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Simone Testa, Italian Academies and Their Networks, 1525–1700: From Local to Global. Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2015. Pp. xiii1286. US$110.

Simone Testa’s book is a “meta-history” of Italian academies and their reception in later research. It is also an introduction to the research project “Italian Academies 1525–1700: The First Intellectual Networks of Early Modern Europe” and to the da- tabase in which its materials are presented: (IAD). The book proposes that historians of different humanities disciplines unite forces to collect the vast amount of information related to early modern Italian academies, preferably by using digital tools. One reason for such inter- and transdisciplinary cooperation is the wide range of modern disciplines that are necessary for the interpretation of these data. Philology, philosophy, natural sciences, antiquarianism, history of the church, and so forth were often pursued in a unified manner, not only by early modern acad- emies but even by single persons, such as Claudio Tolomei (1492–1556) and Marcello Cervini (1501–55). Uniting disciplinary forces in historiography of the humanities would now make it possible to “explore and contextualize the connections made pos- sible by the IAD,” an ambition that “should be seen within the broader picture of the sociology of knowledge” (12). Testa thus adds an entirely new dimension to Michele Maylender’s monumental Storia delle accademie d’Italia (5 vols., Bologna: Cappelli, 1926–30). 

Testa’s introduction presents an explanation why we need a far-ranging, open con- cept of “academy” when talking about Italian academies, especially about those from the sixteenth century: their forms of organization and degrees of formalization are too different to be reduced to one strict notion of “academy.” This understanding of acad- emy extends the amount of relevant source material that has to be taken into account. And this multidimensional field of potential research grows even larger when not only those persons are integrated who can be regarded as “academicians” but also support- ers, patrons, printers, and people in other roles connected to their activities. Obviously, such an amount of historical data can no longer be presented in printed form but can be handled only with digital tools allowing one to connect data in multiple ways— something that would be impossible in books, even with dozens of supplement index volumes. The database created by the project mentioned above, therefore, includes not only a wide-ranging group of more or less institutionalized groups but also over 900 books and several thousand persons. And one might think on an even grander scale: in the long run it could be useful to integrate other sources such as handwritten materials (letters and drawings), archival documents, or books mentioning academic activities and related persons, but not explicitly dedicated to them. 

After giving a concise and critical overview of earlier literature on the history of Italian academies in chapter 1, the author presents his own research regarding the Ve- netian academies and their importance in relation to the evolving political geography and historical scholarship in chapter 2. This interesting account of a complex network of persons, publications, institutions, and intentions also reveals a problem of the IAD project. A starting point in the year 1525 may be unconvincing: it may be motivated by the foundation year of the first academy in Siena, which formulated a strict set of reg- ulations. But Testa’s own example shows that important steps toward the later devel- opment of academies were made before 1525: in the case of Venice, by the famous printer and publisher Aldo Manuzio (1449–1515) and his circle called “Neakademia.” It was in this early network that important foundations were laid for future research, programs, and publications. And it is therefore not a coincidence that Aldo’s son Paolo became the official printer for the vast publishing program developed by the later Ve- netian academy. 

Testa demonstrates very convincingly that these early academies—such as Manuzio’s in Venice, the “Neoplatonic” academy in Florence, Pomponio Leto’s (1428–98) in Rome, or Giovanni Pontano’s (1429–1503) in Naples—surely need to be represented in the IAD and taken into regard for any research about the closely tied networks among con- temporary and consecutive academies in Italy. It also becomes clear through Testa’s ex- amples that these networks reached far across the Italian peninsula from early on, and one has to agree with the author that these networks are not only a forerunner or a model of the “Republic of Letters” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but that they should be understood as its beginnings. 

Chapter 3 deals with “Italian Academies and Their Facebooks,” discussing the man- ners in which some of the academies proudly presented their members, publications, and international connections. The author’s comparison to contemporary digital plat- forms such as Facebook is problematic: the fundamental problem here seems to be the notion of “social network,” which can surely be attributed to early modern networks, but perhaps not to today’s commercial firms that collect as many data as possible about their members (who are in fact the product to be sold to advertisers). 

Last but not least, Testa’s book is not only a stimulating read but also a vast source of information, confronting readers with different fields that they may not have consid- ered before. The notes to the main text fill almost one-quarter of the entire book, which, combined with the rich bibliography and index, make it a “database on paper”—though this database is wisely restricted to some aspects of the Italian academies project. The IAD surely contains much more material that may become the fundament for similar studies on academies and intellectual networks of other times and places, and from dif- ferent historical and methodological points of view. It is therefore no question that the IAD should be continued and even extend its sources of information, encouraging a wider participation of interested researchers. That the entire database is freely available for download as XML files that may be integrated into similar projects is an important step in this direction.