About this blog

The traditional image of the scholar/professor in the humanities is one of lonely study, accessing carefully selected sources during planned sessions of archival work, or reading and writing in a campus library, and of course teaching in a college classroom.

Things can be very different, though.

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Week-Four Reflections on the Benefits and Struggles of Ground-Up Collaboration

The production of academic work too often happens in solitude and behind closed doors. As academics, we regularly sit alone in our offices or in an archive (or in a coffee shop, on adventurous days), engrossed in our own thoughts as we pore over documents, ponder new ideas, or struggle to complete an article, chapter, or even an abstract. The outside world ceases to exist, and we become completely caught up in our own entangled webs of knowledge.

But my work over the past month has shown me that this does not always have to be the case. The experience of working in the Greggiati archive with four colleagues, Professor Zanovello, and the Greggiati librarian Elisa Superbi has been a clear and constant reminder that academic efforts do not have to happen in isolation. Ground-up collaboration has been a vital part of our work here in Ostiglia, and we’ve learned that discussion and free communication can allow us to connect dots and deepen our ideas in ways that would be impossible when working in seclusion.

One of the most rewarding aspects of this class has been learning how to work well with others in an unknown situation. When the trip began at the end of finals week in May, I felt nervous and apprehensive about being thrown into a room with four people—some of whom I barely knew at the time—and having to work alongside them constantly, all the while navigating personalities about which I knew very little and adjusting to a new group dynamic. In the end, though, I learned that collaborating on projects like this from their inception can be engaging, helpful, and even fun. But playing well with others constantly for four weeks has its difficulties; retreating to the solitude of headphones has been an indispensable means of escape for us, even though we quickly realized the necessity of frequent communication for the successful progress of the project. Despite how infuriating collaborative work can be at times, though, its pros ultimately far outweigh its cons, especially for this particular project.

Each member of our group brings individual skill sets to the table, and working collaboratively allows us to benefit from each other’s special knowledge and abilities. We’ve been able to solve puzzles as a group that we wouldn’t have been able to solve alone. Bret’s excellent research skills helped us get one step closer to discovering the possible identity of the mysterious Franz Langer, a copyist and possible performer whose manuscripts Greggiati seems to have been obsessed with collecting. Anne, who catalogs on an almost daily basis back in Bloomington, has a deep knowledge of cataloging music-related documents that proved indispensable, and she played a significant role in our creation of a standardized practice that will be used by future catalogers as well.

For the first two weeks, we barely wore our headphones at all, constantly sharing problems, ideas, and finding ways to standardize our local practice. We frequently found ourselves gathered around one person’s manuscript in a collaborative attempt to decipher an annotation, which were sometimes written in multiple languages, or a performance marking. Aaron, always the first to jump to his feet when someone called for help, quickly proved himself to be the local expert on deciphering minuscule, crowded German text. Amanda became my personal figure-new-things-out buddy, and we pondered many questions together, some as mundane as “how does the Library of Congress standardize vocal score titles?” and others far more intriguing, e.g. “do these markings mean that Langer might have actually performed from this manuscript?” I took a special interest in opera manuscripts that list names of specific performers, particularly prima donnas; these manuscripts raise questions of authorship and highlight the intriguingly malleable nature of the nineteenth-century opera score. One of our favorite group activities became showing each other the elaborate and sometimes hilarious watermarks peppered throughout the manuscripts. I often asked Bret or Amanda to help me hold a large opera manuscript up to the window so that I could clearly see and describe for the catalog the animal or smiling crescent moon that stared back at us.

During the past few days, we’ve frequently made attempts to retreat to more private spaces by putting in headphones and working in silence. I’ve begun to struggle with the almost constant socialization of the trip, and I long for a truly private space and the freedom to seek advice only from those colleagues with whom I am especially close. But while I look forward to returning to my own quiet work space in Bloomington, I will take with me a new appreciation of the benefits of cooperative academic work. I have come to realize that much can be learned from colleagues with vastly different specializations than my own—and I’m so glad to have gotten to know the particular colleagues who accompanied me on this trip on both professional and personal levels. The Greggiati project stands as the product of many minds at work together, and I’m proud to have been part of something that encouraged us to raise as many questions as we answered.


