Author Footnotes with Christopher Carlsmith

Archival research can be a daunting and tedious process but it does offer memorable and sometimes unexpected rewards. In the course of conducting research for what would eventually become my first book, I visited more than two dozen archives and libraries across Italy. From a tiny, windowless parish archive in an isolated valley to the major ecclesiastical and state repositories of Italy’s largest cities, each archive (and archivist) revealed an individual personality. The stories of teachers, students, and educational institutions recounted in my book A Renaissance Education: Schooling in Bergamo and the Venetian Republic were always drawn from the manuscripts and printed materials stored in these document treasure chambers, many of which I would never have been able to decipher without the generosity and patience of both staff and other scholars working alongside me.

My first archival epiphany occurred after several months of painstakingly scouring city council records in the northern Italian town of Bergamo. I had learned to skim the marginal notations and headers of each entry for keywords like scolasticus, magister, or scuola, and to decipher whether the entry referred to a teachers’ contract, a scholarship payment, or other matters related to public schooling. On this particular day, I read about a bitter debate among the city council members concerning whether the Jesuits should be admitted as schoolmasters to teach in the city’s public school. The dutiful scribe had recorded the date and location of the meeting as he often did; suddenly I realized that the entry I was reading had been recorded on the same day and in the same room exactly 400 years before. This connection between past and present had never seemed quite so authentic or so tangible before, and it helped me to realize just how it important it was to be conscious of the physical surroundings where history occurs.

In the early summer of that same year I was working in the parish archive of S. Alessandro in Colonna in Bergamo, in order to understand how a small and underfunded parish had trained both lay boys and future priests for their respective careers during and after the Council of Trent (1545-63). The archive was open only two mornings per week, so I was furiously transcribing the relevant minutes of the parish council, preserved in a series of folio volumes of 400-500 pages each, and protected by a heavy leather cover. After two weeks, the elderly archivist greeted me one morning with the news that he would soon be commencing his summer vacation in the mountains, and that as there was no one to replace him the archive would remain closed until September. My face fell visibly at this news, for I knew that I would not be able to complete my research. Seeing my distress, the archivist asked if it would be helpful to “borrow” the volumes that I had been studying. I stuttered a hesitant “yes”, to which he promptly replied by producing four enormous shopping bags and showing me how I could load three volumes per bag. Five minutes later I found myself standing at the bus stop with a dozen sixteenth-century volumes in my bags, while the archivist cheerful bade me a buona lettura (happy reading) and drove his tiny Fiat off to the Italian Alps. Stunned at my good fortune, I shepherded the volumes to my apartment and devoted nearly two weeks of full-time work to analyze their contents.

This willingness to allow free access to precious, even irreplaceable archival material was echoed during a subsequent visit to the headquarters of the Somaschan religious order in Genoa. The Somaschan fathers had generously invited me to stay in a guest room located within their building so that I did not have to find a hotel. When the archivist showed me to my room, he pointed out that the archive was across the hall. Not only that, but the same key opened both doors, and therefore I was free to come and go as I pleased. It was a researcher’s dream come true to browse through materials at will and to integrate the writing and the research of the chapter as the sources dictated. I remained a guest there for a week, although I confess that I saw very little of the city of Genoa, instead remaining a topo di biblioteca (library mouse) until my departure. Not only were the archival sources of the order available to me (e.g., sixteenth-century correspondence, minutes from annual meetings, hagiographical accounts) but also theses and unpublished material produced by the order’s own scholars in previous decades were freely available for consultation. Although such secondary material bears its own bias and can never substitute for the primary sources, the accounts penned by men within the order also betray a rich and intimate understanding of their predecessors that was precious to me. The chapter in my book that compares the educational efforts of the Somaschans and the Jesuits would never have been written without this extraordinary week in Genoa.

One of the most memorable experiences occurred in the Episcopal Archive of Bergamo. For nearly a year I had been searching for a folder of papers that described the founding and management of a small residential school with a Classical curriculum and humanist teachers, known as the Caspi Academy. An early twentieth-century article had quoted from this faldone, but it had apparently been misfiled in the intervening century and remained lost. The archivist and I discussed this missing set of papers every few weeks, and he had done a good deal of poking around but to no avail. On the morning of my departure to the United States I had stopped by to wish him farewell; suddenly he burst out of the back room clutching a sheaf of yellowed documents and shouting “Eureka” at the top of his voice. A hurried consultation revealed that he had indeed found the missing file. He graciously promised to xerox the entire file, and to save it until my return the following summer; that fortuitous find became the basis of an entire chapter of my book.
Nearly every archive that contributed material to my book demonstrated this kind of generosity at one point or another. It was not all smooth sailing, of course. Sometimes a missing file would just stay missing; at other times a local scholar would declare that a certain topic or fondo (archive) was off-limits to anyone else. The Jesuit central archive in Rome was a masterpiece of organization-but all the indices, instructions, and other finding aids were in Latin!

Christopher Carlsmith is the author of A Renaissance Education: Schooling in Bergamo and the Venetian Republic.