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The Grand (Archival) Tour

By Zoe Farrell (@zoeffarrell)

One of the many advantages of being a historian who studies other countries is the ample opportunities for travel. My work focuses on artisans and material culture in sixteenth-century Verona, and I have therefore spent a lot of time in Veronese archives. However, I am also interested in how Renaissance culture travelled, especially through the Alps and into Germany. As part of a major fieldwork trip this year, I decided to follow the route of my research to Germany, visiting archives of interest along the way. In total, I visited thirteen archives in three different countries. During this time, I went from eating lunch outside in the piazzas of Italy, to walking through the snow in -14 degrees Celsius in Germany. No two archives were the same and I learnt a vast amount about research, travel, and independence. Here, I will share some of the most important things I learned.

During my travels, I visited Venice, Verona, Bolzano, Innsbruck, Hall-in-Tirol, Augsburg, and Nuremberg. Most of these cities had more than one archive. Bolzano, a small city in northern Italy, for example, has three different repositories – a historical archive, a state archive, and a land archive. Each specialises in a different type of record, and each has a different atmosphere. In the central historical archive, for example, I was taken into the archival holdings to see what type of material was available, which was a first for me. The land archive, on the other hand, was a lot busier, and its study room was packed daily. Some archives focus on particular institutions and infrastructures, whilst others have a more generic outlook. Archives can also often be in entirely different areas of a city. In Nuremberg, for example, I found myself walking through the suburbs north of the city’s wall to find the ‘Staatsarchiv’, not to be confused with the ‘Stadtarchiv’ in the city centre. Other documents were held in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, in yet another different location.

During my travels, I found meetings with directors and archivists to be extremely useful for identifying relevant material. In the land archive in Innsbruck, for example, the director put me on the phone with an archive in a small town on the outskirts of the city, Hall-in-Tirol, as he believed there to be material relevant to my project there. The next day, I took the regional train and was met by the director outside the archive. This small collection has a wealth of information and would not necessarily have been on my radar had the director in Innsbruck not insisted I visited.

On a practical note, archives can often be awkward places to work. Some are in old buildings and can be very cold, particularly in the winter. The majority have no internet: of the thirteen I visited, only one or two had Wi-Fi. Permissions and prices for photography and photocopying can also be wildly different. In the summer of last year, the Italian government passed legislation to make it free to photograph most material in state archives. However, this does not necessarily apply to regional archives. Moreover, in German archives photography is often not allowed, and the cost of photocopying can be high. In one archive, I paid around €3 per page, which quickly added up. For objects on vellum, the price was closer to €10 per page.

The physical state of archival documents can also be surprising. In one archive, I was shown the cleaning process through which each individual document passed before being handled by a user, whilst in others, documents were barely legible due to years of build-up of dirt and the effects of fires and floods. In many archives, I had to wear a protective mask because of the dust and dirt coming from the documents. Differences in conservation procedures are often the result of archives having varying amounts of staff and resources to dedicate to tackling such issues, and these differences are noticeable even amongst archives within the same city.

Archive opening times can be unusual. Some, such as that in Augsburg, are only open three days a week, whilst others are only open in the morning. Planning travel around these opening hours is usually the best thing to do. However, there is also great merit in using the time when the archive isn’t open to explore museums and libraries in the city. I found local museums to be a treasure trove of useful information, augmenting my archival work. In Augsburg, for example, I was able to visit the city’s Textile and Industry Museum, which demonstrated how fabric has been made in the city throughout its history and included full models of looms. This really brought to life information within archival material about Augsburg’s weavers.

Immersing oneself in the experience of the city is one of the most valuable parts of an archival trip. Understanding the physical geography of a place and visiting its historic sites can give a deeper understanding of the area’s history. The markets of Bolzano, for example, were the meeting point for traders from Germany and Italy in the sixteenth century. When I visited the area, I was immediately struck by the amalgamation of the two cultures even today: signs pointed to both the piazzas and the Platz, and almost everyone effortlessly switched between the Italian and German languages.

Such trips are not easy. They can be lonely and intimidating, and the work can be exhausting. However, they are also invaluable, and the enlightenment gained is certainly not limited to that found in archival sources.

Image: Zoe Farrell

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