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Giovanni Ciappelli




Ego-documents in Italy

If we mean as Ego-documents such sources as autobiographies, memoirs, diaries, travel journals, family books, personal letters, in Italy the Ego-documents spanning the period 1400-1914 which are preserved in both public libraries and archives, and private archives, are assessable as many thousands, and probably tens of thousands. I leave apart for now the wider range of ego-documents, which according to Winfried Schulze’s definition comprise every kind of unintentional self representation (such as last wills, supplications, account  books, minutes of examinations in trials, pastoral visitations and so on), since this enlargement makes the concept almost unusable for our purposes. A general census of the more limited range of sources I have mentioned does not exist as such (otherwise we would not be writing about it here), but there are definitely some bases for it.

The most systematic attempt for a survey so far has been made in Italy about family books. Family books were defined for the first time as a specific genre at the beginning of 1980s by the literary historians Angelo Cicchetti and Raul Mordenti. According to their most recent definition, they are texts often written by several authors, where the family is at the same time author, object and recipient of the writing. They have existed since the end of the thirteenth century, with their very first examples from Tuscany, and get to the contemporary period. Pushed by Cicchetti’s and Mordenti’s seminal analyses, a national research group which started its work around 1985 tried to produce a census of this genre, but the attempt did not succeed because of several hindrances, the most relevant of which was the lack of financing. There remained a discontinuous bulletin (“LdF”, which stands for “Libri di Famiglia”), and later on Mordenti gave life to an on line data-base (the BILF, Biblioteca Informatizzata dei Libri di Famiglia) which still exists ( The data base has depended for its updating, so far, on the spontaneous contribution of a little group of scholars. It is an important tool, but it is far from being complete, and it definitely does not correspond to a systematic survey, since it is enlarged by the occasional index cards of scholars when they discover new texts. Its last version dates at 2004, and it contains references to some two hundred texts.  

In my opinion the most relevant, if not the most updated result of Mordenti’s project is still contained in his book I libri di famiglia in Italia, II, Geografia e storia (2001), which also includes the results of a seminar held in Rome in 1997 concerning 15 years of  research in this field.  

In any case in 2004, since I was still convinced that a census had to be the very basis of any further analysis of such documents, I joined a larger research group of historians interested in family history in Italy in the 16th-18th centuries, in order to get (for my research unit) public financing for a systematic survey of at least Tuscan family books for the early modern period. According to any research, in fact, Tuscany is the very cradle of family books, and here they are preserved (either for preservation reasons, or for functional ones) in amounts which are unknown elsewhere. A provisional checklist of at least partially published family books for late Middle Ages exists since 1980s, because the oldest ones have received greater attention, and it counts some 150 Florentine family books. In 2005 the Italian government assured to the research unit I direct a tiny financing, with which I managed to lead a survey at least for the main center of production: Florence. Right now the Florentine census can be considered almost completed, and I am trying to find further financing in order to both complete the survey for Tuscany, and start it for Trentino Alto Adige. Eventually, the relevant database should be published on line, whereas some of the most interesting texts, and the results of the analyses, are being published in print.  

For Florence alone, our database contains some six hundred records (240 of them are texts of family memory, and 130 of these ones are real family books) from the end of the 15th century to the beginning of the 19th century. The systematic survey has allowed me to draw factual and methodological conclusions which have been exposed in 2007 in two historical conferences in Rome and Florence (the proceedings are in print), and  in an international seminar I organized in Trent in October 2007, where several methodological questions were discussed, and whose results will be published in a volume edited by myself at the beginning of 2009.  

The Tuscan systematic survey, led in both the public and private repositories, provides good starting points as for either method or computerized indexing, and it can represent another pilot model for research on Italian ego-documents.  

Our work has shown that the 16th-18th centuries have a strong continuity with the earlier period as for both tradition and function of such writings. Their production remained substantial, even though some scholars in the past have stressed that some long period processes (post Council of Trent diffusion of parish registers; formalization of recognition for noble status) might have affected their practical usefulness. With time, of course, subjects and forms change a great deal. For example, since the second half of the 17th century the diary model interacts strongly with the family book, while the major dividing line as for functions is represented by 1750 and the Tuscan law about nobility and citizenship, which defines once and for all the noble status, making since then the production of family books less useful for the recognition of noble status. But the consolidated tradition of writings preserves its efficiency even later on, and in the bourgeoisie age new authors, provided they find themselves in a better class as newcomers, write such texts. In the 19th century genres become more and more hybrid, and we find a continuous exchange, a mélange of chronicle, diary, memoir, family book. I have just published a partial example of what might be considered the “Ricordi” or Memories of a Grand Ducal Minister during the Restoration.  