I snapped a shot of what our daily work in the archive looks like.

I snapped a shot of what our daily work in the archive looks like.


Me playing the organ at Santa Barbara in Mantua–an indescribably amazing experience. Our day trips have been just as educational as our work in the archive.

The classic "crescent moon with face" watermark that we've each seen at least 200 times.

The classic “crescent moon with face” watermark that we’ve each seen at least 200 times.

Nathan Reflects

(Note: This was written some time in May. I stand behind my statements, though I have seen more people in the restaurant since.)

Before I begin, let me say that Ostiglia is wonderful, the food is glorious, and Professor Ossi and my colleagues have been tremendous in the work they have done and the company they have provided. I have never been good at writing beautifully about food and scenery, so the following passages will be spent asking the question “Why am I doing this?” If you back out now, I don’t blame you.

When I signed on to participate in the Greggiati project, it was not without a bit of exploratory curiosity. Since I intend on dissertating on popular music at some point in the future, I approached a month-long course on codicology and collectorship as a way of learning about another facet of my discipline. Indeed, it was sold this way to me; Professor Zanovello told me he liked to corrupt the students whose work lead them away from the archive (or something like that).

Further, it was not without a bit of apprehension. Without getting too far into unnecessary details, choosing to do one thing often comes at the expense of choosing another thing which should be done. Graduate school has made me painfully aware how little time I have to do those essential things that must be accomplished; to participate in a course which I will not be getting credit for on subject matter which is not directly related to my sub-field could be simply dismissed as “extra.” However, simple dismissals are rarely good, and I am extremely pleased to have the opportunity to be in Ostiglia, where I have learned many valuable lessons.

So, with a few books I’d been meaning to read and four seasons of a TV show about heavy metal I intend to write a paper about (Metalocalypse, for those who know), I set off to Italy for the first time since 2008 in order to get some first-hand experience with something I may never do again. With Professor Burkholder’s advice that you never know where you will get good ideas for your own research in the back of my mind, I entered the project with an optimistic outlook on what I might gain from doing such work, regardless of where the gains came from.

Now into the third week, with enough experience to know that I know nothing (and that I need a great deal more experience to learn the extent of the nothing I know), I have realized that for me the Greggiati project is not really about books, nor collectorship, nor better understanding the music of the past. For me it is about the people from Ostiglia I work with on a daily basis, who on some level own these books, and how this experience in Ostiglia can teach me something about them. One of the books I have been reading this summer, Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, allowed me to reflect on this. On a train ride to Mantua, I became especially interested in the following introductory passage, explaining Foucault’s desire to write a history of French penal reform:

“I would like to write the history of this prison, with all the political investments of the body that it gathers together in its closed architecture. Why? Simply because I am interested in the past? No, if one means by that writing a history of the past in terms of the present. Yes, if one means writing the history of the present.”

Though I am not writing a history, and am not suggesting the project is in any way like a prison, this passage for me shed light on why I would want to do something like this.

For me, history is ultimately a reflection of a present concern. The manuscripts we catalogue for hours every day, though they tell us about the past, also tell us about the present. What they have told me, something Professor Ossi remarked upon in a press conference held for the people of the town earlier in the month, is how the people of Ostiglia have a truly remarkable resource in their midst. There are few places in Europe where a largely-unchanged personal manuscript collection exists. It is a thing worthy of study, and the job of cataloguing it properly will take more time than can be managed by five students for one month every year.

But this problem is a fantastic one! More people need to come to Ostiglia; it cannot remain a secret. As I sit for every meal in the restaurant attached to the hotel we stay at, the emptiness of the restaurant belies the quality of the food, and the people who serve it. The hotel owner Carlo and his family have treated me like family, despite my inability to properly express my gratitude in Italian. Elisa Superbi, the librarian who runs the Greggiati archive, is not only brilliant, but caring; she sat with us through a three hour meal after the aforementioned press conference, speaking to us in a mixture of English and Italian in order to find out about our lives and our interests. Ostiglia for me has been about far more than books. It has been about people. People who have wonderful books, and wonderful food, and wonderful humanity which should be known by as many people as possible.

