Certain research topics are able to shed a slim ray of light on the intricacies of history. This is the story of how a group of inscribed funerary slabs from the Lusignan period in Cyprus are connected to the man who played a key role on the birth of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1861. Also, how team work, method, intuition and a pinch of luck can lead to unexpected and satisfying results.
One may think that archives have little or nothing to do with the epigraphist’s tasks, since epigraphists spend most of their time studying inscriptions exposed to the public rather than manuscripts, but they might be actually much more closely related than what they appear at first sight. An important and relatively recent branch of philosophy has been dealing with the idea that ‘things’ and ‘objects’ embody the hubs of social relationships. Because the nature (and the actors) of these social relationships shift over time, the values and the functions represented by culturally connotated objects change as well. From this assumption, epigraphists, art historians and archaeologists – essentially all those researchers that are used to dealing with objects – have been taking a closer look to what has been poetically called ‘the cultural biography of things’. As a living being, objects get old, move, change meaning, affect and are affected by the people that over time came in contact with them.
This is why one of the goals of Graph-East project is to trace, as much as possible, the long life of medieval inscriptions in Latin characters coming from the Eastern Mediterranean, from the moment they were created to the present.
A couple of years ago, browsing into the specific literature in regards to the Cypriot heritage, I noticed that an old book from the end of the 19th century mentioned that there was an anonymous manuscript in Piacenza (Italy), dealing with the medieval funerary monuments of Cyprus. It was thanks to the precious help of Massimo Baucia, Piacenza’s library chief librarian, that I was able to confirm the manuscript was still in place and could be consulted. It was for my greatest joy to find out that not only was the manuscript full of drawings and notes regarding the monuments and their inscriptions, which are the object of our project, but also that it was dated to the year 1845, which allowed me to place it in time. This fact was not secondary, since no one seemed to have a clue of who its author could have been. Digging deeper into the specific literature, I found out that the manuscript had been mostly attributed to two different people active in Cyprus during the middle of the 19th century. Two Italians, named Luigi Palma di Cesnola, who at some point of his life obtained the American citizenship, and someone called Marcello Cerruti. Because Palma di Cesnola was only twelve years old in 1845, it seemed to me more likely to follow the traces of Marcello Cerruti.
Now, whoever has worked on the profile of Italian historical men and women knows that the departing point for any research is the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, a monumental encyclopaedia, concluded in 2020, whose goal is to gather data on Italian and italianised people from the fall of the Roman Empire to this day. Despite the scarcity of specific studies devoted to Marcello Cerruti, the DBI offered a rich entry under his name, which reported that he was a diplomat who played an important role in the birth and development of the Italian state during and after its unification (1861), but more importantly for our research, that in his early years he was a consul working in Cyprus at the service of the king of Sardinia.
At this point a new question arose: if he had an official assignment during the years he presumably produced the Piacenza manuscript, there could still be some traces of it in the official documents. Of course this would not have explained why would a consul study and record Cypriot funerary slabs, but before arriving to that, it was crucial to know if it was actually Cerruti the author of the Piacenza manuscript. The quest for the official consular documents had just begun.
One must be aware that looking for specific historical documents is hardly ever an easy task. Because archivistic research cannot be detached from the history of the institutions that have produced them, looking for a specific document is like looking for a needle in a haystack. It takes time to learn to navigate the inventories and to develop a certain intuition when dealing with them. And this is why the help of professional archivists is essential for any research.
So, in this case, my first thought was to look into the archives of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome, where one would imagine all documents regarding the nation’s diplomatic activity should be gathered. Well, yes, this was right, except for the fact that the current Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs plunges its roots in the Ministry founded in 1861 when the Kingdom of Italy was born. Where could I find the documents produced in the years previous to the 1861? Finally, after many phone calls and many hours spent browsing the archival inventories, I found out that the archives we were looking for were in Turin, the former capital of the former Kingdom of Sardinia, for which Marcello Cerruti worked until the Italian unification.
So there I was, in march 2023, in a short fieldtrip to Turin that allowed me to find what we were looking for. The archivists helped me to get the foreign affairs documents relative to Cyprus from 1825, date of the first Sardinian consul in the island, to 1861. And there I found the confirmation I was looking for. Cerruti’s letters to the minister – apart from reporting on his regular diplomatic tasks – tell in detail his work on the manuscript and, more generally, on his interest on archaeology. His reports offer a fascinating picture of 19th century Cyprus, on the relationship between the Ottoman empire (to which the island belonged then) and the Western states and on the impact of medieval heritage on contemporary politics.
The manuscript from Piacenza and the rich archival documents connected to it are currently being studied by Graph-East and will be published soon. Although the work is still in progress, it is already possible to take a look at some preliminary data. Of the 69 tombs inventoried by Cerruti, 46 are still preserved, but as many as 23 have now completely disappeared. While some traces of the lost inscriptions remain in the printed bibliography, they can now be supplemented with new clues, such as drawings and transcriptions offered by our manuscript. In addition, two slabs included in the Piacenza repertory are completely unpublished. The archival documents, on their side, provide the necessary information to attempt a reconstruction of the genesis and development of the Piacenza manuscript, or, better, of the implications of medieval epigraphy in a 19th century context.
Although I would have never expected to stumble into this two sets of documents, which appear far from Graph-East area and chronological span of interest, they provide new data useful for our research, apart from opening a new window on the long life of medieval inscriptions and their meaning throughout time. Of course, the question is now: why would a Ligurian diplomat be interested into Medieval epigraphy or funerary art? We will soon fully disclose the answer in our next blog’s entry.
Cite this blog post
Maria Aimé Villano (2023, September 1). Cyprus-Piacenza-Turin and a diplomat (or what can a 19th century manuscript tell us about Medieval epigraphy). ERC GRAPH-EAST. Retrieved February 28, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/5r0