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Oral culture, manuscript and print in early modern Italy, 1450-1700

Final Report Summary - ITALIANVOICES (Oral culture, manuscript and print in early modern Italy, 1450-1700)

The project ‘Oral Culture, Manuscript and Print in Early Modern Italy, 1450-1700’ (Italian Voices) was led by Professor Brian Richardson in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds from June 2011 to November 2015. The postdoctoral researchers were Francesca Bortoletti, Stefano Dall’Aglio, Luca Degl’Innocenti, Nicolò Maldina, Massimo Rospocher and Chiara Sbordoni.
The research assistants were Dr Naomi Wells and Dr Isabella Bolognese.

The aim was to provide the first integrated study of the practices and the social, intellectual and aesthetic values of early modern Italian oral culture, in its relationship with written culture, thus opening up new horizons for the study of culture as a whole, in Europe and not only in Italy. Historians of all kinds have tended to overlook the uniquely important roles that the spoken and sung word played throughout society in transmitting information, opinions and texts, even though manuscript culture continued to flourish and the printing press made written texts more abundant and cheaper from the second half of the fifteenth century onwards. Oral discussion and performance, both formal and informal, were still used intensively in the culture of the literate minority, while the verbal culture of the uneducated depended mainly or solely on orality. Constant interaction between the oral and the written enriched and shaped both forms of expression. Yet the voices that were so prominent throughout the cultural life of this period had not previously been studied systematically and in detail.

Our challenge was to recapture the rich but ephemeral world of orality through correlated studies of the traces that performances have left in written sources such as diaries, archival records, literary texts, chronicles, treatises and correspondence. Our research had to cast its net wide, encompassing spaces such as courts and private houses, council chambers, churches and convents, academies and universities, streets and piazzas; men and women of all social classes; and contexts including ceremonial and ritual events, oratory, public and private performance, and scripted and improvised or semi-improvised entertainment. We also had to take into account the unusually broad spectrum of languages used throughout the politically divided Italian peninsula in this period: the emerging standard literary language (mainly written, of course, but probably spoken and heard more widely than has been assumed), the spoken dialects of the various states and – in formal contexts – Latin. Members of the team in Leeds focused on four areas: public and private entertainments; religion, especially sermons; political oratory and poems about contemporary affairs; and linguistic variety within performance. Many other scholars from the UK, Italy, France, the Netherlands, the USA and Canada contributed to the project, and their expertise included the essential elements of musicology and art history. The outcomes of the research are being published in a number of collections of essays, monographs, individual essays and journal articles. These publications shed new light on many specific topics within oral/aural culture, including e.g. the two-way relationships between written texts and performances, differing attitudes towards spoken and sung performances, the social audiences for performances, the identities and practices of street singers, preaching and its control, prayer and devotions, the influence of orality on written texts not intended for performance, the orality of authors not normally viewed as performers, the spaces of performance, variations of language according to audiences and gender, the nature of the improvisation of poetry and its musical accompaniment, or the effects of the voice.

The project has shifted forward research in the history of communication in the early modern period. It has provided a more thorough understanding of the significance of practices of orality throughout cultural, social and religious life in early modern Italy, and its research can provide a methodological paradigm for the study of oral culture elsewhere in Europe. The project’s rediscovery and valorization of the full extent of orality is significant for all those studying the early modern period. It has shed new light on the transmission of texts, ideas and information, and on the nature of public and private entertainments. It has demonstrated the ways in which the educated used orality, while also recovering some of the otherwise lost culture of those who did not have the ability to read and write. It has enabled a better comprehension of written culture, much of which was profoundly marked by oral modes. For the future, the project has shown how the history of oral culture can and should be combined with the history of manuscript and printed books, forming a single history of the circulation of texts in all media.