So, what am I doing here? I would say I am here to see how wonderful Ostiglia, its books, and its people are, and then to tell people I know about what I have seen. Each catalogue entry we make will hopefully be accompanied by a story (or three) told to friends and family about something wonderful that has happened during the project, so that the town’s reputation might benefit the town and its people. More than facts, or methods, I have learned from Ostiglia the importance of advocacy in my work. These people, these books, and this place deserve to be known. It is my sincere hope that more scholars can come here, for I believe that their work, no matter what it may turn out to be, will benefit greatly from the experiences provided by a small town with big treasures.

Me being pensive

(Taken by Christine Wisch, who thought I looked reflective in this picture. She’s not wrong.)

Vacation Day 1: Ferrara!

Our modern view of buildings enhanced by the patina of age owes much to them, but was not the accepted view in earlier centuries. In Italy the consequences of industrial wealth arrived almost a century later and many ancient monuments were preserved through poverty. Old buildings could normally be replaced only when there was money to pay for them. Thus the shell of quattrocento Ferrara survives, but this same poverty was responsible for lack of maintenance, and what would formerly have been a city of gaily painted buildings was reduced to a city of plain brick facades.”   — Tuohy, Herculean Ferrara, 2.

For many of us in this year’s Ostiglia course, Thomas Touhy’s words were our first in-depth contact with Ferrara. Through Touhy (and also Lockwood), many of us came to know the past splendor of Herculean Ferrara, from the ornate tapestries to the ephemeral sugar sculptures of the Estense court. This past Monday, our group had the pleasure of exploring Ferrara in person and walking through many of the spaces and streets discussed by Touhy. Though the trip lasted only a few hours, our visit allowed us to experience in person the spaces about which we have heard and read so much.

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Palazzo Bentivoglio

After the usual confusion of arranging travel to the city — naturally a train station wouldn’t sell train tickets, but rather a store down the road sells them — we caught our train to Ferrara. The short train ride gave us a taste of the north Italian country side, as we passed corn and soy fields and the occasional patch of red poppies. Upon our arrival at the train station, we headed straight for the ducal palace. Most striking about the city? The number of bicycles. Compared to Amsterdam with its enormous bike garages, the number of bikes in Ferrara pales in comparison, but for a city of only 135,000, the number of bikes is astonishing. The little “bike meters” installed on bike lines boast thousands of passing bicyclists each day.  Our stroll took along Via Garibaldi and by the Palazzo Bentivoglio. Built by Borso d’Este in the 15th century, the building was home to a variety of wealthy individuals and now functions as an apartment building.

Dr. Ossi discusses Renaissance grotesque painting in the Stanzino della Duchese at the Palazzo Ducale in Ferrara

Dr. Ossi discusses Renaissance grotesque painting in the Stanzino della Duchese at the Palazzo Ducale in Ferrara

From the Palazzo Bentivoglio, we continued to the Palazzo Ducale (better known as the Palazzo Municipale). The steps to the Palazzo Ducale have become famous among the M603 Ostiglia participants, as they provide the backdrop for one of the annual group pictures. Because the Palazzo Ducale is now used as an administrative office for the city of Ferrara, only a few rooms of the original structure are available for the public to see, and even fewer retain original art and furnishings. One of the rooms with original decoration is the studiolo or camarino of the duchesses. The room was decorated between 1555 and 1560 and was meant for the two duchesses, Isabelle and Lucrezia d’Este, daughters of Hercules II. The decorations are rich in color and elaborate in design, featuring both painted panels in the grotesque style, marble and wooden borders, and abundant symbols of fertility and wealth.

The other room we were able to see was the Sala dell’Arengo, which features frescoed walls painted in the nineteenth century. The images vary from scenes of daily life to a ring of Zodiac symbols arranged on the ceiling. It’s a strange series of paintings which left me with more questions than answers (as usual), and perhaps my next summer reading will be on Fascist painting in Italy. As the rest of the Palazzo Ducale has been taken over by the city government, we left the palace after only a brief stay and headed on to our next adventure: lunch.

