A Review of the State Archives in Milan (ASM)


A review of the State Archives in Milan | Archivio di Stato di Milano.

Via Senato, 10 – 20122 Milan, Italy
Phone: +39 02 7742161 – Fax: +39 02 774216230
E-mail: as-mi@beniculturali.it

Hours of the reading room:
Monday through Thursday: 8am – 5:45pm (last call at 1pm)
Friday: 8am – 2:45pm (last call at 1pm)
Saturday: 8am – 1:45pm (consultation of previously requested material only)
In August, the ASM has limited hours. The archive may occasionally limit its hours also during the rest of the year. These changes are communicated in the archives, as well as on the archive’s website.

ASM grants annual, renewable access passes. When it is the researcher’s first time visiting the ASM, I recommend having a letter of introduction from one’s home department or university. I was asked for this letter the first time I registered with the ASM and I have overheard other researchers being asked for a letter of introduction. Having such a letter, it seems, is also the appropriate and culturally expected way to approach any archive, manuscript collection, or special collections library in Italy.

History of the archive and its collections:
The first steps towards present-day Archivio di Stato di Milano were taken in the late-18th century, when first Austrian and then French officials began to bring together previously separate collections and libraries. Large-scale administrative and political changes, but also fears about damages to the patrimony during wartimes, fuelled the effort to create a central archive. Indeed, the medieval Visconti archive was already largely destroyed by the late-18th century and only very limited material survives today. Archivio di Stato di Milano in its current form and location was born in the course of the second half of the 19th century, when separate centralizing collections were brought together into this one collection.

Chronologically, the ASM collections cover the Sforza period (1447-1535), the Spanish period (1535-1714), the Austrian Lombardy (1714-1797) and through the revolutionary and Napoleonic states to the 20th century. The documents include government papers, judicial, finance, and military archives, as well as notarial archives. The extensive “Fondo di religione” collection includes the archives of the ecclesiastical institutions suppressed during the revolutionary and Napoleonic periods; in addition to Milanese institutions, the collection also holds the archives of ecclesiastical entities from Bergamo, Brescia, Como, and other localities in the Lombardy area. It is, however, important to note that the Napoleonic government ‘purged’ large parts of the premodern archives, while even before that the Spanish and Austrian domination of Milan meant that many state papers found their way to Madrid and Vienna. During the 19th and 20th centuries, both natural and man-made disasters and calamities have damaged the collections. The archive, particularly the judicial and finance collections, suffered substantial damage in the 1943 bombings of Milan.

As someone doing comparative work on religious communities in Bergamo and Bologna, I arrived in Milan expecting to work on the “Fondo di Religione”. However, since Milan was the capital of the revolutionary Cisalpine Republic and the Napoleonic Italian Republic and Kingdom of Italy, I soon realized that there was a wealth of government documents as well as materials transferred from Bologna that I could and should work on. Thus, while much material on Milan’s own history has suffered losses or transfers, the central position that Milan assumed in North-Central Italy at the turn of the 18th century means that historians interested in histories of Brescia and Bergamo, or, farther afield, of Bologna, Modena, Mantua, should also make a stop in ASM.

There is always an archivist present who can help researchers navigate the indexes. The latter seem to have undergone a wave of updates over the last 10-15 years. However, the level of detail is still very much dependent on topic and the research-interests of the archivists. As someone working on women’s and gender history, I am used to low-level of detail, since the basis for most indexes was laid before women and gender became a category of research and have not been updated since. However, the archivists do try to help and, since they know the archive well, can usually offer good direction. As in all Italian archives, it helps to be conversational in Italian and explain one’s research in Italian. Although, from what I overheard, the archive staff in Milan is also conversational in English and French.

Once the materials of interest have been located, request are made through an online call system. The circulation staff delivers the requested materials from the depositories at set times. These are Monday through Friday, at 8:30am, 10am, 11am, 12pm, and 1pm. For Saturdays, requests must be made in advance. ASM also limits the number of requests a researcher can make in a day to 4 archive boxes. Furthermore, materials can be kept on the consultation shelf for limited time only, after which they are automatically returned to the depositories. These rules and limits mean that one needs to properly plan the requests, especially during shorter research stays, and be aware how long a particular archive box has been out of the depository. I was not aware of the limits set on consultation time at first and learned it the hard way one morning when I arrived, excited to start work, only to find that the archive box I had been working on for the last couple of days had been returned to the depositories. I needed to put in a new request for the same box and wait until it was delivered again before I could start work that day. It is the responsibility of the researcher to keep track of how long the documents they are working on have been on the consultation shelf and make the necessary renewal requests.

Photographs and photocopying:
It is easy to take photos of archival documents. One needs to fill out a request form, have it signed by the archivist in charge, and then they are ready to take photos. Due to a recent proposal to change the law that governs public archives in Italy, the ASM (and other archives in the Archivio di Stato system) have also suspended the charging of fees for taking photos. The law many change again, so it is better to check with the archivist or the reading room attendant in charge. These procedures only apply for photos taken for the purposes of private study.

Other services:
Like all archives that are part of the Archivio di Stato system, ASM also has an on-site library. The collection of the library focuses on the history of Milan and Lombardy. Like the archive collection, also the library collection unfortunately suffered damage during the Second World War. However, anyone interested in post-war scholarship on the region will be almost sure to find it here. The library catalogue is part of the “Polo regionale lobrado” (http://www.biblioteche.regione.lombardia.it). The library is consultation-only: books and articles must be consulted in the library reading room (or, on Saturday mornings, in the archive reading room).

On the whole, having worked in three archives that are part of the Archivio di Stato system over the last 12 months, I found Archivio di Stato di Milano a very easy to navigate environment. It is a big archive where rules and procedures are set and followed quite exactly. While this is perhaps slightly uncommon for Italy, it does make ASM an easy place to work in because one knows what to expect from day one. The archive staff is friendly and ready to explain the rules, and even ready to bend a couple of rules slightly during your first weeks there once they realize that a particular rule had not been explained to you yet. This is Italy after all!

Liise Lehtsalu
History Department
Brown University

Image: ASM courtyard. Photograph by Author.

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