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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Like many kinds of historical documents, post-mortem inventories from the early modern period might at first sight be taken for handy repositories of straightforward facts.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.


Director’s greetings: What have we been up to?

In June 2019, out team gathered in Copenhagen for our second ‘milestone’ meeting, where we reviewed our past results and made both short-term and long-term goals.  This meeting represented a moment of great joy and pride. Our team members have been working extremely hard, and I could all really see how much we have achieved during the past 1,5 years. 

So what have we been up to?

During the first year of our research in 2018, we all focused on identifying and gathering data. This phase is now complete and we have achieved two very important milestones. The first one of these is that the archival research, headed by our research fellow Stefania Montemezzo and produced in collaboration with our PhD student Anne-Kristine Sinvald Larsen, myself, and our research assistants Mattia Viale and Umberto Signori, is now complete and the data is ready to be uploaded on our brand new database. This database, created in collaboration with Jodie Cox from Wildside, will include clothing and textile items that belonged to ordinary families in the early modern period, and it will be the biggest early modern textile and clothing database created so far. It includes altogether nearly 30.000 items from Italy (Siena, Florence, Venice) and a further several thousand items from Denmark (Helsingør). This data will provide and important basis for our analysis, both in terms of our publications as well as our hands-on experiments, and the database will be eventually available online for anyone to use.

Refashioning the Renaissance database. Image copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

The second important milestone is that our data on printed sources, headed by our postdoc researcher Michele Robinson, is also complete. Michele has been focusing especially on collecting cheap printed recipes that were intended for consumers at the lower end of social scale, and especially those that have to do with the care of textiles and clothing in the domestic context, such as mending, cleaning and dyeing at home. This data provides an important foundation for some of our experiments where we explore and evaluate the meaning of both the recipes and some of the domestic textile practices that might have been available for our artisans and shopkeepers.

Book of Secret in the Welcome Collection. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Dirty Laundry workshop, where we tested recipes from the printed sources Michele Robinson has collected. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

During our second year, in 2019, we have moved on from exclusive focus on data to explore and analyse how various experiments, reconstruction and engagement with materials and textile objects can help us to better understand and access past practices. We have organized workshops on domestic dyeing and tailoring, and we have two further workshops on colour and imitation coming up. We have also been running our citizen science project where we experiment with early modern knitting, and we are growing dye plants in our green house. In addition, we have participated in several courses where we have learned about how historical recipes could be used in textile dyeing; how silk-, linen- and woolen-fibres were prepared in the early modern period; how tailors worked, and how both  precious and more ordinary fabrics and trims were woven in the early modern period.

One of our exciting projects is the reconstruction of an artisan’s doublet, headed by our second postdoc Sophie Pitman and created in collaboration with Jenny Tiramani and the School of Historical Dress. This experimental project allows us to explore all stages of doublet production, such as creating finished fibre from raw material, weaving, dyeing , and making and wearing the garment. We are also working with an animator Maarit Kalmakurki to produce a 3D reconstruction of our doublet. This research will eventually form one of the most important ways for us to analyse how digital and material reconstruction can be used as a method in cultural studies of dress. 


Fibre Analysis of the 17th century stockings from Turku Cathedral. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Stain removal test at the Dirty Laundry workshop. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Sophie Pitman reeling silk in Calabria. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Refashioning team learning to spin in Trelleborgen Viking Museum. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

The results of our project will be presented in our final conference and exhibition at Aalto University, Helsinki, on 11-13 September 2020. More information will follow soon, but do not forget to reserve those dates in your calendar!

How can we gain access to the hidden meanings and complexities that lie behind historical objects and documents?

The first Refashioning the Renaissance workshop in London, 2-4 October 2018

How can we use written sources, extant objects, and historical hands-on experimentation, to gain access to the meanings and complexities that lie behind historical objects and documents?