Lunch is no small matter in Italy, especially for a group of foodies like ourselves. We happened upon a nice restaurant which marketed itself as serving authentic Ferrarese food, and as the saying goes, when in Rome Ferrara….

One of the main plates they offered was a dish called salma da sugo, which they served on a bed of mashed potatoes. The paper placemats, complete with a basic English translation, told the story of the dish:

This special Ferrarese dressed pork dish has benn [sic] appreciated by famous people, like Lorenzo il Magnifico, Mascagni, Ungareti, Greta Garbo, D’Annunzio and many others. It’s made of pork meat, liver, and tongue, mixed with red wine (with some drops of marsala or cognac or rhum), pepper, cinnamon and clove. It is left for at least one year hung in a dark, fresh [cool?], and ventilated room. It must be boiled in water for at least four hours before serving.

The (remaining!) salma dall sugo from lunch at Ca'd'Frara

The (remaining!) salma dall sugo from lunch at Ca’d’Frara

I felt famous just eating it. I also found myself drinking water constantly for the next 24 hours, but the salt intake was entirely worth it! After our usual afternoon espresso, we headed off to the duomo. The Cathedral of Ferrara sits opposite the Palazzo Municipale/Ducale (call it what you want; according to Tuohy this has been a problem for lots of folks before us). The church is a large Romanesque and Gothic construction with later Baroque decorations filling its inside.

From the church we walked over to the Castello Vecchio, which is marketed as the Castello Estense to tourists. Complete with a moat and drawbridge, the Castello Vecchio is everything one imagines an old castle to be. There are dark, dank dungeons with early modern graffiti (prisoners got bored back then, too), a rooftop orange garden, and numerous rooms with fresco-filled ceilings. Many of the frescoes serve as reminders of the recent earthquake, as restorative tape covers cracks and areas where the paint has begun to flake off.

A View of the Outside of the Castel Vecchio

A View of the Outside of the Castel Vecchio

Early Modern Graffiti in the Castello Estense dungeon

Early Modern Graffiti in the Castello Estense dungeon

Reminders of the recent earthquake seen in a painting from the “Chamber of Dawn” room in the Castello Estense











Ceiling of the Ducal Chapel depicting the Four Evangelists

Ceiling of the Ducal Chapel depicting the Four Evangelists

The ducal chapel in the castle made a lasting impression on many of us, as it gave us perspective on the size of rooms in which early music was made. The room, perhaps no more than 8’x10’ (I’m terrible with estimating sizes) serves is a testament to the intimacy of private music making for the court.   The room is covered in marble and painted glass, and looking up, one finds the four evangelists painted on a vaulted ceiling. Curiously these are the only religious figures in the entire room.

Our trip back to the train station involved a much needed stop for gelato.(Can you believe we had gone a week in Italy without gelato?) With satisfied stomachs and tired legs, we headed back home to Ostiglia, ready for another week in the archive!


Fellowship and Charting (Coding) New Territory

When I was offered the opportunity to participate in the Greggiati project this summer, I jumped at the chance without hesitation, sensing that this was going to be a special experience. My intuition was correct, because the past two weeks have been an exciting whirlwind filled with delicious food, hard work, and breathtaking views of the Italian countryside. To be honest, the aforementioned perks of traveling to small town Italy were somewhat expected. It should not have surprised me, though, that scholarship and fellowship would go so hand-in-hand during this project.

Our days begin with breakfast and cafe around 8:30. We walk to the Greggiati archive to start work at 9, at which point we all peer- review records that have already been completed. This has been an invaluable experience, demonstrating that the best musicology is done with the help of peers. We catch coding problems, ponder bigger questions about searchability, and discuss theories about what Greggiati was really doing with all of these manuscripts. Dr. Ossi indulges even our wildest speculations, calmly reasoning through them with us. He has the patience of a saint. Elisa’s never-ending supply of chocolate and magic USB drive (which we affectionately call “the magic coffee stick”) that purchases espresso from the coffee machine upstairs certainly help our productivity, too.


