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From the historical source to a database: a short story

A couple of years ago I was sitting in a coffee-house in Antwerp and working on my database. A group next to me started a small and informal business meeting which got rather loud. The manager eventually turned to me to apologise for the noise the team was making. While we were talking, he saw my laptop screen that contained a large, multi-coloured Excel file, full of figures and codes. He thought I was an accountant. When told him that I was an early modern historian, his reaction was of amazement and perplexity. What does history have to do with statistical databases?

Quantitative history may indeed seem a strange or  even contradictory for many. How is it possible to study a subject, which is considered par excellence qualitative, through the schematised and rigid ‘cage’ of a database?

The answer lies in the fact that, in reality, quantitative approach is much less rigid than one may at first think. It is, in fact, sometimes the only way to organise large quantities of historical data, in order to arrive at conclusions beyond examples and case-studies.

The results are impressive especially when the sources are suitable for a quantitative treatment (and potentially all sources are suitable) and the analysis is based on an adequate system. The potentials of quantitative approach in history can be illustrated well by studies that rely on post-mortem inventories as their main source. The extensive exploitation of these documents through quantitative approach has been fundamental over the years when historians have, among other issues, investigated levels of wealth and analysed trends in inequality in the past, or reconstructed the steps that led to the creation of the modern model of consumption. It would be difficult to address such complex topics comprehensively using just a dozen of documents.

Refashioning the Renaissance project follows this fruitful line of research, and combines the study of hundreds of post-mortem inventories with qualitative research, in order to shed light on the transformation and the adaptation of fashion, as well as on the meaning and the changing cultural attitudes to dress. Yet, the question remains, how to study the quantitative point of view in practice?  In the following, I will introduce the steps that lead from the ‘raw material’ to the ‘finished product’, that is, from the archival document to the final outcomes of a database.

The first page of the inventory of Serafino, the blacksmith, who died in Siena in 1603. Archivio di Stato di Siena, Curia del Placito, Tutele e Inventari, 275, c. 42r.

The first step is obviously to collect the historical sources. This involves going to the archive, looking for the right documents at indexes and catalogues, and requesting all the folders needed. This takes time. In addition, transcribing the documents by hand, one by one, and taking pictures of all the documents requires a lot of patience. To give a sense of the scale of the work, the Refashioning the Renaissance project has identified and gathered over 1500 post-mortem inventories, belonging to craftsmen and small shopkeepers who died in urban centres of Siena, Florence, Venice or in the Scandinavian town of Elsinore between 1550 and 1650.

Once the documents have been identified, collected, reproduced and transcribed, we can move on to the second stage: to transpose the data from the sources into the database.  This work can be done in two different ways. The first option is to work in a source oriented way, i.e. to record all the information in the document word by word (verbatim) on the database, and thus to preserve both the original content as well as the structure of the document. Alternatively, the researcher can choose to work in a method oriented way, inserting only those parts of the information in the database that he or she has decided in advance are most interesting and relevant to the study. Both approaches are equally valid, and the choice between the two depends only on the characteristics of the study. Since the Refashioning the Renaissance focuses on a precise and circumscribed research topic, and there are a large number of sources to process, the most appropriate option was to conduct a method oriented study.

Once the decision has been made about the categories of object that one wants to focus on, one can start the actual data entry – or at least its first part. In this phase, the collected documents are analysed page by page, line by line. The data recorded at this stage is relatively basic, but it provides important technical information, for example, about the archival location of the document as well as about the individuals whose documents we are dealing with, such as the owner’s name, profession, place of residence, and the date of the document. This is followed by a faithful transcription of the description of the objects that were recorded in the document.

The work at this stage is laborious and takes time. Just for Florence and Siena, for example, we recorded more than 14000 textile objects, clothing articles and fashion accessories that belonged to artisans and shopkeepers, including a wide range of hats, gloves, skirts, aprons and shirts of different colour and kind.  This means that we filled 14000 lines of the Excel sheet. The task is often complicated by the fact that the handwriting in the document might be bad or the document is in poor condition.

The Refashioning the Renaissance database after the first step of data entry.

Nevertheless, the research is exciting. Post-mortem inventories are indeed interesting documents, since they allow us virtually to enter the homes that people of the past lived in. We can visit all the spaces of the house -the main bedroom which was usually reserved for the householder and his wife, and the hall that was used to throw parties during important occasions such as weddings and childbirths. We can visualise and appreciate the paintings that were hanging on their walls, observe the decoration which embellished beds and wardrobes, and even open every drawer or trunk that contained their clothing, from modest shirts and skirts worn for work, to elaborate silk aprons that were embellished with trims and embroidery. Once the basic data entry is completed, we extract the data. This means that all the descriptions of object are broken up and organised in many small units of information. We record in separate columns, for example, what type of object of clothing we are dealing it, its colour, material and finishing, and what the condition of the item is (whether it was new, used, old).

