Skip to content

In The Archive

Last Friday I posted the picture above on Instagram of a document I was working with in the archive. I was pleasantly surprised at how much interest it generated. I received a bunch of questions and emails asking about what exactly it is I do in the archive (you can read more about what it’s like to be a PhD student here). So I thought it would be fun to share a little more about historical research and my project (don’t worry I won’t bore you with too many details!).

As I am sure you know, Historians rely mostly on primary sources to (attempt to) make sense of the chaos that is the past. What is a primary source? Well it can be a written document, image, or object from the time period of study. This is why I have to spend time in Italy, so that I can access the documents of the time period I study, which is 17th-18th century Tuscany under the Medici Grand Dukes and Duchesses.
Fortunately, Florence (which was its own principality/state until the unification of Italy in the 19th century) has always been good at bureaucratic record keeping, which means there are a ton of documents pertaining to the Medici housed in the State Archive. You can find everything from their financial receipts, to inventories, to millions of personal and political correspondences. 
My research centers on the scientific and medical culture of the Medici court. The Medici Grand Dukes and Duchesses were really into all things science (they patronized Galileo and he in turned named the four moons of Jupiter after them). In particular, I am researching the last Medici Princess’s participation in this scientific culture at court. To do this, I look at lots of different kinds of documents in the archive in an attempt to reconstruct her activities and motivations — her financial records, medical recipes she collected, her correspondence, and the inventories of the Medici court pharmacy (pictured above).
Over the course of my research I have discovered all sorts of interesting medicinal remedies that she either used, collected, or disseminated. Everything from pulverized human skull, to unicorn horn (probably rhinoceros horn), to St. Ignatius beans (a.k.a. strychnine). I am not going to lie, being in the archive is an incredible feeling — kind of like Indiana Jones, but with less whips and running.
If this is something that piques your interest, you are in luck. The Medici Archive Project is a research institute whose mission is to build a searchable electronic database of each document in what is one of the world’s most exhaustive and complete archives: the Medici Granducal Archival Collection. This archival collection contains over four-million letters and occupies a mile of shelf space in the state archive of Florence (it is so big, it will take decades to digitize). It documents the political, diplomatic, gastronomic, economic, artistic, scientific, military and medical culture of early modern Europe. And you can have access to it (history nerds rejoice)!
Simply go to their website here. You will see a link in the top right of the screen to their online database called BIA. You will have to request a username, but once you receive an email with your log-in information you can start exploring the documents (which range in date from 1537 to 1743). You can search and read the documents in English, so don’t be intimidated. 
Hopefully that wasn’t too boring!
PS – Can you read what animal was stuffed and displayed in the Medici pharmacy in the document above?