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The Past is Chaos

I will never forget the first time I heard my advisor state, “the past is chaos.” It was during the first class of my master’s program. A program that week after week rocked my world and challenged me to rethink everything I thought I knew about history.

At the time, I thought I understood what she meant. I had never thought about the difference between the past and history, much less that there was one. That simple sentence, however, perfectly summed up the difference between the innumerable people, places, events, actions, thoughts, experiences and emotions of the past and the narratives historians construct. Looking back now, I understood the theory, but it wasn’t until I spent a year researching in the archive of Florence that I could grasp the reality of that statement.

As I continue to unpack, I am confronted by the chaos of information I collected over the year. I am overwhelmed by letters, inventories, financial receipts, recipes, and travel narratives – thousands of bits of information with no intrinsic narrative. It is chaos, and over the course of this year, I have to transform that chaos into a dissertation/book. Right now, the thought of that freaks me out. But, I know I need to overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed and intimidated by such a big project and just get to work (easier said than done, of course).

So what kind of narrative am I hoping to write? My goal with this project is to rethink and rewrite the story of the late Medici dynasty through the lens of medicine and natural history. Previous histories on the Medici family have adhered to a narrative of decline. This narrative began with late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century British historians. Basically these historians championed the rise of the Medici beginning with the family’s early bankers/merchants Cosimo il Vecchio and Lorenzo Magnifico. Following the family’s economic rise, they solidified their political influence with the election of two popes and establishing formal rule over Florence as dukes (and later Grand Dukes). A century and a half later, however, this narrative changes from one of wealth, power, influence, and innovation to one of gluttony, stagnation, bigotry, and decay.

If only life and history were that simple and conformed to such uncomplicated dichotomies. Hopefully, my archival-based research can shed some new light on this later period and reveal a more nuanced understanding the late Medici court.

So, here goes nothing!