After this, we can move on to the third step, the data standardisation. The variety of objects, colours, and materials in our database is so wide that it would be difficult to analyse the data without a consistent system of categorisation.  Therefore, it is necessary to catalogue the information by identifying broad, homogeneous, and consistent categories. To provide an example, when we look at the colour of the objects, the various shades of red (rosso, pavonazzo, cremisi, and so on) are grouped under the same umbrella category called ‘red’. The same goes, for instance, for the huge variety of fabrics made of wool such as saie, rascie, panni, and saiette which are catalogued under the ‘wool’ label. The standardisation is perhaps one of the most important and delicate phases of the entire database creation process. In fact, the categories created cannot be too large (the results risk to be too vague and therefore not informative), nor too narrow (the risk here is to offer only many small impressions, without showing general trends).  The data standardisation also makes it possible to check the various entries for mistakes and correct errors, as well as, crucially, to translate the information in English (or eventually in any other language), making the database usable by a larger number of people.

Different shades of red. A.S.L. Archivio Sardini, n. 68/1. Samples of drappi attached to a book, commissioned at the fabbrica of Bartolomeo Talenti, 1771-1784 Catalogue, Arti e mestieri, n. 8.

The Refashioning the Renaissance database in its final form.

Once the standardisation phase is finished, the database is in its final form and it is ready to be properly used and tested.  The Refashioning the Renaissanceproject has created a dedicated online database in collaboration with Jodie Cox from Wildside, which will be available for everyone in the future. This allows one to do searches on the clothing, accessories and jewellery that our artisans and small shopkeepers owned, including their materials, colours, cut and condition of the articles, as well as how these were decorated and combined with other garments. All entries can be seen in both processed from as well as in the original documents, or organised in charts and tables according to years, geographical location, clothing types, colours and so forth.

Finished database, which will be open for public in the future.

A database, despite its granitic appearance, is in fact an organism capable of evolving in a thousand different ways, moulding itself to the needs of the researcher. This extreme flexibility is probably the greatest strength of this kind of quantitative approach and also the reason why it is particularly suitable for the analysis of historical issues. 

Some preliminary tests using the database.


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

Album Amicorum: Fashion, Friendship and Foreign Travel in Renaissance Europe

Michele Robinson

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, university students – especially those from Germany – often travelled to different institutions throughout Western Europe and documented their experiences in album amicorum, or friendship books. At first, these books were simply filled with mottoes and signatures from students’ friends and important people they met during their studies; overtime, though, the books featured inscriptions paired with images such as coats of arms, emblems and local people from the various cities visited. These images could be drawn by the person writing the inscription, painted by a local artist or taken from a printed book or single leaf, meaning that each album was as unique as its owner.[1]

Coat of arms and emblematic image with inscriptions from the autograph album of Johann Joachim Prack von Asch, 1587-1612. Getty Research Institute Collection, Los Angeles.

Along with revealing fascinating information about the experiences of German students, these books are also, perhaps surprisingly, useful for historians of dress. The representations of people included in the albums typically show men and women from different social classes wearing local dress. And, unlike most contemporary costume books, these representations are in colour, often still vibrant after more than 400 years, and the clothes are perhaps more up-to-date than in costume books, a sort of distant relative to the albums.[2] These books are useful for the Refashioning the Renaissance project not only because they represent dress, but often the dress – and scenes of daily life – of the lower-class inhabitants of Venice and the surrounding area. One of the most common ‘types’ of person from humble social origins depicted in the books is the female peasant from Padua, carrying two baskets of fruit, flowers or fowl over her shoulder.

Peasant woman (fol. 024r) from the Album Amicorum of Jan vander Deck, after 1592. Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Rawl. B. 21.

Peasant woman from Padua (fol. 032r), Album Amicorum of Paul van Dale, c.1569-1578. Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Douce d. 11.

Although these images come from different albums and neither is an exact replica of how such a woman would have looked or dressed, when we consider them closely and carefully, we can begin to reconstruct what a lower-class woman from Padua or other towns in the Veneto might wear. For instance, both images show the women with their skirts slightly puffed out around the waist, wearing quite long aprons and a garment draped around their shoulders and tucked into the front of their bodices.

Matrona Veneta [Venetian Matron], from Jan Baptist Zangrius, Album amicorum of habitibus mulierum omnium nationum Europae, tum tabulis ac cuneis vacuis in aes incisis adornantur, 1605. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, Paris.

