William F. "Jack" Fry, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is intrigued by micro history—"common life captured in letters" and the traces of "small town government, the bread baker and shoemaker." He has built the Fry Collection of Italian History and Culture in this spirit. Fry, a specialist in high-energy physics, has long collaborated with Italian physicists and continues to make regular collecting trips to Italy. The Fry Collection—large and still growing—is the product of "endless hours rummaging through piles of discarded papers and dusty old books," as he explains. His finds have included manuscripts dating from the Renaissance to rare pamphlets circulating in Italy following World War II.
In particular, in order to explore Italian life under fascism, Fry has collected a wide variety of books, newspapers, printed ephemera, photographs, and manuscript materials from the period 1920 to 1946. They range from a brochure describing Italian train excursions and programs for the Italian kennel club to certificates of military service and schoolboy accomplishments under Mussolini and books expounding Italian racial policies. The Fry Collection, filled with materials on Italian fascism rarely found in American libraries, complements the UW–Madison Libraries' other strong holdings in modern European history.
The Fry Collection also concerns the history of northern and northeastern Italy from the 15th century through the 19th, with particular attention to the Austrian and French occupation of the Veneto. For example, a recent addition of hundreds of letters from Padua and environs (circa 1810 to 1860) speaks to sanitation, wills and bequests, education, and murder. Genealogical compilations reveal family histories, both grand and modest; ledgers track the fortunes of estates over decades and longer; forms hint at the sad story of foundling wheels, where babies were left to the care of the Church; and broadsides announce governmental decrees and policies as they were posted on Italian walls. Such broadsides might prescribe official rates for gondolas or publicize bread prices.
Other materials offer insights into the rise of Italian nationalist sentiment, the Church and Italian culture, developments in Istria and Latina, partisan movements in Italy during World War II, 20th-century Italian communism, and political culture in postwar Italy.
Fry, who began making gifts to the Department of Special Collections in the early 1990s, supplies extensive collector's descriptions, explaining the appeal of particular items and guiding researchers to related materials in the collection's riches.
An online exhibit filled with strong graphics from the fascist era has generated worldwide attention. The collection provides a wealth of primary sources for history, art history, cultural studies, and history of science and technology, and draws scholars from Italy and elsewhere to Madison to use the collection.
Collection Profile and Overview: Robin E. Rider
Illustrations: Eric Ferguson