Justine Walden: The Wealth of Early Modern Italian Letters

Italians wrote more letters than any other early modern group: against a backdrop of merchant letters from the 13th and 14th centuries and letters exchanged between humanists and literary figures in in the 15th, collections of printed vernacular letters poured from Venetian presses in the 16th.  A vast quantity of letters was exchanged between doctors, astronomers, physicists, literary figures and musicians in 16th-century Italy, and intersecting with this outflow were courtly, facetious, and scientific letters from academicians; circulars describing natural and ethnographic phenomena written by Jesuits; advisory letters written by traveling diplomats, and spiritual letters written by religious figures. Many of these letters were widely copied, circulated, published and republished. Yet records of early modern Italian correspondence and the letters themselves, however, can be difficult to locate, in part because the letters are dispersed across so many different repositories and in part because of the wide diversity of types of finding aids and inventories (e.g., .pdf, handwritten, typewritten, and online inventories and data sources).


An Early Modern Italian Letters Census


This short-term scientific mission (STSM) consisted of canvassing early modern Italian letters sources with an eye to the requirements of a more comprehensive census. The project consisted of forays into Italian archives and a residence in Oxford so as to understand EMLO data requirements. The project confronted challenges both technological and prosopographic. On the technical side, there were issues of undigitized catalogues and integrating diverse data sources and bibliographic formats. On the prosopographic, basic biographical metadata was collected for several hundred letter-writers to ascertain whether they fell within EMLO’s temporal remit. Other challenges included the problem of duplicate records, database organization, and questions of translation.



The STSM resulted in two projects: 1) a report to help future researchers find early modern Italian letters and 2) a database of Early Modern Italian Letters, or EMIL, which contains information on 128 letters repositories, metadata on 4,700 early modern Italian letters sources, and metadata on 2,700 individual letters. Database categories consist of the name of the letter-writer, their biographical metadata and profession, the name of the archive and shelfmark and a link to the source where possible, whether the source is in manuscript or print format, whether it is early modern or modern, whether it is in catalogue or item format, and where applicable, notes on the size of the letters collection or other factors.