These kinds of representations also help to remind us that working people needed to have clothes that were practical and functional, though this does not preclude them from looking good. Unlike women from wealthy and elite families with floor-length (or longer!) gowns and towering platform shoes, working-class women had to be able to move themselves and perhaps their wares from place to place quickly and efficiently. The bunched-up skirts of Paduan peasant women may have created a distinctive look, but this was also a means of lifting the hem line away from the dust and dirt of the road on the way to market, and probably also prevented tripping on or ripping the garment. Thus, the images in album amicorum give us a sense of what people were wearing and encourages us to think about why they made these choices – both for fashion and function.

 


[1] For a general overview of the different types of albums and their chronology, see Max Rosenheim, “The Album Amicorum,” Archaeologia 62, no. 1 (1910): 251–308
https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261340900008158.

[2] Margaret F. Rosenthal, “Fashion, Custom, and Culture in Two-Early Modern Illustrated Albums,” in Mores Italiae: Costumi e scene di vita del Rinascimento = Costume and Life in the Renaissance: Yale University, Beinecke Library, MS 457, ed. Maurizio Rippa Bonati and Valeria Finucci (Cittadella (Pd [i.e. Padova]): Biblos, 2007), 79–107.

Did Dress and Fashion Matter in the Poor Neighbourhoods?

In November, during my recent research trip in the state archives of Siena with our researcher Stefania, we decided to take a walk in the Sienese neighbourhood of Onda. This central contrada south from Piazza del Campo, originally called San Salvatore, used to be a popular neighbourhood among Sienese artisans in the Renaissance period. By 1531, nearly two thirds of San Salvatore’s inhabitants consisted of artisans or small local entrepreneurs, including painters, innkeepers, musicians, tailors and mercers to smiths, carpenters, masons, shoemakers, and weavers.

Street view in San Salvatore

One of the inhabitants of San Salvatore was the shoemaker Girolamo di Domenico who lived here in the first half of the sixteenth century with his children and wife Calidonia. His story invites us to think of the harsh economic conditions of many of the lower ranking artisans that we are studying in this ERC project. Tax records tell us that, in 1531, his taxable wealth was a modest 175 lire and the family’s economic circumstances did not improve in the following years. Girolamo died in 1547, leaving behind minor children. While there is no trace of what happened to the family after the shoemaker’s death, we can only hope that Girolamo’s brother Giovanni and someone named Girolamo di Bartolomeo Salvestri, described as Girolamo’s ‘relative’ (parente), both shoemakers, protected the widow and her children from falling into complete poverty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Stefania and I walked along the narrow, twisting streets of San Salvatore, looking at the original architectural features of the buildings that revealed where shops had originally been located, we were wondering whether clothing and fashion mattered on these streets, where many families struggled to provide just the basic living for their families.

While questions of cultural meaning and value in the absence of artisans’ own words are difficult to evaluate with precision, archival evidence, such as household inventories, allow us to access individual’s personal wardrobes and gain knowledge about ownership of clothing at most levels of society.

The shoemaker Girolamo’s inventory was drawn up a few days after his death on 14 September, 1547. The list of clothing that belonged to him and his wife included 26 dress items (pairs of hose, hats, shirts, skirts, jackets, under- and over-dresses and cloaks) that were stored in five chests. This indicates that the shoemaker Girolamo and his wife both had two or three sets of clothes.

Page from Girolamo di Domenicos inventory

Although a fair number of their garments were modest, often described as ‘sad’, ‘old’ or ‘worn out’, the shoemaker Girolamo and his wife Calidonia owned some garments that made it possible for them in special occasions to strip off their work clothes and dress up. The five chests of clothing in Girolamo’s house included relatively fine dress items, such as a white men’s doublet, a pair of black woollen breeches, a woollen cloak and a black satin beret, as well as a pair of black detachable women’s satin sleeves, a woollen cloak and two purple skirts described in the document as ‘fine’.  Furthermore, some of these clothes were decorated and made from fine materials. One of the shoemaker’s wife Calidonia’s purple dress, decorated with a black velvet band and large puffs in the upper part of the sleeve, was made from pavonazzo-coloured cloth.  This purple colour, obtained from valuable kermes dyestuff, was preferred also by patrician men and women, not only because it was expensive, but also because it was also a symbol of power and authority. Pavonazzo became forbidden from lower classes by sumptuary law in Siena in 1588.

Such garments were treasured objects among artisan families and may have been acquired in connection with marriage. Yet, the presence of fine garments such as Girolamo’s white doublet and black woollen cloak, or Calidonia’s satin sleeves and pavonazzo dress demonstrates that Renaissance dress and dressing up mattered at all levels of society, even among the poorer quarters of the city. Everyone wanted to look good in festive occasions and on Sundays at Church!