The Medici were one of the most influential families in early modern Europe; for two centuries, they ruled Tuscany as sovereign Dukes and Grand Dukes. Their epistolary archive, the Mediceo del Principato, has survived virtually intact, offering the most complete record of any princely regime of the period. This collection comprises more than 6500 volumes, containing circa four million letters: the first was written in 1537, at around the same time Michelangelo was coming to terms with the composition of the Last Judgment; the last missive arrived at the Medici court in 1743, the year Thomas Jefferson was born.
An important distinction should be made. Though part of the same family, the Medici Grand Dukes belong to a different branch than the Medici who flourished as merchant bankers in the fifteenth century. They too produced a corpus of letters, albeit much smaller, both in breadth and depth, than the one left to us by the Grand Ducal dynasty. However, unlike this archival collection, the Mediceo del Principato is the handwritten record of over two hundred years of governmental and diplomatic activity. Cosimo I, the first Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany (ruled 1537-74), was the founder of this archive. During his administration, he deployed a cadre of executive secretaries who kept the meticulous records that were essential to governance. These officials adapted their roles to the exigencies of the moment, trading assignments back and forth in order to ensure that from the beginning, every major or minor executive decision was duly noted, every incoming letter saved, and every outgoing letter copied for the files.
These letters reveal the thick network of diplomacy during a period of time marked by great religious and political tensions. Precious and copious light is shed on all events that changed the course of European history: the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent, the Thirty-Years War, the rising hostility between the Holy League and the Ottoman empire, the Colonization of the New World, and, in general, all Papal conclaves. There are also detailed, quasi-journalistic reports on battles, massacres, rebellions, military coups, and extraordinary assassinations. The roster of prominent figures who either act as senders or recipients of these letters, or whose actions are described in their content, is most exceptional: Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Queen Catherine de’ Medici of France, Queen Elizabeth I of England, King Henry IV of France, Martin Luther, Saint Charles Borromeo, Vesalius, Nostradamus, Copernicus, Michelangelo, Galileo, Sabbatai Sevi, Artemisia Gentileschi, Bernini, and Handel, just to name a few.
Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of this archival collection is its abundance of descriptions of everyday life in early modern Europe. There are continuous references to medical matters, pharmacological remedies and plagues. The body, the course of illnesses, attempts to find cures, outbreaks of contagion, and the proliferation of new diseases are the most frequently discussed subjects—after politics and diplomacy. Also common are references to food and wine, descriptions of banquets and festivals and gift of exotic animals and rare plants. The Medici, as we can evince from their letters, also played an important role in purchasing, commissioning and donating printed books, manuscripts, drawings, maps, and scientific illustrations. Also frequent are accounts of meteorological and astronomical anomalies, alchemical breakthroughs, technological innovations and scientific discoveries, emerging news networks, postal systems, and infrastructure and urban developments. The Medici were active in the market of antiquities and numismatics. Copious are also references to artistic, theatrical, and musical productions. Painters, sculptors, actors and poets wrote continuously to the Medici and their secretariat asking for commissions, favors and protection. The Medici also sponsored masques and opera performances, and requested that the best musicians come to Florence, oftentimes outbidding the offers of other Italian courts.
It would be a great misconception to assume that this over four-million letter archive is just about Florence, Tuscany or even the Medici themselves. Indeed, the great majority of these missives were written by Medici ambassadors and agents in Rome, Venice, Naples, Madrid, Paris, London, Amsterdam, Malta, and Constantinople. With meticulous accuracy, these officials deconstructed the complex society they lived in, at time when, Florence’s most formidable and only form of defense was information. Their missives tackled pressing matters, usually diplomatic developments and political scheming. Any detail, oddity, and personal insight that these skilled diplomats might provide was deemed precious back in Florence.
Through a happy combination of good stewardship and good luck, this Mediceo del Principato has survived virtually intact to the present day. Although accessible for over 150 years, it has been exceedingly difficult to use, due to: 1) the sheer size of the archive; 2) its diversity and complexity, a result of the accumulation of records created by an extensive family network and governmental structure over the course of two hundred years; and 3) the lack of adequate catalogs, inventories, and other access tools. Difficulties in deciphering a vast range of calligraphic styles provide further obstacles to scholars with little or no experience with archives and documents. Bearing in mind that the Mediceo del Principato consists primarily of letters featuring narrative discussions of topical matters, it should be noted that narratives play out in ongoing streams of correspondence at times extending over many years. As a result, this archive has an internal logic quite different from one made up of other kinds of documentation (for example, financial accounts, literary manuscripts, or legal records). In addition, because it is the archive of a ruling family, the Medici Court is the common denominator that links all of these letters and defines the range of information they communicate. Once the letters had been dealt with by Grand Dukes, princes, princesses, courtiers, agents, and functionaries, they were filed away usually according to geographical location or into an organizational scheme that mirrors the intricate social, political and administrative system that produced it.
Because of the aforementioned factors, the logic of the Mediceo del Principato has been readily apparent only to a handful of advanced scholars who have devoted years to mastering the frame of reference of the Medici Court. Yet even experienced scholars who have learned to navigate the organizational complexities of this archive can usually make only educated guesses regarding where one might find, among the various volumes, material regarding a specific subject or topic. In this sense, then, this collection has remained effectively off-limits to a vast pool of potential users. These highly important but inaccessible materials require catalogs, inventories, and electronic access tools to become useful. For the first time in history, the invaluable material in the Mediceo del Principato is being unearthed and made available to the widest possible audience, all thanks to MAP’s efforts.