Undergraduate research & the Archivio Digitale Boncompagni Ludovisi after a decade: an informal discussion

From the Casino dell’Aurora archive: signed drawing (1497) by Vincenzo Giorgetti of Assisi. Shows a tomb (dated 1295) in the cloister of the Basilica of S Francis in Assisi, of Ventura son of Ranaldo, with dragon-themed stemma—likely an early member of the Boncompagni family. Collection †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

It’s the type of anniversary that takes one by surprise. A little more than 10 years ago—on the 2nd of December 2012, to be exact—we kicked off the Archivio Digitale Boncompagni Ludovisi (ADBL) weblog with two short articles relating to Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1502-1572-1585) and his son Giacomo (1548-1612). Each featured unseen documents from a recently-uncovered archive found in the Casino dell’Aurora in Rome, the home of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi. Indeed, it was Princess Rita who discovered the documents, eventually totalling close to 150,000 pages in all, and made possible their complete digitization by Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

A lot has happened over the past decade, with spectacular discoveries continuing to emerge from this archive even as a crisis about the future of this world-class cultural landmark intensifies. A forthcoming volume to be published by Brepols, authored by Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi with ADBL editor Corey Brennan, aims to tell a good chunk of the story of Rome’s Villa Ludovisi in the 17th through 19th centuries. However our ADBL (= VillaLudovisi.org) site will continue, now for a second decade, to feature detailed research—primarily by undergraduate students—on this Villa, and indeed all aspects of Boncompagni Ludovisi family history. And that is in addition to a project YouTube channel, a Google Arts & Culture partner site, and of course for latest news a Twitter account.

To mark our modest milestone, in December 2022 Brennan together with ADBL assistant director Carol Cofone (Rutgers ’17, who since 2020 has directed our summer internship program) and Professor Pierette Kulpa (Department of Art & Design, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, and co-facilitator at Kutztown of a 2021 international conference devoted to Gregory XV Ludovisi) chatted via ZOOM about the past and the prospects of VillaLudovisi.org, in particular its role as a locus of high-level undergraduate research focusing on original materials. Here are the results of that chat (lightly edited), followed by a roster of students from Rutgers, Kutztown (through a formal accord with the ADBL), and other institutions who so far have contributed to the project, through academic year programs or summer internships

From the archive: testament (1496) of Contessa Giocoli of Ferrara, widow of historian Niccolò Strozzi (1413-77), in which she institutes two (well-known) grandsons as heirs. The document opens up a wide window into 15th century humanism in Ferrara. Collection †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

COREY BRENNAN: Carol and Pierette—key people in our Ludovisi project—I just wanted to mark our 10 years, and also just put forward a remarkable fact. One thing I didn’t even realize myself until I went back through the blog and looked at the authorship of every single piece. Every piece is written by someone who has a degree no higher than BA. There’s me and there’s a few others, there’s one or two other cameos, but on the whole there’s 75+ pieces written by our students, and I just wanted to basically put that out there and just say what a remarkable fact that high quality research could be produced at the undergraduate level.

PIERETTE KULPA: That’s been certainly exciting to me in revisiting many of the posts. Students from Kutztown and Rutgers and other institutions have produced some pretty phenomenal discoveries, even with the dossiers that they’ve been given, and then they come back and they’ve got all these really neat ideas. And I think it’s been one of the threads that I saw in a couple of the posts which I thought was so exciting was the work of undergrads bringing to light material and histories and people that have been overlooked, many of them anyways by history, and many of them women whose histories, you know, were maybe not prioritized in the past, and so it’s pretty cool to experience and sense those people’s lives through their work.

COREY BRENNAN: I was thinking of Erin Rizzetto‘s recent piece on Laura Chigi and here’s someone who had a long and important life if she lived to age 85, and we have portraits, but there’s—to my surprise—no Wikipedia entry on Laura Chigi. There’s not even the Treccani Encyclopedia, I mean, her life is dealt with as an appendage to her husband’s life. But she was a major figure, obviously from a big papal family and with lots and lots of connections. But until Erin set out the facts of her life, I didn’t have much of a much of a sense, and also she wrote her piece from completely unpublished and previously unknown archival sources that she was the first to look at in 250 years. You couldn’t say “Chat GPT—write me an essay on Laura Chigi”, because you could scan the entire sort of secondary text world and there’d be nothing. You have to do it for the primary documents, and not only that, you have to like transcribe often very difficult to read 18th century writing and then make sense of it all.

