On Saturday night, I’ll be hosting a masked party. The setting is Florence, 1537. We’ll have musicians to entertain us in period style, and some surprises through the evening. I hope it’ll be a good night out – do come along! – but this is also performance with a research purpose.
Last summer, while exploring the archives of the Medici court in Florence, I found a series of wardrobe accounts detailing the many masquerading costumes worn by the household of Duke Alessandro de’ Medici (about whom I blog over at Project Alex). In standard professional fashion, I presented some preliminary findings from this research at the Society for Renaissance Studies conference earlier this summer.
But I wanted to do something a little more adventurous with my material too. Hence the masked party. It’s an attempt to imagine – in concentrated, dramatic form – how such events might have functioned, and how some aspects of Alessandro’s rule might have been interpreted in Florentine society. Thanks to the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind I’ve had the opportunity to produce it.
Often public engagement is discussed simply as something academics to do communicate completed research, but it can have real benefits for the research process too. Putting together this event has – for me – been quite fascinating. I’ve been working with a group of students from the University’s theatre and performing arts societies to devise scenes from Alessandro’s story that will play out in the course of the night. My research informs their characterisation and, while I suggest topics we might cover, the process is collaborative. I’m certainly not the first historian to discover the value of fiction – Ian Mortimer and Lisa Jardine, for example, have discussed their experiences of novel-writing and drama as points of access to the past. But it’s one of those things that I needed to do for myself to appreciate its full value.
One striking feature of the performance is the way that the whole spectrum of the Florentine noble household has been included. Servants – for whom the historical records give at best a name and a job – have acquired families, life-stories, relationships, and are having serious difficulties sourcing wine. This last is not surprising, given the devastation that war had wrought in the Italian countryside, and it’s an example of how the process of dramatising has made me think anew about the challenges of working in a great city household. Foregrounding these subaltern figures has, in a small way, redressed some of the imbalance of the historical record. While in one sense the fictionalising makes our story less ‘accurate’ – we have, after all, applied our modern imaginations – it also makes it more reflective of the breadth of Florentine society. (Students take note: this is what I’m talking about when I say ‘let’s problematise the concept of “historical accuracy”‘.)
Performance has also worked wonderfully with the sources I curse the most – the myriad stories, myths and anecdotes surrounding Alessandro’s rule, many told by his enemies. The Duke has numerous unreliable narrators – but let party-goers argue over the different tales and immediately we get a sense of how rumour and gossip might have swirled around Florence. I don’t have to give my usual health warning that author X or Y is partisan: it’s entirely obvious to everyone watching, because here are two characters arguing over what’s true.
Finally, we hope to convey a little of the emotional world of this regime. In recent years, there’s been much discussion about the history of emotions, with the consequence that historians are rather more attentive to how people might have felt in the past. Is it possible to convey through performance some of fears of our sixteenth-century Florentines? Well, I acknowledge that there are limits. Our crowd will not feel the same way as a crowd five hundred years ago, because we have different emotional concepts now. A significant part of the audience’s experience will be about stepping into a ‘different’ space: both past and foreign. But even if it isn’t a perfect recreation, we can show some of the emotional world, and demonstrate that study of the past is not only about the objective or the rational.
The proof of how well all this works will come on Saturday night, but for me at least the process has been illuminating. It’s given me all manner of new insights about ways to do history. And, besides, it’s great fun.
- The party is on Saturday 27 September, 7.30pm, at Castle House, Sheffield. It features Hector Sequera and his ensemble. I’m grateful for musical advice from Tim Shephard in the Department of Music; the performance is co-ordinated by Arabella Peniston and Keir Shields. Book free tickets in advance here.
Catherine Fletcher is Lecturer in Public History. She’s writing a book about Alessandro de’ Medici for Bodley Head. You can follow the project over at the Project Alex blog.
Photo: Catherine Fletcher.