Vota Così, the liberation of Rome and Rock’n’Roll: an internship in Italy.

As part of the curriculum of the master Rare Book and Digital Humanities, I was given the opportunity to go to Italy for a two-month internship in an archive centre. Although leaving home for two months to go to a country that I was completely unaccustomed to was stressful at first, it seemed like a brilliant idea. Brilliant because it was the occasion to discover both a new country and a type of institution I only knew as a visitor. Indeed, my previous studies and hobbies have lead me to archives many times but I had no experience in working in one. The archive I was heading also differs from the common view many people have on such institutions. There were no old dusty rare books, no ancient manuscripts or scrolls. There were thousands of books and rather old newspapers, indeed, but also vinyl and CDs, video cassettes and DVDs, hard rock and erotic magazines.

The archive centre Roberto Marini Oltre il Secolo Breve, in the Tuscan city of Pistoia, Italy, is the result of Roberto Marini’s lifelong enterprise of collecting and classifying thousands of newspapers, journals, videos, CDs, vinyl, posters and books. The 90-year-old man, who is retired from all public life, is very discreet. The reasons as to why he embarked on such a journey to collect so many documents remain somewhat mysterious and are left to supposition. The thousands upon thousands of collected documents are for the most part about politics and culture in Italy after 1945, though not exclusively. Marini’s desire to pursue his ambition is certainly due to his childhood and youth in Mussolini’s Italy. The country’s information channels were then firmly under the fascist iron fist, preventing the free circulation of news and ideas. However, Marini’s pursuit of collecting documents is also very much due to a wish to further an intellectual yearning. Finally, another motivation for this very discreet and humble man is to protect a heritage of his time, to make it available to the public and future generations. In 2018, his collection was opened to the public at a Pistoiese gallery, nearby other shops of all kinds. At first, Marini was hesitant to have his name attached to the archive but he eventually agreed and it was coupled with the Italian title, Oltre il Secolo Breve – beyond the short century -, of the book The Age of Extremes: the Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 by British historian Eric Hobsbawm. The choice of this book as an “emblem” for the archive is of course related to the period most covered by the collection. Passersby can stop for a moment and appreciate the vitrines of the archive centre that change monthly to display documents relating to historical events that happened during that month. If they wish, they can then enter the archive and be greeted by the director M. Roberto Niccolai. The collection numbers thousands of documents coming from Marini’s work and donations. There are some 11,000 books, 8,500 vinyl, 4,000 audiocassettes, 3,500 CDs, 1,000 VHS, 800 magazine titles, 500 posters, 500 miscellanies, 300 uncategorized flyers, 35 periodical and newspaper titles.

Once arrived in Pistoia after a journey through the Alps and Apennine mountains by bus and train, I met with the director as well as the two other interns working at the archivio, Barbara and Dulce. The latter is also a student of the master Rare Book and Digital Humanities. Following a first Italian breakfast, I visited the place I would be working in for the next two months. I saw a collection of National Geographic in Italian and in English, the periodical Classic Rock, John Lee Hooker and The Rolling Stones vinyl. I was to start on the morrow. On the contrary to several other internships I did previously, I was to do many different and varied tasks throughout my stay in Pistoia. Longer and smaller tasks, all of them crucial to the archiving of the thousands of documents and the enhancement of the archive centre.

Vota Così. I decided to name this post as such to honour both the first important mission I had at the archive and what became a joke between the staff. It means “vote as such”. This sentence can be found on many facsimiles of ballots from the 1940s to the beginning of the 21st century. Classified in miscellanies composed by Marini, among hundreds of other documents relating to the political life of Pistoia, Tuscany and Italy, there were dozens of the ballots created by the different political parties of the time. Vota Così became a joke because it was one of my first approaches of the Italian language, as I did not know any of it before I arrived. We had to work on the miscellanies because there were not archived yet. Therefore, we described them in an Excel file, gave each of the documents contained in them a shelfmark and scanned them so that the cataloguers could upload their new notice in the online catalogue of the network of libraries and archives of Pistoia. This work was an excellent approach to the archivio because they represent the diversity of Marini’s collection. Even though they were all documents of a political nature, they concerned the entire political spectrum similarly to how Marini collected all sorts of political and/or cultural items. 

One of the other important jobs I had to do was the digitalization of audiocassettes. To be perfectly honest, though it is something that seems natural to do, I never gave any thought to how one may transfer the audio contained on tapes to a digital format. These cassettes are all recordings made by Marini. They are as diverse as the rest of his collection is: AC/DC, Ginger Baker, socialist congresses, radio documentaries on the liberation of Rome, so on and so forth. Marini recorded everything that interested him, sometimes going himself to a show or a congress to record it. Digitalization allows the archivio to have a copy of the tapes and to make them more easily available to the public. Thanks to team discussions and the advice of professionals from an instrument shop, I decided to use the free software Audacity to perform the digitalization. The cassette player was plugged into a computer through an audio interface with allowed me to record the audio track with Audacity before converting the file into a .waw format. This task was conducted over almost two weeks. Indeed, considering the two faces of a tape can each last up to 55 minutes, and that I had to record 112 audio tracks, it took many hours. While the tracks were playing, I performed other tasks or helped my colleagues. For example, I helped them to order piles of newspapers and periodicals into boxes. This task also entails measuring the protective paper, finding the right box, making a stamp, etc. I also participated in translating seminars for the European project Sliding DoorsSliding Doors is an international socio-historical project that aims to study migrations and the integration of migrants in their new country. Financed by the European Union, there are academics and professionals from nine countries. Between April and June, the project was in one of its first phases, which consisted of Visio conferences to present different aspects of their work, research, or the institution or association involved. Although the part I played in this project was minimal, I still helped to translate some of the Italian conferences into French or English. 

