Italian Academies and their Networks 1525-1700

It was up to historian Simone Testa, currently Research Assistant at Royal Holloway, University of London, to give us this week's cultural talk - with the title 'Italian Academies and their Networks 1525-1700'. The evening was an intriguing mixture of talk and demonstration, as we shall see, whereby Testa combined his detailed talk on the history of the Italian accademia with an ongoing project he is undertaking with the British Library. It was refreshing to see his passion on the topic translated into a pet-project like this, as it showed the real and influential results that tireless scholarship can achieve.

Testa tackled the history of the accademia in a rather original way, engaging on a deep level with what the word really meant to Italians throughout history. He began with the Sienese homme de lettres Scipione Bargagli's definition in 1564 that an academy was 'a reunion of intellectually virtuous men, in view of a useful, honest and friendly competition set up for sharing and acquiring knowledge', and cited earlier writer Poggio Bracciolini as establishing the first Italian academy - the accademia valdarnina - in the guise of informal discussions at his villa in the 1400s. Thus it soon became clear that, while we think of grand buildings and institutions as being true academies today, the sense of 'academy' is inextricable from human interaction and discussion, regardless of place - a mere 'meeting of minds' as it were. In the heyday of academic (in the literal sense) culture, which correspond roughly to the dates used in the lecture's title, every city in Italy would have at least one accademia. Indeed, the influences of such popularity were to be found in common parlance, in phrases such as 'fare accademia' to mean 'congregate' or 'discuss matters'. And yet, by the 1700s, this culture faded away gradually, with later writers such as the nineteenth-century literary critic Francesco de Sanctis denouncing academies for their 'inezie laboriose' ( laborious and trivial matters) and 'materia più volgare' (more vulgar subject matter). More recently, though, Testa revealed how many look back with rose-tinted glasses to the academy culture, with Eugenio Garin lauding their 'reticolo culturale' (cultural network). Which brings us to our speaker's project.

Testa has been working with the British Library on an online database which catalogues all the Italian Academies of the past, as well as their members, publications and histories. To say it is a mammoth task does not quite do it justice. So far Testa and his colleagues have assembled data on 585 academies spanning 44 cities, but he made it clear that there is still much work to be done. He showed us how the catalogue worked, and I was fascinated by the detail of the research, as he showed us the story behind one member of the Sienese Accademia dei gelati, Giovambattista Capponi, who had the nickname of 'l'animoso' ('the spirited one') as well as a personal motto borrowed from Virgil: 'si quid mea carmina possent' ('if only my verses could have the power') and an emblem of a bird beside a barren tree. Such a detailed history as this goes to show the frankly dizzying amount of information to be processed, hence Testa was right to express a great debt to modern technology in this regard, without which a project on such a scale would be completely inconceivable.

Overall, then, Simone Testa opened a window into an intriguing web of writers and institutions that I, along with many others, I suspect, never knew existed. He also showed us what we could learn from these institutions, with their vibrant discussions and encouraging of new ideas, which are always inspirational for us today in a world with immense networks of people once entirely unimaginable to a Renaissance mind.


  1. Dear Patrick, Just a quick note to say that the project is currently halted as we run out of subventions. We are seeking new partners, and new subventions, and possibly we found a place where to migrate the database, the Medici Archive Project in Florence. Simone


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