One of the most exciting yet intimidating elements of PhD research is the archival visit. This is perhaps particularly daunting for those of us venturing to foreign pastures and putting into practice hard-earned language skills. However, the rewards of navigating the maze of the foreign archive are substantial and the experience can be enriching in more ways than one.
At the end of the first year of my PhD I was ready to take my first trip abroad to investigate the sources available in the archive. This was a reconnaissance mission – a trip to obtain information about the sources before a longer archival trip in the next academic year. It was also a chance to explore Verona, which, like many other Italian cities, is very much a product of its Renaissance past.
I had previously spent time in the State Archives in Venice. However, this was my first experience of research in Verona and so to a large extent, I was stepping into the unknown. Being a provincial centre of the Veneto, Verona’s archives are smaller than those in Venice. Yet, this is precisely one of its advantages. Venice, as one of the most significant trading centres and political powerhouses of Sixteenth-Century Italy, is an immensely popular research destination for scholars from across the globe, and the archive is a busy place. This can be a positive, as researchers have access to a wide academic community.
However, in a smaller and less-visited archive it is often easier to spend time discussing ideas with archivists and examining together which documents might be of most use. This was certainly the case in Verona, where I was assisted by a variety of staff in my search for material. Nevertheless, there were still a number of practical hurdles which I had to overcome when tackling the various systems and procedures, which many researchers will face in archives across Italy.
The first, as mentioned in a previous blog post discussing the Vatican Archives, is the language barrier. Learning the language of your chosen research location is of course crucial in order to be able to read and analyse sources. To access these documents in the first place, however, it is necessary to be able communicate with the archivists. English is rarely uttered in Italian archival settings and therefore a confident conversational level of Italian is more or less essential.
Moreover, systems vary in each archive and learning how to use the particular system is one of the first steps to successful research. Despite having a substantial online archive of wills and testaments, Verona’s archive is otherwise in a practical sense un-digitised. Once in the archive, most sources are accessed through paperwork and handwritten slips. Searches for documents take place not on online ordering systems, but through the scouring of centuries-old catalogues piled on shelves. There is also the absence of wifi to contend with.
Once ordered and delivered, however, there is quite some joy in reading documents which appear as if they have remained largely untouched and unexamined for hundreds of years. This is another of the delights of archives in more provincial centres. When I was advised by an archivist that I may want to wear gloves when handling the documents (for my own comfort), I did not quite realise the extent of the dirt and dust that had built up over the years. My hands were indeed quite filthy at the end of handling my first set of documents. These papers are also incredibly fragile.
The last hurdle for me was the location of the archives in Verona. My image of the Italian historian completing her research in the beautiful setting of an historic palazzo could hardly have been less true. Much like many regional archives in the UK, the State Archives in Verona have been relocated from the city centre to a newly developing office park on the outskirts of the city, surrounded by a 12 lane network of roads.
However, once back in the city centre, I was able to explore the urban landscape, which contains many clues to the culture of the city’s past. In many ways, this is one of the most useful parts of archival trips. Once having researched the people and events of the past, it is useful to place this physically within its historical setting, exploring the geography, architecture, and objects to give a context to the research. Visiting archives abroad is not just about looking at the historical record itself. In this short visit, I discussed my project in detail with a number of expert archivists, navigated the systems of the archive, improved on my language skills and explored the city and its museums. Overall, I would mark my reconnaissance mission a success.
Image: Author’s own.