From the ADBL 10th anniversary ZOOM informal discussion (December 2022): clockwise from top left, Professor Pierette Kulpa (Kutztown University), ADBL editor Corey Brennan (Rutgers University), ADBL assistant director Carol Cofone.

PIERETTE KULPA: That’s been really interesting seeing students kind of grapple with that aspect of it too, from finding sources, you know, beyond what is readily available with a quick Google search, to deciphering text, and it’s not easy. Many, many hands to read, so they’ve they’ve learned a skill that they would otherwise have no no sort of experience with before, and then you know working with translation and transcription and then translation. It was very impressive to see the translation and the transcription work of many of the students.

CAROL COFONE: I have a theory that the undergraduate student is in a position—perhaps for the last-best time in their academic career—to research these topics. As they go on to graduate school, of necessity they will be directed into ever more specific, siloed areas of study. As an undergraduate, which I was when I came to this project, the wide array of topics helped me go beyond the confines of my major. The ADBL touches on so many things. Universities are big places, with tons of resources. This is especially true at Rutgers—I can’t say enough great things about it. It really changed my life. But it is difficult to take advantage of all the resources that are there. You have to cross silos to do so. I found this project originally through Rutgers’ Aresty [Undergraduate Research] Program. As a part-time student, taking one class per semester, I was unable to be officially part of that program. But you generously invited me to participate. ADBL finds you at a point in your studies where you can still be a generalist. But it finds you at a point where don’t have all the research skills you need. ADBL meets students where they are, making the most of what they’re well-positioned to do by giving them the skills they don’t yet have. What you were saying about being able to hear students’ voices come through, I think is a result of having this very particular opportunity come along at that very special moment in their academic career. I encountered nothing else like it. ADBL is a rarity in this.

From the archive: the will (6 Oct 1547) of Ugo Boncompagni, the future Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1572-1585), in which he leaves to each of his daughters (!), whether legitimate or illegitimate (!), a dowry of 2000 large gold florins, + 200 for “ornamentation”. Collection †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

COREY BRENNAN: I would make the claim, I mean thanks to Princess Rita and her late husband Prince Nicolò, I don’t know any other place where it’s students are given a hundred thousand plus documents to choose from or pages of documents to choose from and saying that no one has ever looked at this before, or even read it in 97% of the cases. The blog format actually really works for this, I think, because it’s not The Burlington Magazine. It’s a place also to be really, you can be daring, you can take risks. And a lot of these are risks because, who knows, it means you’re creating knowledge. And um, often there isn’t a bibliography or a sort of academic safety net.

CAROL COFONE: You mentioned Prince Nicolò and Princess Rita. Their generosity went beyond giving us access to their archive – they continued to do so. We talked about many of the students, who as interns, did exceptional work and are continuing to be part of this project. With most internships, you’re there for a couple of months, you have this task and then you move on. ADBL is different. Because the holdings are so vast, there’s always more to discover so you can continue your work. For example, I spent quite a while translating Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi’s [1921] memoir of his mother, Agnese Borghese. When the translation was nearly complete, you shared with me that you had discovered a painting of Agnese at the Villa from the year before she got married.  It registered with me that Ugo, in the early pages of his mother’s memoir, referred to a painting she made of herself. It turns out that the painting found at the Villa is actually this self-portrait. There are not many opportunities, sustained across years like this, that enable you to connect something you did previously with something just discovered. And there are discoveries coming out of the Villa constantly. ADBL redefines the notion of what an internship can be. And the really exceptional students who have participated over the years, continue to both get so much out of it and contribute so much to it.

COREY BRENNAN: As far as the future is concerned, I think there’s a lot to be excited about. First of all, there’s a significant portion of the archive which we haven’t had access to yet, which at some point I hope we will, that’s at a remote location. A second thing is that we just generally raised consciousness about this family and its history. And a third thing is that it’s the 400th anniversary of everything, you know, the next decade. We just had the 400th anniversary of the accession Gregory XV Ludovisi and we’re still having it, and we celebrated that with an international conference hosted by Kutztown. That was again very cheering for me to see undergraduates presenting alongside distinguished scholars and to see what that type of conference would be like, and you know, I think in some respects there was a fair amount of cohesion and continuity amongst the work.

