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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.

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 the database on Stefania’s project page.