If there was one key component of the internship I was not expecting, it was the importance of music. Of course, considering how many songs and albums are available at the archive, it is logical. During these two months, we organized two events for which music played an important part in my work. The first was an exhibition for the 150th anniversary of the 1871 Commune of Paris and the second a concert event relating to the presence of musical material in the archive. These two missions, which we all worked on, were also unexpected. For the exhibition about the Commune, we first searched and gathered the material we have on this historical event or its consequences. Communard music, Marx’s Civil War in France, facsimiles of the French newspaper Le Tricolore or the Italian La Nazione, the album Ho Male all’orologio by musician and activist Ivan Della Mea, these were to be part of our exhibition. Then, we had to write labels to explain each document. On Saturday 29 May, we drove to the city of Sesto Fiorentino, near Firenze. There, we went to the Institute Ernesto di Martino, which specialized in the research and study of the working class. They organized a concert and projected a documentary, all concerning the Commune and its political influence. We presented our exhibition. This was the first part of this event. Back to the archive centre in Pistoia, on 19 June, we organized a panel discussion on the Commune called “Debout ! Ce n’est qu’un début / Alzatevi! Non è che l’inizio”. We set up our exhibition once more. I was tasked to create a playlist with songs from the archive that are about revolutionary thoughts or protests. Starting with the French revolutionary song Ca ira and finishing with L’Internationale, the playlist included songs by The Clash, Bob Marley, Pablo Milanès, Yves Montand or the Modena City Ramblers. Two professors from our university of Franche-Comté, Rudy Chaulet and Frédéric Spagnoli, came to Pistoia for the event, as they were part of the panel. University of Bologna professor Enrico Zanette joined them that evening. The director, Roberto Niccolai, was the coordinator for the academic discussion while I, accompanied by the two other interns, was tasked to supervise the event and ensure that everything was shipshape and Bristol fashion. 

Little did I know that I would also set up a rock and blues concert while working at the archive? For the celebrations of the music festival, on 26 June, we organized an event called Musiche e Voci d’Archivio, or, Music and voices from the archives. The first part of the evening was another panel discussion between specialists of archives and catalogues. The second part is dedicated to several musicians and bands playing jazz, blues and rock. Like the first event, we, the interns, were tasked to make sure everything worked according to plan. We helped to set up the stage under the gallery, to watch the instruments and the archive as well as ensuring that the public left their name and phone number because of the pandemic. Both events went extremely well.

What I have written so far is representative of the main missions I accomplished during my stay in Pistoia. However, the work in an archive is often very diverse and I did several others tasks as well. For example, I was able to put my knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet to good use. Indeed, the archive possesses two Soviet vinyl on patriotic music and Russian classical. They are written in Russian and in Ukrainian. A transliteration of the writings is required to enter these two vinyl in the catalogue of the archive. So, I transliterated every letter on the covers following the specific recommendations to transliterate Cyrillic in Italian. Even though there is International Organization for Standardization (currently ISO 9), each language has its needs and traditions. Another interesting part of the job was the creation of the monthly vitrines. It involved historical research as we would try to find interesting historical events that happened during the month. Famous births or deaths, wars and battles, the release of albums or books, political events, we tried to be as varied as possible to interest as many people as we can. The vitrines are the face of the archivio and what attracts those who don’t know it. Once the list was finished, the director would select some 20 of these events. We then searched and gathered documents or other material from the archive to decorate the vitrines and make a showcase. Barbara Beneforti was in charge of the “physical” dressing of the vitrines. It was through this particular task that I was able to learn much about Italian history even if the vitrines are not solely about Italy.

Finally, I cannot write or speak about my internship in Italy without mentioning the fantastic cultural aspects and opportunities it gave me. Any stay in a foreign country, be it for studying or for an internship, must be a cultural experience especially when one has never set foot in that country. Though we often worked a lot, I was able to use my free time to visit Tuscany with my colleagues. It was the opportunity to visit Pisa and its famous Leaning Tower, the walls of the fortified city of Lucca, the Etruscan and Roman ruins of Populonia as well as the sea resort town of Viareggio. I must also mention the incredible cultural exchange the internship was. Not only was I fully immersed in a country and a language so far unknown to me, I also met and worked with people from diverse backgrounds: Italian, Macedonian and Mexican. I discovered new ways to work, new skills and new people. Should you ever pass through Tuscany, you must stop and visit Pistoia. If you are interested in music, political or cultural aspects of post-1945 Italy, don’t forget to go to the Archivio Roberto Marini, you will be amazed by the material available.