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Innovative database simplifies study for scholars of Renaissance antiquarianism

Studying what Renaissance scholars learned of the classical Greco-Roman world is difficult. A new resource makes the task easier.


Antiquarianism means the study of ancient civilisations, generally using texts and documents as sources. Yet, since antiquarianism sometimes also uses non-literary materials such as clothing, the field overlaps somewhat with archaeology, which mostly examines previous civilisations using physical artefacts. The Renaissance was an imprecisely defined period in European history, lasting from roughly the 14th century to the 17th century. This was an exciting time of European rediscovery of lost knowledge from the classical Greco-Roman period. Many features defining modern life were first introduced during the classical period, for example democracy, public libraries, formal reasoning and scholarship. Renaissance antiquarianism is the study of earlier civilisations conducted during the Renaissance period. Modern scholars of Renaissance antiquarianism study the investigations of Renaissance scholars concerning classical European civilisation.

New database resource

The problem is that such study is not easy to do. The source materials are scattered. Therefore, the EU-funded ATRA project developed a digital resource for scholars that maps the circulation of antiquarian learning during Renaissance Europe. “Its purpose is to contribute to the promotion of new knowledge on antiquarian studies during the Renaissance,” explains Dr Riccardo Drusi, project coordinator. “It’s also meant to demonstrate how the antiquarian approach – which documents sources and empirical evidence – played a primary role in the evolution of the entire cultural/intellectual life of Early Modern times.” The term ‘atlas’ in the project’s title means the European geographical area, and does not denote mapping. This research was undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme. Users of the ATRA database will be scholars of classical antiquities, of Renaissance cultural history and of classical epigraphy (inscriptions of ancient writing), plus archaeologists and religious historians. Such users can conveniently access and study the materials comprising the database, which mainly consist of exchanges of letters among Renaissance intellectuals. These letters discuss problems relating to the historical reconstruction of classical civilisation.

What did Renaissance scholars study?

To date, no resource has allowed modern scholars to quickly determine which Renaissance scholars investigated specific topics. The ATRA database, however, allows searches based on multiple terms related to the topics of enquiry and the individuals who conducted the discussions. The questions modern researchers might pose can be obscure. “For example,” adds Drusi, “what is the modern species name of the plant that Pliny describes? How was the weapon that sources call ‘arubalista’ built?” In these cases, the answers can be studied by finding the discussions that took place among Florence philologists (scholars of languages and ancient texts) during the late 16th century. More evaluative enquiries are also possible, such as questioning via exactly which path did Hannibal cross the Alps into Italy. One outcome of the ATRA study was to show the intensity of Renaissance interest in the classical world. Another was bringing to light new materials that will need verification before they can enter the database. The ATRA project had no commercial goals. Most humanities scholars believe that knowledge is its own value. At least, the new database will help researchers more conveniently study and develop the subject.


ATRA, Renaissance, database, antiquarianism, Greco-Roman, ancient civilisations

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