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Medici Archive Project
Medici Archive Project
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Reviewed by:
Mack P. Holt
George Mason University
August 2003

The creators of this site have undertaken one of the most ambitious online archive projects imaginable—to put on the web the complete papers of the Medici family during their period as Grand Dukes of Tuscany (1537-1743). These papers, comprising nearly three million letters in 6,429 volumes in the Archivio di Stato in Florence, have never been cataloged or indexed. While scholars and specialists have long had access to them, the lack of organization has meant they have been severely underused. The Medici Archive Project is making these resources available, and searchable, to students and scholars everywhere. The downside of the project is that transcribing and digitizing more than three million documents is very slow, costly, and labor intensive. To date, only a small percentage of the entire collection is available online, a sample to whet our appetites for better things to come. Thus, while all websites are to some degree works in progress, this one is more literally so by design.

What is currently available, however, is still impressive enough to warrant review. First, there is plenty of introductory information about the Medicis and their ducal court to situate and contextualize the collection for novice users. It was grand Duke Cosimo I—descendant of his more famous namesake of a century earlier—who started the archive in 1569. The site makes it very clear that most of the kings, emperors, and popes as well as many of the best known writers, painters, and musicians of early modern Europe passed through Florence at some stage. Political and courtly life is thus documented to a degree like no other European court of the period. These materials offer a unique panorama into European politics and courtly life of the period.

The heart of the site is a searchable database of the sample of documents currently available. The entire database can be searched by word, topic, place, date, and person. When searching by word or topic, what you get is a passage of about 250 words in the original Tuscan (the forerunner of modern Italian), as well as a summary in English. The database is searchable in both English and Italian and the entire sample is also indexed in English and Italian.

There are a few quirks in all this user-friendliness, however. For example, when searching the database for the word “vino,” you get 83 hits. When searching for its English equivalent “wine,” however, you get more than 100 hits. The reason for this discrepancy is not clear, though it does appear that named varieties of wine in Italian are simply translated as “wine” in English. Nevertheless, even with this small sample available—and it’s impossible to know at any given moment how large the sample is—the Medici Archive is a treasure of primary sources for the student or teacher interested in learning more about European courtly life, war, diplomacy, and the running of a Renaissance or Baroque state.

As an added bonus, there are two document collections taken from the overall sample database. One, titled “Jewish History, Religion, and Culture,” is a legacy of the large Jewish population in Florence during the period. Duke Cosimo I appointed a commission to institute a Jewish ghetto in Florence in 1570-71, and the documents from the database on Jewish life is already impressive. A second collection is titled “History of Costume and Textiles.” Because much of Florence’s wealth came form textiles, it is not surprising that the Grand Dukes would be very interested in this industry. Thus both of these source collections, subsets of the overall database, provide opportunities for a great deal of social history research. This site, even with only its sample database online, is a useful place to do digital research on early modern Florence. But stay tuned, slated for completion in 2030, it’s only going to get better.

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A project of the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University,
with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation
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