Often playful, sometimes controversial and always intellectually curious, the Italian Academies played a highly influential role in early modern culture across the peninsula - and beyond. Between 1525 and 1700 they numbered around 600, located in almost every town in Italy. These lively social associations — far less formal than universities, rather more structured than salons — regularly convened for intellectual and cultural discussions. Some specialised in a particular discipline, while others took a broader approach; all were deeply involved in the dissemination of ideas, both orally and through writings in manuscript and print.
Their individual achievements remain well known: the first comprehensive Italian dictionary produced by the Accademia della Crusca, for example; the publication of Galileo’s work on sunspots by the Accademia dei Lincei. And yet it seems that there has been relatively little academic enquiry into Academies as a whole. “Work has been done on individual Academies in Italy, but this tends to be on a regional or local basis,” explains Professor Jane Everson, specialist in early modern Italian literature and culture. “You don’t get a sense of the importance of this cultural phenomenon, or the way in which the Italian academies were acting as an inspiration and model to other countries in Europe.”
This was the motivation behind the AHRC-funded project ‘The Italian Academies 1525–1700: The first intellectual networks of early modern Europe’, a collaboration between Royal Holloway University of London, the University of Reading and the British Library. Everson oversaw the creation of a comprehensive catalogue of the books deposited at the British Library published by some 400 Italian Academies. The result is an online database of information that brings together Academies from across the Italian peninsula; the first electronic resource of its kind.
“The British Library holding is one of the largest of Italian printed material in the world, so that gave us a wide and representative collection to work on,” says Everson. Accessibility and ease of use were key concerns when building the database, which includes details of individual Academies’ membership and publications. “A standard library catalogue will give you only about a fifth of the material available, because they don’t always record the involvement of the Academies. This database allows you to get to the other four-fifths, because it’s articulated around about 30 different keywords. It’s a shortcut to the material,” Everson explains.
The database also includes a range of digitised images. “Having illustrations, colophon designs, title pages, marginalia and annotations has really opened up the project and generated a lot of interest,” says Denis Reidy, Head of the Italian and Modern Greek Collections at the British Library, who has been involved with the project from the outset. “We’ve got images of all sorts of disparate subjects, including works by foreign artists working in Italy at the time.”
One of the challenges for the team was definition: what, after all, separates an Academy from a regular social gathering? “Our starting point was that an Academy was a group with some form of constitution - a sense of control, to a certain extent, and formal regulation of the group,” reveals Dr Lisa Sampson, a key member of the project team. “There would have been certain rituals and functions, and they would have had officials with specific duties, as well as rules and penalties.”
Several academies, Dr Sampson reveals, explicitly banned the admission of women. However, the database has thrown new light on the issue of female participation. “On the face of it, there seemed to have been very few women involved; until recently, only around nine women were thought to have been formally admitted to Academies,” says Dr Sampson. “However, the database has revealed significant instances of Academies that were particularly open to women, especially in the later 17th century, such as the Ricovrati of Padua, which had over 20 female members, including the very first woman to gain a university degree, Elena Lucrezia Corner Piscopia. She was also a member of five other Academies. There was an entirely female Academy in Siena, the 'Assicurate' (‘The Assured’). The database currently lists over 100 entries under the search term 'female', including patrons, artists, writers and performers.” The team also discovered two highly skilled female engravers, previously unknown to art historians, who illustrated Academy publications in the seventeenth century.
A particularly distinctive feature of the Academies was their names, and the nicknames sometimes adopted by members. This nomenclature was often punning to the point of comic: in Siena, one of the Academies was called ‘Intronati’ (‘The Dazed’), with members including ‘Stordito' (‘The Stunned’) and ‘Il Largo’ (‘The Portly’). “Because of these humorous names, Academies have suffered in the past from a bad press; the idea that they were frivolous and not very serious,” says Professor Everson. “This is a terrible misapprehension. As we compiled the database, what struck all of us is how the Academies functioned as intellectual networks – everybody who was anybody felt that they needed to be plugged into them. If you moved to a new city, you immediately connected with one of the Academies there. That was true also of visitors to Italy: Milton famously made a beeline to the Academies. This was where the intellectual world lay.”
Covering major Italian cities and regions, the database is now a springboard for different strands of research. “The project has increased awareness not only of the Italian Academies, but also of the networks involved: how books were published and academicians contacted each other. The Academies were able to cross-fertilise ideas,” points out Reidy. By creating this globally accessible electronic resource and organising a range of activities around it, from conferences and workshops to research publications, Professor Everson and the team have also, in a sense, established a modern intellectual network. “We recorded all the workshops and made them available on our website as podcasts, so they’re accessible to all. We’ve come into contact with scholars from around the world who have been conducting Academy-related work on their own; they’ve now been drawn into an international network,” she says. “In all of this, the human dimension is so important.”
Article by Hannah Davies