PIERETTE KULPA: That was pretty exceptional. It was interdisciplinary and involved all levels of academics, so yes, it was pretty exciting to see that all come together.

From the archive: a (crumpled) elevation of the Palazzo dei Governatori in Visso (Macerata), restored in 1579. The Boncompagni family is attested at Visso by the late 14th century, and Gregory XIII favored the town—shaken several times in 2016 and again on 17 Apr 2018 by strong earthquakes. Collection †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

COREY BRENNAN: So I mean basically in the “what next” category, I’d like to see a paid internship. I’d also like to see a more structured, you know, environment, and also to take a look at one of the original aims of this project, which hasn’t happened yet, is to inspire other families to digitize their stuff and make it open access. And of course, also one of our projects is that we have the archive amongst ourselves, but we haven’t yet come up with the platform in which we can share the material. There’s no, I mean it’s only a technical/financial barrier right now that prohibits us from doing it. So I mean basically I would open it to the world, that’s not the issue, but it’s basically finding a stable platform where you could have 400 gigabytes worth of material and make it at least vaguely searchable.

CAROL COFONE: I think that the way events are unfolding, ADBL is like an idea whose time has come. With so many decisive things happening, so many events converging, all the effort that you’ve put into this is coalescing. I’m so glad that I got to be a participant nearly 10 years ago, to see how far we’ve come and to be present now for the most exciting time for this project yet.

COREY BRENNAN: Also one further thought, and Pierette, you’d be the best judge of this, I think there’s also something to be said for advocating for pre-1900 studies, you know? I’d say pre-20th century studies, sort of taken a hit just in general, and especially those that are not connected with, in this country, basically connected with the United States, but so it’s difficult material, I mean you’re throwing students to say, “Here’s your, here’s a 16th century manuscript in Italian, and um, see if you can make any sense of it.”

PIERETTE KULPA: There certainly are some barriers, and I think you’re right, the interest in it—it’s there, but then to dive deeper into it as a field of study or to make connections that go beyond a superficial area or maybe more challenging aspects to grasp—but it’s eternally fascinating because there are these through lines with the present. You know, we are drawn to this place because of its people and what they did, and then there’s the contemporary news that it’s making. And so understanding how this family operated and what artworks and artists were involved and in their collections and how they were managed is important today because it informs how we manage them and and deal with them today.

CAROL COFONE: If I have any one thought to close on, it’s gratitude that both Princess Rita and the late Prince Nicolò opened their archives to us. Princess Rita has spoken of the Prince’s education, and the importance they both attached to education. By extending these research opportunities, particularly to undergraduates who don’t often receive them, they have continued a family legacy, one that is well documented in the pages of Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi’s memoir of his mother.

From the archive: on 7 February 1594 Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (reigned 1576-1612) elevates the territory of Piombino to a Principate, and the city of Populonia to a Marchesate, all in favor of 13 year old Jacopo VII Appiani, now the first Prince of Piombino. Collection †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

What follows below is a list of students who have in the past or are currently working under the umbrella of the Archivio Digitale Boncompagni Ludovisi. RU = Rutgers University; KU = Kutztown University. For a list of ADBL board members, see here (“Collaborative Initiatives”).

Defne Akçakayalıoğlu (St Andrew’s School [FL] ’23) UNPUBLISHED LETTERS (1786-1787) OF LOUIS XVI AND MARIE ANTOINETTE TO CARDINAL IGNAZIO BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI; Melis Akçakayalıoğlu (St Andrew’s School [FL] ’23) UNPUBLISHED LETTERS (1782) OF LOUIS XVI AND MARIE ANTOINETTE TO CARDINAL IGNAZIO BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI; Isobel Ali RU’23 THE VILLA SORA IN FRASCATI; Michael Antosiewicz RU’18 POPE GREGORY XIII BONCOMPAGNI AND HIS LEGITIMATED SON; Hatice Köroglu Çam RU’22 THE LUDOVISI COLLECTION OF SCULPTURES; Carol Cofone RU’17 [from 2021—Assistant Director ADBL]  AGNESE BORGHESE (1836-1920); Abigail Cosgrove KU’22 ELEONORA BONCOMPAGNI BORGHESE; Gabrielle Discafani (RU MA cand.) A 2nd CENTURY CE DEDICATION BY A FRIEND OF MARCUS AURELIUS IN THE VILLA AURORA; Rebecca Domas KU’21 ADMINISTRATION OF THE MUSEO BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI; Max Duboff RU’19 HONORS (1570s) TO GIACOMO  BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI, SON OF GREGORY XIII; Nicholas Eimer RU’24 POPE PIUS IX AND THE BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI

