Between 11 - 15 December 2023, the Warburg Institute will host a new online course, ‘Words on the Street: Opinions and Beliefs in Early Modern Newsletters’, which will offer a deep-dive into the world of the avvisi, handwritten pieces of information circulating all over early modern Europe and the known world. Over the course of five sessions, we will explore how avvisi can be used to assess the degrees and ways in which early moderns communicated beliefs, hopes, and opinions, and how these relate to the ‘factual truth’ of historical events as we know them.
In this blog post, course tutor, Dr Carlotta Paltrinieri, offers a sneak peek into the avvisi and why we should study them.
If you thought news frenzy is a fairly modern concept, this short course will make you think twice!
Starting around the mid sixteenth century, European courts could not get enough newsletters to feed their hunger for information (and gossip!). Italy in particular, could be considered the historical news market par excellence. In important news hubs such as Rome, handwritten newsletters - called avvisi - were produced and disseminated throughout Europe and the known world.
These handwritten news sheets include information on a wide array of events, allowing modern readers to discover what made the news in early modern society: they range from news on papal affairs, to the health conditions of cardinals and princesses, to war bulletins, all the way to news that through our modern eyes might seem irrelevant, or quite frankly, made up. This might be the case for a piece of news about an egg on whose shell the Barberini bees appeared to have been carved out, or about a hermaphrodite priest who was impregnated by a (hermaphrodite) young woman.
In recent years, avvisi have been widely reassessed as part of a greater interest in the circulation of information and communication through Europe between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, often linked to the cultural revolution brought about by the printing press. Avvisi are essential to understanding the mechanics of information-gathering by ruling powers, and the diplomatic and political use of that information.
In addition to shedding light on cultural and political dynamics, avvisi are also instrumental in understanding the shifting value of truth and veracity in the system of beliefs of early modern societies, and how this value was over or underplayed depending on the circumstances on the compiler, the reader, or the underlying strategy. The avvisi were not the only means for powerful rulers (the Medici Grand Dukes, in our case) to gather information, and not always the safest and most accurate source of intelligence. They were mostly viewed as a way of assessing the general understanding and public knowledge of a matter, and of overseeing the different, and often contrasting, perspectives. With their growing popularity and broader readership over time, compilers of avvisi were aware of the risk of becoming ‘second-tier’ informants, and thus their effort was not only focused on uncovering the truth of matters, but also (and mainly), on reporting what others perceived as the truth of matters.
While avvisi present a distinctive and peculiar style and format - being impersonal, often anonymous accounts of events written as separate paragraphs on one or multiple sheets - they clearly resonate with the language and register of the diplomatic correspondence. This stylistic and linguistic resonance is unsurprising considering that the main agents behind the production and circulation of the avvisi were likely ambassadors and other functionaries at the service of the most influential courts of the time, who were also in charge of writing dispacci and other diplomatic accounts of events. Nonetheless, avvisi distance themselves from other diplomatic writings in their nearly obsessive emphasis on the compiler’s effort to persuade their reader that what they are reporting is to the best of their knowledge. This element of persuasion, especially when in stark contrast with the rampant spread of fake news and rumors, become the driving force of the linguistic and stylistic choices of the avvisi. As many scholars of news and information have pointed out, distrust was the main concept associated with newsmongers, recalling Samuel Butler’s famous description of a Newsmonger:
“A News-monger is a Retailer of Rumour, that takes up upon Trust, and sells as cheap as he buys. He deals in a perishable Commodity, that will not keep: for if it be not fresh it lies upon his Hands, and will yield nothing. True or false is all one to him; for Novelty being the Grace of both, a Truth grows stale as soon as a Lye.”
In the fast world of news, truth was a valuable, carefully crafted concept, but it was not the only value: uncertainty, doubt, and the speculations that preceded the certain facts were just as valuable to the reader, as long as they guaranteed what truly mattered: knowing it first.
The examples that will be analysed in this short course are a small fraction of the thousands of sheets of avvisi housed at the Florence State Archive that need more attention not just from historians, but from whoever has an interest in artistic practices, medicine, material culture, linguistics, philology, religion, astrology, astronomy, musicology, and much more.
Dr. Carlotta Paltrinieri is Lecturer in Early Modern Italian Studies and Director of Italian Studies in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Royal Holloway, University of London. At Royal Holloway, she teaches early modern literature, art history, and intellectual history. Before joining Royal Holloway, she was Assistant Director of the Medici Archive Project, and Senior Researcher in the programme ‘Towards a National Collection’. She has held research fellowships at the University College Cork (Euronews Project, 2019-2020), at the Bibliotheca Hertziana-Max Planck Institute for Art History (Roma Communis Patria, 2020-2021), and at the Institute of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of London (2021).
Mediceo del Principato - Relazioni con Stati Italiani ed Esteri, Archivio di Stato di Firenze
S. Butler and R. Thyer, The Genuine Remains In Verse And Prose of Mr. Samuel Butler ..: Published From the Original Manuscripts, Formerly In the Possession of W. Longueville, Esq.; With Notes by R. Thyer. London: Printed for J. and R. Tonson, 1759.
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A. Pettegree, The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself, 2014.
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C. Paltrinieri, “È necessario che costà non si porga orecchia alle male relationi, ma guidi cavandosi le cose dagli effettii: Truth, Falsehood, and Persuasion in Manuscript Avvisi”, The Historical Truth, Pisa University Press, 2023.
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