Death of a Renaissance Record-Keeper: The Murder of Tomasso da Tortona in Ferrara, 1385

Death of a Renaissance Record-Keeper: The Murder of Tomasso da Tortona in Ferrara, 1385 

By Richard Brown

Archivaria, Vol.44 (1997)

16th century image of Ferrara

Abstract: Beginning with a description of the murder of an Italian record-keeper at the hands of an angry mob in the late fourteenth century, this essay explores the historical background of official records destruction during the Renaissance, looking beyond its fundamental purpose as the logical outcome of a bureaucratic process purely of administrative-juridical ethos.

Using the example of the chancellery of Ferrara under the Este princes circa 1350-1500, it first exposes a record-keeping regime which was susceptible to all manner of bribery, corruption, and political intrigue, leading to the creation, falsification, and destruction of official documents for many reasons other than the preservation of the “public truth” following established principles and procedures.

From another perspective, the essay also places records destruction in a sociocultural context as an integral part of the annual festivities of the ceremonial city, which eventually witnessed the invention of three special public rituals of records destruction associated with significant religious commemorations. By establishing this broader sociocultural and political background for record-keeping and records destruction, some recent archival interpretations of the medieval and early modern historical past are challenged, and questions are posed about their relevance to the theory and practice of contemporary archivy.

Introduction: The role of the Renaissance record-keeper was occasionally a more “exciting” vocation than is normally associated with the clerical drudgery of drafting, copying, and organizing administrative papers in the dusty recesses of castle and cloister, and not without some elements of risk. Recently, while revising a dissertation I wrote a number of years ago, I came upon a reference to an event that occurred in the north Italian principality of Ferrara in the year 1385. A middle power in the south central Po Valley approximately sixty miles southwest of Venice, with aspirations to a much grander regional and peninsular political profile, Ferrara was at this time ruled by the Marchese Niccolo II d’Este. Like many of his fellow signori (lords), Prince Niccolo regarded the “state” largely as an administrative appendage to the camera (household) management of his patrimony of land-holdings and feudal revenues.

In effect, despite the existence of a rudimentary de jure separation between state and signorial household administrations, in practical terms the treasury of the comune (civil government of Ferrara) provided an important source of regular income for the prince. As a matter of course, the Marchese constantly dipped his hand into the civic till, draining off the proceeds of comunal taxes, levies, fees, dues, and fines for his own personal use.

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