The Project Graff-IT is a 5-years project (2022-2026) founded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovative programme (grant agreement n. 101020613). The Project investigates the presence of graffiti in Italy, from the seventh to the sixteenth century, and aims to develop a new interdisciplinary approach to the study of medieval and Renaissance graffiti as a historical source. The word “graffiti” derives from the Italian verb “graffiare”, “to scratch”, and literally refers to the scratching technique of writing by means of a hard tip. However, by extended meaning, the term came to denote all forms of writings made on a surface not primarily intended for this purpose by means of an occasional tool, regardless of the technique used. These actions of writing, as envisaged in the Graff-IT Project, also have an extemporaneous and personal character: those who wrote down graffiti on a wall, using a hard tip or a self-made brush and paint, did not operate to satisfy the request of a commissioner, but they did so on their own initiative and beyond any control from authority. In this sense, graffiti are different from most other written sources of the period, which were produced on commission of the religious and secular institutions and the members of the élites. Yet, they share the same cultural ‘world’ as the rest of medieval and early modern written production, as expressed in codices, formal inscriptions and archival documents. This explains the importance of graffiti as a historical source capable of providing first-hand evidence of attitudes, beliefs and mentalities of individuals in the past and, therefore, worthy of being studied in its own right alongside the conventional ones.

Historians have hitherto only considered the ‘top’ part of the communication system of the period, examining graffiti only sporadically, in spite of their remarkable informative potential. The Graff-IT Project, thus, represents the first attempt to lay the foundations for the historiographical use of ancient graffiti, with the overall purpose to develop scientific standards in the collecting, analyzing and interpreting processes. Within this general aim, the Project pursues four main goals:

  • to give graffiti full dignity as written sources and asserts their study as intrinsic to the discipline of Palaeography;
  • to study graffiti in their contemporary context, in order to identify new textualities and new languages;
  • to show the importance of graffiti as a historical source of the history of devotional practices and as signs of the socio-cultural identity;
  • to change our perception of historical artworks, by shifting the focus from the creation stage to their social function and use over time.

Building on an extensive, albeit not exhaustive, survey of Italian graffiti, the Project examines the available occurrences of graffiti in their original context as well as in their historical development over the longue durée of the medieval and early modern periods. Its four objectives reflect the multifaceted complexity of graffiti as a historical source and the multidisciplinary approach used to study them, bringing together methods developed in several academic fields (palaeography, epigraphy, social and religious history, linguistic, philology, anthropology, archaeology, and art history). Such integrated approach among the different disciplines involved allows to investigate graffiti from a plurality of methodological angles, in order to come to a better understanding of the profound reasons behind their making and the implication of this large-scale historical phenomenon. Special attention will be devoted to the investigation of a number of case-studies from different contexts of Italy. These include (but are not limited to) the Scrovegni Chapel at Padua, the Colosseum of Rome, the Basilica of St. Francis at Assisi, the Lazzaretto Vecchio and Nuovo at Venice, and the network of natural caves in Southern Italy. Examination of the messages left by countless ordinary men and women in these (and other) sites will contribute to unveil aspects of their history that no archival document or narrative source could ever disclose.

The Graff-IT Project seeks to have an innovative and groundbreaking effect on the study of ancient graffiti on several grounds. The edition of medieval and Renaissance Italian graffiti in an open-access digital database will provide the scientific community with a corpus of texts covering a chronological span of ten centuries. This will enhance the importance of graffiti as a historical source, while also allowing all those scholars who are interested in these writing to be able to carry out comparative investigations within the long period in question. Furthermore, the dissemination of open access publications and the planning of an exhibition will give historical graffiti public visibility, spreading knowledge not only within the academic world, but also outside, to a wider audience of cultural heritage users and stakeholders.

This Project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 101020613).