Mapping Secrets


ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowships




Secretaries are keepers of secrets. Across Renaissance Europe, secretaries listened, took dictation, copied, and sent letters daily. Their records offer a godsend to historians, but secretarial copies also reflect a change in the meaning of letters by adding an administrative mediation that de-personalizes them—a change not evident in the sent letter alone. With Mapping Secrets, my team and I are developing a new tool for mapping networks that integrates secretarial practices and administrative recordkeeping in the act of letter writing. Our dataset comprises notes, drafts, copies, and letters from the archive of Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), Marquise of the north Italian court of Mantua. With over 50,000 documents, her correspondence presents a detailed record of domestic, social, artistic, and political networks that offers day-by-day evidence of communications practices at a time when ambassadorial networks were in their infancy. Mapping Secrets recognizes the integrations of personal letter-writing with bureaucratic systems in early modern Europe and marks the potential meanings implied by variations in the processes of letter production over time. Tracing these trajectories, we ask: what can the practices of Renaissance secretaries tell us about the design of early bureaucracies and statecraft?