Sean Feuer RU’14 VIDEOGRAPHY AND CO-DIRECTION:  ‘THE PRINCESS OF PIOMBINO’ FILM; Gabriela Figueredo RU’15 CO-DIRECTION: ‘THE PRINCESS OF PIOMBINO’ FILM; Michaela Fore RU’15 POPE GREGORY XIII AND THE FIRST JAPANESE EMBASSY TO THE WEST; Maryam Forghani (RU MA’22) THE BONCOMPAGNI AND THE PAPAL STATES IN THE 1590s; Madeleine Dreiband Tulane’23 FRANCESCO BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI AND THE LATERAN ACCORDS; Jacqueline Giz RU’23 (MA cand. ‘24) THE BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI  COLLECTION OF GEMS; THE VILLA LUDOVISI ACCOUNTS; Thomas Gosart RU’20 THE PAPAL MEDALS OF GREGORY XIII BONCOMPAGNI; Katy Greenberg RU’19 ARTISTIC REPRESENTATIONS OF THE CALENDAR REFORM OF GREGORY XIII BONCOMPAGNI; Arishita Gupta RU’23 LOUIS XIV AND IPPOLITA LUDOVISI; Isabel Heslin Lehigh’21 THE EX-LUDOVISI SALLUSTIAN OBELISK; Shaodi Huang RU’15 EDITING: ‘THE PRINCESS OF PIOMBINO’ FILM

Madhumita Kaushik RU’20 THE BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI AND SPAIN IN THE EARLY 18TH CENTURY; Christina Lee RU’16 CONFIDENTIAL OSS FILES ON BONCOMPAGNO BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI IN THE 1940S; Joshua Maybrook RU’18 THE VILLA LUDOVISI IN THE FICTION OF HENRY JAMES; James Malloy RU’23 WW I PHOTOS OF FRANCESCO BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI; Michael McGillicuddy RU’21 THE BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI AND THE VATICAN 1928-1929; Shannon Meledathu RU’18 FINDING LIST OF ARCHIVIO BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI; Sarah Moynihan RU’21 UNPUBLISHED LETTER OF MUSSOLINI ON HOMELESS IN ROME; Adam Nawrot RU’14 VIDEOGRAPHY: ‘THE PRINCESS OF PIOMBINO’ FILM; Meghan O’Keefe-Donohue RU’23 THE BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI AND SCULPTURAL CASTS; Emilie Puja RU’25 CARDINAL IGNAZIO BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI; FAMILY FUNERARY INSCRIPTIONS

Erin Rizzetto KU’22 UNPUBLISHED OBITUARIES OF LAURA CHIGI; Nicoletta Romano RU’15 DIARY OF FRANCESCO BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI (1886-1955); Giselle Silva RU’24 ELEONORA ZAPATA BONCOMPAGNI; Cecily Smith RU’14  HENRY JAMES & THE VILLA LUDOVISI IN HIS NON-FICTION WORKS; Avery Soupios RU’24 THE MARRIAGE OF NICCOLÒ LUDOVISI AND ISABELLA GESUALDO IN 1622; Sophia Stefanowski KU’23 BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI 19THc PHOTO ALBUMS; Patrick Travens RU’16 CARDINAL IGNAZIO BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI AND THE KNIGHTS OF MALTA; Ruth Tucker RU’21 THE DIARY OF LAURA CHIGI BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI (18TH CENTURY); Timothy Valente RU’15 FRANCESCO BONCOMPAGNI LUDOVISI AS GOVERNOR OF ROME (1928-35); Maxwell Wade RU’19 BONCOMPAGNI MARRIAGE ALLIANCES IN THE 1620s

From the archive in the Casino dell’Aurora: testament (17 September 1423) in which Ugo Boncompagni institutes as heir the son of the famed doctor of laws Pietro Boncompagni (†1408)—Gasparo, the great-grandfather of Ugo Boncompagni = Pope Gregory XIII. Gasparo himself would die in 1428. Collection †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

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