The digital publication of an outstanding example of an 18th-19th century similarly hybrid memorialistic source, the 80 volumes Efemeridi (journal), covering 50 years (1759-1808), of the Florentine patrician Giuseppe Pelli Bencivenni, is the specific object of a group led in Florence by Renato Pasta (, which also organized an international conference in 2007 about Scritture dell’io.  

Scholars from several European countries and Italian regions took part in the Trent seminar Memory, Family, Identity between Italy and Europe in the early modern period. Some of them, who also participated in this project (Amelang, Dekker, Mouysset, Ulbrich), presented the results of their research about family books or ego-documents in Spain, Netherlands, France, Germany. Some others presented their research about four more Italian regions: Rome and Latium, where Marina Caffiero is directing a census of women’s writings for the early modern age ( ); Sicily, where Rita Foti led a first survey of Sicilian family books; Veneto, where James Grubb found most of the few family books existing for the late Middle Ages; Trentino Alto Adige, where both account books of peasants and some ego-documents produced by nobles have been analyzed.  

Regarding the aforementioned current research projects, therefore, there is already a network of scholars who are producing results in the field of ego-documents, centering mainly on family books. Nevertheless there is now in Italy a growing attention towards these sources at several other levels. Most of this attention is focussing now either on the definitely modern period (contemporary history, the 20th century), or on specific authors: firstly the so-called popular authors, and secondly women.  

As for the contemporary period, Italy has at least three official repositories for ego-documents. The first is the Archivio dei Diari of Pieve Santo Stefano (since 1984), which gathers in original or copy all the “writings of common people” which are sent to it by their authors or owners. It contains about five thousands of such items, almost wholly belonging to the 20th century (some from the 19th, five or six from an earlier period). It is possible to browse its contents on line (, with some defects [for example: in the case of a copy you do not know where the original manuscript is actually preserved; you only know that the Archivio owns a copy].  

There are at least two “Archives of Popular Writing” at a regional level, which also contain ego-documents mostly for the 20th and in part for the 19th century. They are active at the Historical Museum of Trento, and at the University of Genoa. The former (Archivio della Scrittura Popolare, since 1987) contains five hundred texts and 30 collections of letters (by authors from the middle or the lower class). Their catalogue is accessible on line ( It mainly contains writings dating around the years of First World War, especially diaries and letters of soldiers from the front. The latter (Archivio ligure della scrittura popolare, since the end of 1980s:, which is similar for some respects,  contains about 150 texts or collections of texts, and already tried to lead a systematic survey of what is present in the region.  

Other research projects concern, on the contrary, both the modern and the early modern period.  

Another project of survey of ego-documents at a large scale concerns the writings of women in Tuscany, launched with others by a colleague historian who passed away, Alessandra Contini (Carte di donne. Per un censimento regionale della scrittura delle donne dal XVI al XX secolo), and it already produced some results. ( It is directly comparable with the project directed by Marina Caffiero for Rome, and some similar ones are being conducted in other Italian regions, like Umbria and Piedmont.  

As for autobiography, there is then a specific research group led by Maria Luisa Betri in Lombardy (Laura Guidi at Naples), who mainly studied women’s autobiographies (or in any case primary forms of writing) for the 19th century (see prog. SISSCO).  

One last word about research on private letters. Apart from increasing attention from many fields about this source (Per lettera edited by Zarri, Dolce dono graditissimo edited by Betri and Maldini Chiarito, the latest Scrivere lettere by Armando Petrucci), there are at least two projects whose aim is to digitalize at least a part of the existing (and unpublished) production. They are the “Corpus Epistolare Ottocentesco Digitale” (only about 19th century) above all by literary historians from the Universities of Siena and Cassino (, and is part of the “Archivio della Tradizione Epistolare in Rete” (, a consortium of five universities centered in Pavia, which put on line a few collections of unpublished letters (two from the 16th century).   

The existence of these projects – many of which have marched so far independently from each other - allow us to see the outline of a framework within which a national network of researchers can operate. So far, about ten researchers agreed to take part to the project, each of them dealing with a significant regional area.