The first few days of work were difficult as we struggled to understand the capabilities of our XML schema. Through much trial and error and a lot of hard work on Christine’s part (plus a few panicked Facebook chats with Devon, and a Skype session with Bill), we managed to pull together a system for tackling the Greggiati collection. Since those harried first few days, we have been cataloguing manuscripts by one identified copyist, Mortellari. We share the wonderful, the silly, and the bizarre we find within each book. A particular subject of interest has been the discovery of watermarks and charting their diversity across manuscripts.


As we near the end of the identified Mortellari manuscripts, we plan to conduct a group comparison of scripts and handwriting to attempt formulating answers to some of the bigger questions Dr. Ossi mentioned in his previous post, and to test some theories that Elisa has formed over the years. It seems only fitting that we wrap up our work with a group endeavor, since that’s just the way we began.


2014: Midway Through the Project

It seems impossible, but our project is now in its third of five years, and this year’s seminar is under way. We all arrived on the weekend of May 10-11, and the owner of the California Hotel, Signor Carlo, prepared a mid-afternoon snack for everyone … local ham, parmesan cheese, and bread; this will become a theme throughout our stay, as it has in all previous years. Good food and goood scholarship complement each other!

After a “jet lag morning” we convened at the library on Monday afternoon, where Elisa Superbi greeted us with cookies and soft drinks and gave us an overview of the contents of the library. On Tuesday, after our first few hours of work, Elisa treated us to a tour through the jewels of the library … the contents of what we have come to call the “armoire of treasures” or the “wonder cupboard.”

Each “new edition” of the seminar involves a rethinking of our research goals. Work accumulates from one year to the next—manuscripts to be photographed, data to check and edit, new software, changes to our collecting schema (those horrible files, spiky with code, that will someday become “clean,” user-friendly, searcheable records). And of course new areas of this vast collection to explore: this year we have decided to focus on one important copyist, Alessio Mortellari, from whom Greggiati bought over one hundred manuscripts. While the seminar members work on Mortellari’s scores—identifying his handwriting and its variants, separating his work from that of other scribes sometimes present in manuscripts that appear to be “his,” and separating the manuscripts that he owned and sold to Greggiati from those he actually copied—I am focusing on a census of previous owners by culling through the information already present in the SBN catalog (Servizio Nazionale Bibliografico), as well as keeping track of other copyists whose names appear in the catalog. From a preliminary survey, it appears that Greggiati may have bought the holdings of other collectors’ libraries as well as buying individual scores from dealers and others. He also seems to have acquired large numbers of manuscripts from composers, including works by others which they owned for their own study or performance.

In addition, the time seemed ripe for an overview of the archival documents that have survived from Greggiati’s own papers. Not a great deal has surfaced so far, but the files include two intriguing lists of manuscripts, including some fifty titles, complete with prices. They are not in Greggiati’s hand, and it is unclear what they represent: most of the titles listed do not appear in the collection, and the way the lists are drawn up makes it difficult to tell if they were drawn up by a book seller offering them for Greggiati to choose from, or if they represent orders that were fulfilled. Stay tuned for further details to emerge!

What is clear is that every time we return to the Greggiati Library with fresh eyes we discover new aspects of his musical interests and of his character as a bibliophile. His books, which clearly occupied a prominent place in his life, give us glimpses of his personality, which have been waiting dormant, as it were, for nearly two centuries to reveal themselves to like-minded scholars.

Tough Questions…

Invito a present Progetto IU

…but not impossible, hopefully.

The Greggiati library and the Comune di Ostiglia have organized a public meeting tomorrow evening, where I will be faced with one of the situations I thought existed only in job-interview simulations. “Pretend you have to explain to non academics why it is important to study music history.” Gosh. Can’t we talk about my dissertation instead? No. And, if anything, my present scenario is even worse.

My version of the question would be, “pretend you have to explain why a small town in Italy should spend  tax-payer money to host students from the US who (with exceptions) barely speak Italian and have them study an old  collection of musical scores. Is this study such a priority? And surely, there must be musicologists in Italy who could reach the town by train and not using three different flights??”

Well, that’s it, minus the “pretend” part! Gosh again? Perhaps. Though I think I have at least a few good answers. We’ll see tomorrow…