The antiques market just north of Sant'Ambrogio
Florence, city of mood swings. As the train pulls out and I set off towards Ferrara (hours later than planned, thanks to the Ferrovie dello Stato) I am surprised at how ambivalent I still feel. In the past three days I have been hurled wildly between joy, deep frustration, wonder, irritation, serenity and impatience. True, it hasn’t helped that the Biblioteca Ariostea is calling me and I’m worried about getting there before the final ‘distributione’ today (not knowing what awaits me tomorrow), and that I have been suffering from a delicate stomach since Monday. But that shouldn’t cancel out the obvious beauty and meraviglie
around me, the pleasure of finding some outstanding stuff in the archives and the luxury of staying in a borrowed apartment right in the centre of town, which – incidentally – was oustandingly beautiful itself.
But yesterday evening, as I was given a tour around the I Tatti villa and gardens by the superbissima, eccellentissima Kathryn Bosi – and afterwards as we sat outside a local bar, nibbling excellent antipasti and drinking chilled wine from glasses the size of Eastern Europe – I identified a possible source of my nagging, subclinical discontent.
In all the years I’ve worked and studied in Italy, the closest I’ve ever come to technology – apart from the library OPACs, which are very useful no matter where you are – is the new electronic ordering system at the Archivio di Stato in Mantova, which I encountered for the first time in October. Saying that, though, I still had to work out what to order by looking in catalogues handwritten in the eighteenth century. In Modena and Ferrara, Parma and Mantova, the libraries and archives retain an air of the past – they are housed in old palazzi, there is a sense that, when you order a book or a busta, the archivists go and find them on the same bookshelves they have been on for centuries, the armadi still stamped with the roman numerals that gave rise to the original catalogue numbers. And because of this – rightly or wrongly – it doesn’t feel difficult to connect with the documents’ histories, as the buildings and processes give you a continuity with the past.
Le Murate, modernised.
The Archivio di Stato in Florence, however, is in a large modern building with Pompidou-like external staircases, and the reading room is a masterpiece of contemporary, IKEA-like design, with little offices around the side, partitioned not by walls but by tinted glass. The catalogues aren’t falling out of decrepit bindings, the light in the separate reference room is harsh, it’s all clean, efficient, and ever so slightly soulless by comparison to the archivi emiliani
. And while American money is clearly responsible for so much that is good in the preservation of priceless art and artefacts in Florence, it seemed to me that there, in the archives, the process was dragging the past into the present rather than enabling the present to reach into the past. And if you visit the convent of the Murate, there is a visible manifestation of this in the way they have converted the cells into apartments.
Although I was dismayed at the loss, when the British Library moved, of the spectacular Reading Room, and elite intimacy of the North Library (oh, the delightful frisson of unexpectedly meeting eyes – and minds – with a scholarly innamorato amongst the brass fittings, tinted lampshades and ancient wooden reading cubicles), the new rooms at Euston at least retain something of the old magic, with the open access books still there in Rare Books and Music, and the curiously antique, dimmed feel of Manuscript Room. But the Sala di Consultatione at ASF has all the charm of a corporate hot-desking office, or an unusually, preternaturally quiet call-centre. Not that I get up to flirtatious academic assignations these days, modern matron that I am, but a little air of romantic and serendipitous possibility makes the archive angel happy.
What brought this train of thought into focus was the slightly wistful look on Kathryn’s face, as she led me through the newly fitted music library at I Tatti, which although very classy, smart and undoubtedly easy to use, has the same appearance of air-conditioned efficiency, effortlessly sliding drawers of CDs and adjustable shelves instead of baroque haphazardness. And as I thought later about the buzz in the library world being all towards digital delivery here, databasing there – making her redoubtable skills as a collector, gathering materials together and putting them in one place, seem imminently imperilled – my mind skitted back to last week’s visit to the Warburg Institute Library. There it is all open access, a lovingly, generously assembled resource with obscure (but essential) essay collections cheek-by-jowl with eighteenth-century reference books. When seemingly disconnected materials are brought together, that’s when serendipity happens. The researcher’s eye can’t be caught by information stored in a database; Google only works according to search terms, and you have to know what you’re looking for before you find it.
Yes, digitize; it’s essential for all sorts of reasons. Yes, catalogue; we can’t do our job without it. Yes, tidy and organize, but think very hard about anything you might throw away, not just in terms of material but in terms of ethos. Time and motion studies, cost-benefit analyses might not show the whole picture.
But with what seems like an underlying aim to make scholarship more efficient (and therefore even more end-driven, rather than means-guided) two new features of Americo-Florentine academia give me hope. First, that there is money to provide a few students per year six months of reading time. Come to Florence and read. Don’t write, read. What a good idea! Then there are the short-term fellowships for mothers, finally, finally, recognising that women with young families can’t just up sticks for a year, leaving captious and needy children behind in the care of bewildered husbands and grandparents, or make their spouses (who still probably earn more than they do) take unpaid leave from their jobs for a year. The powers that be at I Tatti should be congratulated for their foresight and generosity, and for their plain common sense. Students that read, women that can compromise. Bravissimi!
And now, here I am in Ferrara, and two hours before closing time in the Ariostea. Gloriously unmechanised, wooden-drawered, hand-written (with a nibbed pen) card catalogues, dead dude (Ariosto) in the corner, rare books in lattice-doored shelves, stepladders, and portraits of countless cardinals. But…and…free wifi and a place to plug in my computer. Ah, it’s great to be back.