This was one of the main questions that our team discussed at length when we gathered together in London in October for a two-day workshop, organized by our postdoc researcher Michele Robinson. During the two days, we not only looked at our documentary sources, including sixteenth century account books and inventories, discussing how we can best combine quantification with qualitative research. We also thought about how we can connect our documentary data with surviving objects, such as cheap printed recipe books, knitted pullovers and linen undergarments, and use these as a basis for our forthcoming material experimentation and scientific analysis. Therefore, one of the important questions we asked in this session was, what can we actually learn by simply looking at and touching material objects, such as such as sixteenth-century printed advice manuals or a pair of early seventeenth century sailor’s breeches?

Because we are very interested in cheap early modern printed manuals that provided advice on a range of topics, from how to throw a dinner party to how to dye one’s beard black, the Wellcome Collection in London was a perfect place to start. The Institute holds a notable collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century printed books, including books of secret that contain recipes.

One of the books that we studied was Opera nuova nella quale troverai molti bellissimi secreti, a collection of cheap pamphlets from Venice from about 1540s. Although these small leaflets are now bound together as a book, cheap instructive pamphlets were originally sold individually by street peddlers and book sellers at a low price, and these were, as we can see in the picture below, of different size. The low cost and status of such pamphlets meant that such recipes and instructions were, at least in theory, easily available for our artisans and shopkeepers.

Turning the fragile pages of this simple book revealed small details of tear and wear, and demonstrated that small hand-written inscriptions and notes had been added on the margins of the pages. Although we do not know how books of secret were originally used, this gave a sense that at least some people, at some point in history of these pamphlets, has tested and used these particular recipes. 

On the second day of our workshop, we had the opportunity to spend an afternoon at the Museum of London storeroom together with the curator Timothy Long, and to engage closely with some extant, less-affluent historical garments from their collections. This allowed us to study in close detail, for example, how a simple sixteenth-century sleeve was constructed, in what way a cap was knitted, lined and fulled, and how a sailor mended his own clothes and marked his breeches with initials or his personal sign. It is sometimes touching to see patched modest garments, and to think about how our artisans and shopkeepers, some of which were relatively poor, may have worn, made and mended these garments, treasured these for their monetary value or beauty, or handed them down as bequests in their wills.

Curator Timothy Long presenting some of the early modern textile objects in the Museum of London collection.

What made these two days very special was that Professor John Styles, who is a member of our advisory board, joined us for the entire two days, and shared his experience and valuable insights about how to combine documentary research with object-based analysis and hands-on experimentation. We were also accompanied, for the first time, by our new postdoc researcher Sophie Pitman. Sophie has been working on historical reconstruction in the Making and Knowing project at Columbia University in New York, and she will lead the experimental part of our team work from January onwards.

John Styles and Michele Robinson.

Sophie Pitman, Mattia Viale, and Stefania Montemezzo.

The two day-workshop was extremely important for our project, because it provided us with some new in-depth insights and inspiration about how we at the Refashioning the Renaissance project can approach documentary sources alongside historical objects, and use them as a basis for material and digital reconstruction and hands-on experiments, which we will start in January 2019.

Our deep interest in the analysis and reconstruction of materials, techniques and objects, alongside visual and documentary sources, connects our work with the research tradition developed in several other international research centres and projects, such as the Netherlands-based ERC-funded project ARTECHNE, led by Sven Dupré, the Making and Knowing Project in Columbia, led by Pamela Smith, the Centre for British Art in Yale, led by Amy Meyers, and the Renaissance Skin Project, led by Evelyn Welch, all of which work, in different ways, at the intersection of craft, art and design history, and history. Our intention is to continue our work within this tradition, and to think about how we can further develop this historical approach by connecting historical experimentation with digital reconstruction. This framework, we hope, will allow to establish a set of new methodologies in material culture history studies that allows us to gain better access to the skills, sophistication and hidden meanings that were involved with objects, materials and techniques in this period.