie, Anne-Kristine and Tessa, and Paula and Flora. Luckily Piia was on hand to take lots of great photos and videos for us. Sophie and I prepared a very simple recipe designed to take stains out of white wool or linen using lemon juice. We found that if we had fresh stains and blotted them before applying the lemon juice, our results with white wool were pretty good. On the set stains, though, the recipe was not so successful. We also noticed that the lemon juice really discoloured our linen dyed with cochineal, turning it hot pink.

Sophie with the cochineal fabric discoloured by lemon juice.

Michele and Sophie applying lemon juice to the stained fabrics.

The results of the lemon juice stain remover.

Anne-Kristine and Tessa recreated a recipe from a Danish text, using the juice of mushrooms to remove stains from silk. They decided to cook the mushrooms in a little bit of water, strain it and applied this to the stained fabrics. It didn’t work so well and actually discoloured the white silk. This might not be one to try at home!

Anne-Kristine and Tessa juicing mushrooms.

The results of the mushroom-juice stain remover, where you can see how it yellowed the white fabrics.

Finally, Paula and Flora recreated a recipe from an Italian book intended to remove stains from red silk using boiled cream of tartar. This was probably the recipe which was the least clear, and there were lots of discussions about whether to use the water or solid portion left after boiling. In the end, Paula and Flora decided to try both. Neither was particularly successful!

Freshly stained fabrics.

Preparing to strain the tartar powder.

Paula and Flora trying to remove stains from red fabrics.

In the afternoon, we moved onto recipes for simple dyes. Anne-Kristine and I worked together, Paula and Tessa were a team and Sophie and Flora each worked on their own.

Anne-Kristine and I worked with a recipe from a Danish text, using bilberries to dye wool, silk and linen. A few days before the workshop I set the berries to soak in water (according to the recipe), and we just had to boil them a little, gave the mixture a strain and then added some alum and our fabrics.

Extracting the colour from bilberries, and fabrics added to the juice.

The results of our bilberry ‘blue’ dye.

The recipe was supposed to turn the fabrics blue, but they came out more of a deep purple-red. We were really happy and surprised about the results.

Sophie worked on alternative version of the same recipe, using dried elderberries, verdigris and alum. I had soaked the dried berries in vinegar for a few days before the workshop, and they smelled quite strong!

Sophie working with smelly, dried elderberries, which had been soaking in vinegar for several days.

Two versions of the elderberry dye recipe.

Measures of verdigris (on the left) and alum (on the right) for Sophie’s two versions of the recipe. Verdigris is the lovely turquoise coloured patina that forms through the oxidation of copper or brass. Think of the colour of the Statue of Liberty!

Her fabrics came out two slightly different shades of green, though the recipe was for achieving the colour blue…

Batch one of the elderberry-dyed fabrics.

Batch two of the elderberry-dyed fabrics.

Flora worked on an Italian recipe for making a russet colour. She used orange and pomegranate rinds that I had soaked in water a few days before the workshop. With the addition of alum and ash(!) she was supposed to end up with nicely coloured russet wool, silk and linen; however, the fabrics ended up a sort of creamy yellow.

‘Russet’-coloured fabrics?!

Paula and Tessa made a recipe from an Italian book, which also appears in many other books of secrets from this period. Their experiment was the most labour intensive, as they had to smash up oak-gall and grind gum arabic.

Tessa and Paula working hard, grinding and smashing.

The recipe was supposed to result in a lustrous black; however, the team ended up with a muddy brown.

The dye is looking very mud-like.

Fabric that is ‘good, black and lustrous’?

Part of the problem—which we found for all of our dye recipes—was that the pots were much too large for the small amounts of textiles we were dyeing. This made the fabrics stick to the bottom and prevented us from swirling in the bath to get even coverage. Even though our stain removal and dye recipes were not so successful, we had many wonderful and useful discussions throughout the day.

One the second day of the workshop, we recreated a recipe for making scented sachets for putting in linen chests. This was a very long recipe with two different options: one expensive, the other more economic. We chose the cheaper option, which required rose petals, rose water, musk [we used synthetic], lily oil and orris root. We shared the different tasks and had lots of discussion about the decisions we were making and why. It was a different atmosphere to the very busy first day in the dye kitchen, and we literally got to stop and smell the roses during this experiment.

Smelling the perfume to see if the odour is like that of a great lord, which we decided is an open question.

As our perfume cooked, we each sewed up linen bags. Once the mixture had cooled, we put it on the rose petals and added them, still damp, to our bags. The results were very fragrant and our office still smells of the mixture three months later!

Rose petals damp with the perfume, ready to be put inside the hand-sewn linen bag.

After we finished making up our bags, we gathered together to admire all we had produced during the workshop.

Wrap-up discussion.

We discussed how recreating the recipes helped us understand some of the practices that working people in early modern Italy and Denmark might have carried out at home to care for, clean or refashion their garments. Making these recipes also demanded close reading and that we considered carefully the kinds of knowledge and experience they assume the reader already possessed. It also gave us insight into the kinds of knowledge and experiences that regular people had, a topic that is hard to trace in this period given the low-levels of literacy, especially among women, who were unable to record their thoughts, feelings and actions. In sum, by recreating early modern recipes, we tested if they actually worked, and gained a broader perspective of and new questions about processes of and knowledge about cleaning and caring for clothing in this period.

Farewell and warm thank you our research fellow Stefania!

Our project is half way through, and it has come time to say farewell to first of our research fellows, economic historian Dr. Stefania Montemezzo.

During her nearly two-year fellowship in our project, Stefania has been leading our archival work in Italy, identifying, documenting, transcribing and analysing hundreds of historical documents that reveal the kinds of clothing items our artisans and small shopkeepers owned and bought, and how their use was regulated in early modern societies in 1550-1650.  The core of this research, consisting of approximately 30.000 clothing items that were listed in household inventories of ordinary Italians, will eventually be available for public access on our online database.

Alongside her archival work, Stefania has been working in more detail on an account book of a sixteenth-century Italian peddler, a rich document that has allowed her to reconstruct the commercial and social activity of this small-scale operator whomoved around Tuscany selling cheap textile and fashion itemsfor ordinary clientele. Her work on this rare and detailed account will continue. She plans to analyse the document further, in order understand the identity of the buyers, the role of peddlers in the spread of fashion, the influence of the city on the countryside, and the role of geographical networks on the habits of consumption.

Stefania Montemezzo presenting her research in Renaissance Society of America conference in 2019. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

We are very grateful for Stefania for her academic contribution and inspiration. She has given inspiring papers about her research in our academic events in Europe and US, and organized us a fantastic textile study week in Italy, with a one-day’s textile history seminar at the University of Padua where we discussed and debated economic meanings of early modern dress, textiles and fashion.

Dr. Stefania Montemezzo is a talented and rigorous young historian, with extraordinary capacity for team work.  In addition to her academic accomplishments, she has been a key member in team building team and greatly contributed to the good spirits in this project. She is just so much fun!

I am very fortunate to have been able to work with Stefania.

Our entire team wishes you, Stefania, best of luck with your future research. We will miss you dearly!

Our Refashioning team in Florence in May 2018. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.