When Isabella Magni (Ph.D. Italian, 2017) arrived at IU-Bloomington in Fall 2011, she didn’t know she would specialize in Medieval Studies.
“It all started thanks to Wayne,” Magni says, describing the classes she took with Professor Emeritus H. Wayne Storey, which included trips to the Lilly Library to examine rare books and manuscripts. Magni describes the experience of holding a primary source in her hands, not just reading a text but feeling it, as the moment she knew she wanted to work with medieval manuscripts.
For the past two years, Magni has served as a postdoctoral scholar at the Newberry Library in Chicago, where she has worked to build a website to support and train individuals interested in paleography—the study of historical handwritten sources and the art of transcribing them.
The website is the first to focus specifically on Italian paleography, featuring 100 handwritten documents dating from roughly 1100 to 1700. The documents are divided into three levels of difficulty: elementary, intermediate, and advanced, and represent six different historical Italian scripts. The site also includes contextual information about the documents, a handbook on the history of script, and software to help users practice transcribing. The site is designed to help anyone learn about paleography, from researchers and scholars to high school students with an interest in Italian.
“It’s not just about learning how to read, but how through learning to read hand-written primary sources you also learn about the cultural and historical contexts in which these objects were produced and written,” Magni says. She hopes the website will enable the experience of a historical text to be shared with a wider audience.
Magni will complete her work at the Newberry Library this July, but her work with medieval manuscripts is far from over. Her next project will be the creation of a digital edition of a manuscript by Pepo degli Albizzi, a member of the powerful Florentine Albizzi family. The manuscript is a record of his personal and familial life, as well as his business dealings as a merchant and political figure. It also details the important historical moment when the Black Death swept across Europe. The manuscript is one of the few first-hand accounts of the Black Death, and it confirms what historians believe about the plague’s effects on the Florentine population and its economic impact. About half of Pepo’s family died from the disease.
“All that we know about history is what was left written,” Magni says of the importance of sources like the Albizzi manuscript.
Magni will begin a position as Postdoctoral Associate in Italian and Digital Humanities at Rutgers University in the fall, but her experience at the Newberry Library won’t be soon forgotten. “We have to make an effort to make what we do available to everyone, and I think we can do that with even the most narrow and complicated and research-related field like paleography,” she says. Magni credits her experience at the Newberry for showing her the value of the study of written work as a part of human history, rather than just a part of more contained research conducted at the university level. “In every society, not just medieval society, writing is about power, how we tell history, how we know about the past now.”
You can find out more about Magni’s work on her website, http://isamagni.com.