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Giacomo Costantino Beltrami's life, the Collections at Angelo Mai, Research Directions, and Helpful Links



This page presents a brief encapsulation of Beltrami's life, a discussion of the nature of the collections at Angelo Mai, and finally, a summary of the secondary literature and guide for possible future research topics.

Beltrami's life

Born in Bergamo, Italy, in 1779, Giacomo Costantino Beltrami rose through the ranks of the Napoleonic judicial system at an unusually quick pace, becoming at the young age of 29 Giudice della Corte del Dipartamento del Musone in 1809. Along the way, he gathered not only a sizable fortune, but also a liberalized view of European politics and decidedly independence-minded beliefs about his native Italy, a hitherto splintered nation bandied about by a succession of empires (including Napoleon himself). With the final fall of Napoleon in 1815, he withdrew from his life as judge and turned to his farm and estate in Le Marche, the Azienda Agricola Beltrami. But Beltrami's activities in the French government administration and his liberal leanings had attracted the attention of the papal government in Rome -- who had newly reacquired Le Marche in 1815 -- and the former judge found himself on the other side of the docket, accused of being a member of the Carbonari, a group of independence seekers grown from Masonic ties which Beltrami himself held dear. For the next two years he fought to clear his name, bringing to bear in his defense not only his legal skills, but also his formidable social connections.

His defense, though adequate to clear his name, did not remove the mark of suspicion, and following a number of years of constant surveillance (and the devastating loss of his close friend, Giulia Spada dei Medici), Beltrami went into exile, travelling widely in Europe, the United States and Mexico. It was during this time that Beltrami made the discovery for which is best known -- that of the northernmost sources of the Mississippi river -- as well as discoveries literary, mineralogical and botanical in Mexico. All of these peregrinations and discoveries he recounted in a series of epistolarily-formatted books which, for a seemingly endless variety of reasons, were poorly received and often the subject of derision and scorn. His Mississippi discovery especially was summarily labelled as an unbelievable and untrue fantasy by other explorers of the day, and all of his works were banned in Italy and considered mildly heretical by the papal government.

Beltrami's attempts to defend himself (and his works) again proved futile, and upon his return to Europe in 1826 he moved into a new faze of his life, frequenting academic events and widening his impressive social circles to include some of the brightest thinkers of the day. Lafayette, Chateaubriand, Lafitte, and Jullien were all among those with whom he carried on frequent correspondence, and he would stay in Paris for another eight years, enjoying the company of those like Lafayette who also believed in the tenets of self-determination and national independence, and in the meantime publishing more written work and joining numerous scholarly societies. After three more years in Heidelberg -- years in which he befriended the Austrian jurist Mittermaier -- Beltrami finally returned home in 1837, after seventeen years in exile. He spent his last days working his farm, having never seen one of his works published in his native land, and dying in 1855, five short years before the creation of the Italian nation in 1860.

For a more detailed accounting, see the biographical chronology.

The Collections

Fortunately, though Beltrami's life was marked by difficulties personal and professional, his collected correspondence and writings have fared better, being parts of numerous archival collections in Italy as well as the United States. Upon Beltrami's death, his nephew left the majority of these written materials to the Biblioteca Civica Angelo Mai, Bergamo where they have since resided alongside a nearly complete collection of his published works. In support of these primary historical documents are the vast holdings of Angelo Mai, which include a wide array of scholarly articles, book-length studies, and newspaper materials pertaining to Beltrami.

The centerpiece of the library's holdings of Beltrami materials is the 24 volumes of manuscripts, correspondence and other written work in the Fondo Beltrami. The highly prolific nature of Beltrami's epistolary record is matched only by the breadth of his interests represented in the Fondo: from writings and journals from his travels in Europe and America, to a collection of newspaper clippings he collected when abroad; from materials related to the new Republic of Haiti collected for an anticipated (but never written) book, to program arrangements for his attendance as a naturalist at the Congress of Stuttgart; from passports, maps and official documents to poetry and eulogistic writings; all is contained in this extremely varied and broad-ranging collection.

Select this link for the finding aid detailing the contents of the Fondo Beltrami.

The Research

Indeed, much of the secondary literature has been drawn from these collections; most of the intensive biographies have used these resources, and those especially focused on Beltrami's society of friends have certainly made use of the ample collection of correspondence. The travel journals contained within the Fondo surely have enhanced the many accounts of Beltrami's journeys in the United States as well, and scholars like Barbara Cattaneo have recently made use of the Fondo to begin to examine some of the forgotten aspects -- in Cattaneo's case, the odd case of Beltrami's last large work, Le Mexique -- of this iconoclastic subject.

Unfortunately for the modern scholar, there is much in the secondary research that is redundant, poorly executed or in other ways inadequate. The accounts of Beltrami's discovery of the sources of the Mississippi river are myriad, and yet few bring to light new information or posit anything but the most basic of theories regarding Beltrami's discovery. Many are steeped in political agendas which require that certain aspects of his life unsavory to the ideology in play be completed overlooked or discounted. Worse yet are the gaping holes in Beltrami's biography where virtually no secondary scholarly research has been done, even though documentary evidence might very well exist.

In recent years however, there have been a number of scholars seeking to rectify some of the problems with the literature up to this point: Cattaneo's aforementioned work; Glauco Luchetti, keeper of all things Beltrami in the Filottrano villa where the explorer made his home, has made excavating bits and pieces of Beltrami's life a priority with studies on his home in Heidelberg and his botanical collection; Ethnologist Vittorio Maconi has done work which seeks to examine the anthropological value of Beltrami's written accounts of Native American life in northern Minnesota while his associate LeonardoVigorelli has sought to catalogue the large collection of Native American objects in the Raccolta Beltrami; Aldo Agazzi's has made an interesting study of the connections between Beltrami and his fellow Bergamasco, poet Torquato Tasso; Angelo Marchesi has delved into the three-sided rapport between Carlo Cattaneo, Bernardino Biondelli and Beltrami in regards to the Evangelarium Aztecum; and finally, Wally Braghieri-Giacomini's seminal work on the scientific value of Beltrami's geographical findings is still valuable for the context (and bibliographies) it provides, despite being 45 years old.

For more detailed descriptions of these and other secondary resources, see the main bibliography.

New Directions

But for all the areas which have received plentiful attention from scholars, there remain still more that deserve attention. The following is a highly abbreviated list of possible research topics stemming from the Beltrami collections but heretofore overlooked:

These and many other research needs stemming from the Fondo Beltrami await exploration. Please send further ideas and suggestions for its use, via email, to Scott Collard and they will be addended to this list.

Links to Further Collections

There are a number of other institutions which currently contain significant holdings of Beltrami-related materials which can provide further information and resources for the interested scholar. Though Angelo Mai cannot, at this time, provide detailed finding aids or content lists for these collections, we would be remiss in not bringing these resources to the attention of the researcher. Foremost among these are the collections housed in Filottrano, at the Palazzo Luchetti (Beltrami's former villa), by Glauco Luchetti; and the collections at the Biblioteca Classense in Ravenna. Both may be contacted through the information below:

"Epistolario e documenti Beltrami," in Filottrano at the Museo del biroccio e raccolta 'C. Beltrami'; a cura di Glauco Luchetti.

Biblioteca Classense in Ravenna; a cura di Claudia Giuliani, Conservatore Fondi antichi e archivio storico


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Biblioteca Civica Angelo Mai, Bergamo

Updated: 7.25.2000
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