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Historical Background and Research Context

It must be acknowledged that the Italian academies have, over the course of the centuries, attracted quite divergent views and have been the subject of frequently hostile and scornful criticism. This hostile criticism is well represented by Francesco De Sanctis, and though his Storia della Letteratura italiana1 dates to the end of the nineteenth century, he remains an extremely influential figure for the history of Italian culture, a powerful critical pundit whose views have continued to be repeated almost as gospel truth up to the present. Here are his opinions, in the chapter on the sixteenth century:

The seed bed, […], of these works was the academies. … Their members were literati and men of erudition, all of them completely idle intellectually, and ready to write in verse or prose on any subject, however, frivolous, for their amusement. The more vulgar the material of these works, the more the treatment was admired for its liveliness and elegance. The names of these academies and academicians sound strangely in our ears today: … and the members recited their talks, or as they called them, their “prattlings” on salads, on cakes, on hypochondria: laborious trifles… they sang of the vulgarest things and often the dirtiest…2

And again, on the following century:

Words merely as words, an end in themselves – this was the character of the literary or academic form. … These were the two forms [preciosity and flowery style] of decadence in literature … and the members of these academies burnt incense to themselves, applauded themselves and conferred immortality on themselves…They acquired an artificial importance: many of their members were raised into great men, like Salvini, who was a learned man, but with gifts in no way proportionate to his fame. 3

Such views do not encourage one to explore or even value the world of the Italian Academies. Yet in spite of the force of De Sanctis’ views, and the continuing tendency to dismiss the Italian Academies as of little relevance or importance, as our research shows, this is no longer a tenable position.

Research context


Research both on Academies in general and on particular Academies, with the exception of some of the best known, has been extremely limited. The only previous comprehensive study was that by Michele Maylender, Storia delle Accademie d'Italia, Bologna, published in 5 volumes in 1926-1930, but representing research carried out by Maylender before the First World War. Much of the information this work contains is very brief, and in need of updating to take account of material discovered subsequently. Maylender’s bibliography is very patchy and does not give information about library holdings, and only inconsistently about publications produced by Academies. It has no comprehensive set of indexes; it was time-consuming to use, especially if trying to glean a broad picture of the presence and activities of Academies in a city, a region, or indeed the whole peninsula (it has very recently been digitised and put on-line). This then was the context in which we conceived the idea of creating a database of information on the Italian Academies and their cultural activities to provide enhanced access to the primary research materials and so promote new and significant research on cultural, scientific and literary exchange in early modern Europe. This is, of course, potentially a vast, encyclopedic project, likely to last long beyond the academic lifetime of any one individual or group of individuals. For this reason, and for reasons connected to the funding sources currently available to us, the project is designed to proceed by phases, scanning collections in individual libraries, for selected areas. The longer term aim is to build up networks with other scholars and libraries, and establish forms of collaboration which ultimately will provide a comprehensive database for all the Academies of the Italian peninsula and for all major libraries.



1 Francesco De Sanctis, Storia della Letteratura italiana, ed. by G. Contini, Turin: UTET, 1968 (1st ed. 1870-71).
2 Francesco De Sanctis, History of Italian Literature, trans J. Redfern, 2 vols, New York:Barnes and Noble, 1968, ch.12: I, 440-41.
3 De Sanctis, History of Italian Literature, ch. 18: II, 708-09

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