This is part of a series of posts commissioned by HistoryMatters in response to the award of the MacArthur ‘genius’ prize to the historian Robin Fleming for her work on archaeological sources. All of the blogs in this series will appear here as they are posted.
Twelve years ago I was taking MA modules alongside students studying for an MA in the Material Culture of Early Modern Europe – a degree convened jointly by experts in archaeology and history. We had discussions with archaeologists, curators and art historians about their work. So I was rather puzzled to discover this year that it’s somehow a novelty for historians to employ archaeological sources in our work. Is this really worth a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant?
Robin Fleming’s argument about the early medieval period – as far as I can tell from the media coverage – seems to be that the few texts available are rather unreliable and tell us little about the lives of lower-class people. The archaeological record helps reconstruct their history.
For the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries – my own period – the balance of sources is very different. I work on Renaissance Italy and, for a start, there’s a fair quantity of surviving art, craft and architecture that can be studied at first hand. And it’s certainly studied. As my first-year students are discovering, it’s often easier to find articles about a Renaissance painting’s iconography than to find an account of the politics of the person who commissioned it.
Famous paintings and their patrons, however, don’t get us very close to the ‘ordinary’ folks of the Italian peninsula – unless you count artists as ‘ordinary’, of course, which is another debate. It’s textual sources like censuses, account-books and trial records that – for all their difficulties – bring the lives of artisans, apprentices and slaves into focus.
But in light of the MacArthur grant, there’s a certain irony that some of the most prominent archaeological projects on Renaissance Italy in recent years have focused not on the ‘ordinary’ but on the celebrity.
The study of the Medici gran-ducal tombs in Florence (16th-18th centuries) has made headlines in Italy. Analysis of the skeletons of the grand-dukes (one, Francesco I de’ Medici, is pictured above) and their relatives has told us much about the lives and health of elite families in this period, from problems of obesity to rickets. Yet it makes the point that archaeology can be no less elitist than history in its subjects.
Other archaeological research – for example the excavations of the majolica factory at Cafaggiolo – has helped establish features of ceramic production in Tuscany. (It’s discussed here by some volunteers, in English, and here by the project leaders, in Italian.) But its main impact seems to be in permitting more secure dating of relatively ‘high’ art objects in museum collections. So much for the ordinary folks of the village.
There’s a great deal that might be done by both historians and archaeologists to explore the lives of, say, ceramic workers in Renaissance Tuscany, and there’s much to be said for collaboration. For any given period or place the balance of source material will be different, and I have no doubt that some subjects lend themselves to exploration with the methods of one or other discipline. But is this really ‘genius’? I’m not convinced.
Catherine Fletcher is Lecturer in Public History at the University of Sheffield working on Renaissance Italy and England. You can find Catherine’s other History Matters blogs here and find her on twitter @cath_fletcher.
Image: Francesco I de’ Medici [Wikicommons]