Historical Sedimentation of Archival Materials: Reinterpreting a Foundational Concept in the Italian Archival Tradition

  • Marco Bologna


The concept of sedimentation is an integral part of the Italian tradition of archival studies. Sedimentation has always happened, oftentimes unconsciously, in archival practice, and has had profound effects on the preservation of documents and their transmission over time. This essay aims to explore how sedimentation takes place in the archives. After describing the meanings and uses of the notion of sedimentation in the history of archival theory, the essay focuses on the history of sedimentation, that is, the ways in which sedimentation took place in different time periods in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

One of the insights offered by this study is that sedimentation has never occurred involuntarily or by chance; rather, it has always reflected, albeit indirectly, the political and administrative needs of the age in which it was executed and has anticipated any future uses of the sedimented materials. Archival sedimentation is “historical” exactly because it takes place within the history of the society in which each archives is produced and maintained. On the one hand, sedimentation is part of the micro-history of that society because it depends on the actions of few individuals, and on the other hand, it is involved in the cultural and juridical macro-history of its time.

The essay concludes with the suggestion that the history of archival sedimentation should be seen as a constitutive part of the knowledge of any given time period. Sedimentation is an integral part of our historical collective memory.

With translation by GABRIELLA SONNEWALD and introduction by FIORELLA FOSCARINI 


Le concept de la sédimentation est une partie intégrale de la tradition italienne des études en archivistique. La sédimentation s’est toujours produite, souvent de façon inconsciente, dans la pratique archivistique et a eu des effets profonds sur la préservation de documents et sur leur transmission au fil du temps. Cet article vise à explorer comment s’effectue la sédimentation dans les archives. Après avoir décrit les significations et l’utilisation du concept de la sédimentation dans l’histoire de la théorie archivistique, cet article se concentre sur l’histoire de la sédimentation, c’est-à-dire les façons dont la sédimentation s’est manifestée à différentes époques en Italie et ailleurs en Europe.

Une des idées offertes par cette étude est que la sédimentation ne s’est jamais produite de façon involontaire ou par hasard; elle a toujours été le reflet, quoique indirectement, des besoins politiques et administratifs de l’époque à laquelle elle a été effectuée et elle a anticipé toute utilisation future des matériaux sédimentés. La sédimentation archivistique est « historique » précisément parce qu’elle a lieu à l’intérieur de l’histoire d’une société dans laquelle chaque dépôt d’archives est produit et maintenu. D’une part, la sédimentation fait partie de la micro-histoire de cette société parce qu’elle dépend des actions de quelques individus, et d’autre part, elle fait partie de la macro-histoire culturelle et juridique de son époque.

Cet article se termine en suggérant que l’histoire de la sédimentation archivistique devrait être perçue comme une partie constituante du savoir à toute période de temps donnée. La sédimentation est une partie intégrale de notre mémoire historique collective.

Author Biography

Marco Bologna

After obtaining his Arts and History degree (Laurea in lettere a indirizzo storico) at the University of Milan, Marco Bologna held the positions of state archivist at the Archival Superintendence for Lombardy (1976–79), director of the State Archives of Savona (1979–90), and interim director of the State Archives of Imperia (1979–80). In 1990, he was awarded a research position in the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy at the University of Genoa, and was later entrusted with teaching the archival science course in the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy at the University of Milan. In 2001, he became a full professor and director of the archival science program in the same faculty, where he was also director of the history and cultural heritage programs (in 2003–09 and 2009–12, respectively). Bologna has been involved in the Ligurian Association for Local History (Società Ligure di Storia Patria), first as a councillor and then (from 2013) as vice-president. He also was a member of the INSMLI Archival Commission (2000–02; 2006–08) and the Scientific Committee of the Centre for Business Culture Studies (Centro per lo Studio della Cultura d’Impresa, 2001–03). From 2007 to 2009, he was the University of Milan representative on the board of directors of the Feltrinelli Foundation. He retired in 2013. Bologna has arranged and published the inventories of several archives of notaries, families, and individuals, containing documentation ranging from the 12th to 20th centuries. His research specialty involves the arrangement methods of Italian archives in the 18th and 19th centuries, which is also the subject of many of his publications.

How to Cite
Bologna, Marco. 2017. “Historical Sedimentation of Archival Materials: Reinterpreting a Foundational Concept in the Italian Archival Tradition”. Archivaria 83 (June), 35-57. https://archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/13599.