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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.

Datini Conference 2018: “Maritime Networks as a Factor of European Integration” (13-17 May 2018)

Official panel of the Settimana at the City Hall

In May I had the possibility to participate to the 2018 Datini conference, or “Settimana”, in Prato. The theme of the conference – which is named after a 14th century merchant Francesco Datini, and celebrated its 50th anniversary – was “Maritime Networks as a Factor of European Integration”. The aim was to promote comparative analysis and to go beyond the isolated study of single economic systems, and understand the integrative role played by maritime connections around Europe and the Mediterranean, taking Fernand Braudel’s concept of Méditerranée as a starting point.

Official opening of the Settimana at the City Hall.

My paper, titled All roads lead to Venice. The role of public navigation in the Renaissance, discussed the system of trade which Venice developed from 13th century onwards, and which was based on the integration of private and public navies. This integrated system, which reached its apogee during the 15th century, helped Venice to become one of the main gateways for the long-distance trade between Asia and Europe during the medieval and early modern period. Thanks to the severaltrade routes that crossed the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean, Venetian merchants were able to import oriental spices, expensive textiles, and other Asiatic goods to Venice and Europe. Equally, European manufactured goods were exported to the Middle Eastern ports, where they were transported to continental Asia.

Beside all the academic events, the conference is also a meeting point for European economic historians, and offers the possibility to attend social events, such as concerts and dinners. An interesting side note is that in 2020 the focus of the conference will be “Fashion as an economic engine: process and product innovation, commercial strategies, consumer behaviour”. 

 

Research Trip to Milan, May 2018

Michele Robinson

Before meeting up with the rest of the Refashioning the Renaissance team for our Italian study trip in May, I visited Milan to do some research on the print and visual culture related to fashion and dress. The city is of course known as hugely important in the world of fashion today, but it’s also the site of many sources related to fashion in the past. Of interest to me was the collection of early modern prints at the Raccolta delle Stampe ‘Achille Bertarelli’ in Castello Sforzesco and in particular their copy of Enea Vico’s Diversarum gentium nostræ ætatis habitus (Venice, 1558).

Title page from Enea Vico, Diversarum gentium nostræ ætatis habitus (Venice, 1558), Raccolta delle Stampe ‘Achille Bertarelli’, Castello Sforzesco, Milan.

This work is considered by some scholars to be the first printed costume book, and it survives in just a few collections in Europe and the United States.[1] The version in Milan shows 32 men and women from different parts of Europe and western Asia with detailed depictions of their clothing and shoes. Many of the figures that we find in later costume books are very similar to those featured in Vico’s Diversarum.[2] There is also a relationship with Vico’s work the figures in friendship books, which started prior to the production of costume books, as we can see through the comparison of the images below.[3]

‘Militis Germani Uxor’ from Enea Vico, Diversarum gentium nostræ ætatis habitus (Venice, 1558) (Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

‘Tedesche del campo’ from Bartolomeo Grassi, Dei veri ritratti degl’habiti di tutte le parti del mondo, intagliati in rame: libro primo …(Rome: [Bartolomeo Grassi, 1585]), p. 43. Warburg Institute, London.

Detail from Album amicorum of Nic. Engelhardi Argentin, 1601–1700. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

It was so valuable to see Vico’s small, beautiful book in person as well as to have the chance to meet the wonderful staff at the Raccolta Bertarelli and work in such a beautiful and historic place!

View of the reading room at the Raccolta Bertarelli in Castello Sforzesco, Milan.

During my stay in Milan I also went to the exhibition Dürer and the Renaissance between Germany and Italy at Palazzo Reale (21 February to 24 June 2018). This was a wonderful display of many famous and lesser known prints, watercolours and paintings by the German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), and others working in Italy, the Netherlands and Germany. The exhibition did an excellent job of showing how Dürer influenced so many other artists, but also how important his visits to Italy (1494–95 and 1505–06), especially to Venice, were to his work. One of the most beautiful, and famous, paintings on display was Dürer’s Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman(1505). Although this work was created before the timeline for the Refashioning the Renaissance project begins, it offers us an incredible view of a Venetian woman’s clothing from the early-sixteenth century. For example, we can see the fine embroidery on her hair net and sleeves, the bows tied on the silk ribbons on her shoulders and the soft folds in the full sleeves of her gown.

Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman, 1505. Oil on panel, 35 x 26 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

At this time, portraits with a three-quarter view of the sitter were more common in Northern Europe and Dürer and other artists helped to introduce this format to Southern Europe; however, Dürer was also inspired by the work of Italian artists. For example, he created his own designs after Leonardo da Vinci’s famous series of knots. These are beautiful and intricate works in their own right and show one of the ways in which exotic designs spread throughout Europe via print culture. But Dürer’s engravings also relate to the Refashioning the Renaissance project in that they were influential on patterns for embroidery. For instance, Giovanni Antonio Tagliente’s early embroidery pattern book, Essempio di recammi(1530) boasts the inclusion of exotic patterns, such as ‘moresques’.[4] Though not based directly on da Vinci or Dürer’s works, books like Tagliente’s show how print helped to popularise these kinds of designs, and to make them accessible them to non-elite Europeans. For instance, the wives of artisans could use the patterns in these kinds of books to embroider gloves, handkerchiefs or parts of their clothing to make themselves and their family members more fashionable without breaking the bank.

Circle of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), The Fifth Knot. Knot design, with a central shield inscribed ‘Academia Leonardi Vin’, ca. 1490-1500. Engraving, 29.8 × 21.2 cm. British Museum, London.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) (After Leonardo da Vinci or workshop), The Fifth Knot. Interlaced Roundel with Seven Six-pointed Stars, before 1521. Woodcut, 27.3 x 20.8 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Giovanni Antonio Tagliente, Essempio di recammi(Giovanni Antonio di Nicolini da Sabio e i fratelli: Venice, 1530).Woodcut, 19.8 x 15.7 x 1 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The few days that I spent in Milan were full but rewarding. I had the chance to see some beautiful and important printed sources, meet some wonderful archivists and get to know an amazing city. I hope to return to Milan soon to make more of the great resources on offer to researchers interested in the history of fashion and dress.


[1] See, for example, Bronwen Wilson, “Reproducing the Contours of Venetian Identity in Sixteenth-Century Costume Books,” Studies in Iconography25 (2004): 221–74.

[2] For more on the visual similarities between sixteenth-century costume books, see Jo Anne Olian, “Sixteenth-Century Costume Books,” Dress3, no. 1 (January 1, 1977): 20–47.

[3] For more on the relationship between friendship books and costume books, see: 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.

[4] For more on these ideas, see Femke Speelberg, “Fashion & Virtue: Textile Patterns and the Print Revolution, 1520–1620,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin73, no. 2 (2015): 4–48.