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The Italian Academies – definitions and interests

What was an Academy? Traditionally an academy has been defined as being composed of a group of individuals interested in intellectual or cultural matters, which held regular meetings to discuss topics of intellectual, cultural or current interest and to promote lectures, dramatic performances, scientific enquiry and experimentation, and to produce publications arising out of these. Our research is now revealing that Academies varied a great deal from city to city, and from one historical period to another. Thus, a Venetian academy of the seventeenth century differed from an Academy of the same city of the previous century. An Academy in Rome could be very different in scope, membership and rules from an Academy in Siena, or Bologna, or Padua. Under the banner ‘Academy’, individual differences flourished.

The idea of the academy goes back to ancient Greece and the Platonic Academy in Athens. In Italy in the fifteenth century the idea was revived and was used to refer to groups of humanists who gathered together informally to discuss matters of literature and philosophy arising out of the continuing revival of classical culture, to which the terms Humanism and Renaissance were later applied. The term academy is often still applied to the scholars who gathered around Marsilio Ficino in Florence (1462 ff), under the auspices of Cosimo and later Lorenzo de’ Medici, and to the scholarly groups formed in Rome around Pomponio Leto (suppressed in 1468), and in Naples around Pontano (1471 ff). Out of these informal fifteenth-century initiatives came the first formally constituted Academies which were established in the early sixteenth century. The birth of the Italian Academies in the full sense can thus be dated to the formation in 1525 of the Accademia degli Intronati in Siena, followed, soon after by the Congrega dei Rozzi in the same city. It is for this reason that we have taken 1525 as our starting date.

The Italian learned Academies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thus formally constituted, were the earliest of such institutions, which were subsequently found throughout Europe, as other countries sought to emulate this model. As our research and the database, through the ‘nationality’ field, demonstrate, from the outset the Academies were international in membership, and in correspondence with scholars and institutions in other European countries. The interests of the Academies ranged very widely across the disciplines, from art and literature to the experimental sciences, many or all frequently present in the debates within a single Academy. The Academies were consequently responsible for promoting interest and research in many areas – language and literature, the natural sciences, astronomy, technology, history, geography and exploratins, the figurative arts, theatre and music. Their membership included pioneering scientists, literary polemicists, political thinkers, women as well as men, and representatives of all social classes.

In addition to their intellectual pursuits the Academies had a more playful aspect, including the delivery of orations based on paradoxes, the performance of games, or the invention of amusing names for the Academy, its members and its activities, often represented visually in punning illustrations and devices. The process began very early, indeed with the Intronati – a name which can be taken as indicating that its members have been struck as if by a thunderbolt by a new idea or thesis, or meaning ‘The Dazed Ones’, by which members wanted to stress their desire to retire from the hubbub of daily life; in short this is a playful way of proclaiming their intellectual status. The Infiammati (the name of at least two academies, in Padua and in Naples) similarly indicates that its members are on fire, inflamed with the love of knowledge. In some cases the punning name, and even more the nicknames of members, could provide convenient cover if the local political authorities were hostile to such gatherings. The principal academy in Florence began as the Accademia degli Umidi, transmuted into the Accademia Fiorentina when the Grand Duke took it under his authority, and then again, after that was closed down by the Grand Duke, who feared it might become a focus of political opposition, to Accademia della Crusca – of chaff, a name intended to indicate that the academy’s activities were utterly light-weight and unthreatening. Some names, like Oziosi, proclaimed the leisure of its members to indulge in intellectual (as opposed to manual or mercantile) pursuits; many others gave themselves names which were diametrically opposed to the qualities they in fact attributed to themselves: Gelati (the Frozen Ones), Confusi (the Confused), Addormentati (the Sleepy). The individual nicknames taken by members reflected the idea present in the name of the Academy. Thus members of the Gelati in Bologna all took nicknames relating to cold weather or symbolised by it, and added mottoes mainly derived from classical sources. Some good examples are l’Inesperto (the inexperienced or foolish one) and l’Anelante (the panter). Members of Academies frequently published, for many different reasons, only under their academy nickname – and this fact constitutes one of the principal difficulties in researching academy publications through standard, author-name catalogues. Our research is dedicated to linking individuals to their nicknames as widely as possible, and so opening up research on particular authors.

The dissemination of the Academies’ ideas was principally through the written word, through books, both manuscript and printed, associated with them, and so their connections with the book trade are fundamental to research in this period. In short they have a great deal to contribute to many areas of research into the learning and culture not only of Italy but also of early modern Europe. In particular one topic that has emerged through our research and the compilation of the database is the importance of the world of the Italian academies for the study of the development and operation of the République des Lettres – which is currently attracting considerable attention from scholars of early modern Europe.

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