- Commercio e cultura mercantile. Vol. 4 of Il Rinascimento italiano e l'Europa
Two anachronisms bookend the Italian Renaissance, one marking its mythic dawn and the other its supposed demise: the late-medieval crisis of the early fourteenth century and Italy's failure to maintain its primacy in the sixteenth. Both are scholarly phantoms produced by nineteenth-century social theorists. On closer inspection the assumption of the failure of Italy shows little justification. This volume attempts to shine light on the latter stale anachronism by reframing the debate with an empirically rather than theoretically driven analysis of the economy of Renaissance Italy. [End Page 1236]
Richard A. Goldthwaite and Reinhold C. Mueller, the deans of Renaissance economic history, and Franco Franceschi, a scholar at the University of Siena, present a handsome fourth volume in the Rinascimento italiano e l'Europa series, for which twelve volumes are planned. Other volumes focus on the arts, sciences, history, and philosophy. It is the hope of this reviewer that specialists interested in the broader topics of Renaissance studies will avail themselves of this volume and benefit from its broad and comprehensive scope.
The reality of the dynamism of the Atlantic economies in the seventeenth century is not contested here. Nor are the numerous challenges Italy faced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: fifty years of war, the entry of Northern competitors into the Mediterranean, the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, re-current plague, and demographic decline. Italy's economic practitioners perceived the obstacles in front of them and adapted in inventive ways. Though Italy was no longer the driving force of industrial Europe, the long-assumed conservatism, whether from the persistence of guilds or inspired by the Counter-Reformation, was not the reason. This volume shows that economic innovation and adaptation went a long way to blunt the effects of such powerful shocks.
The essays compiled in Commercio e cultura mercantile are organized into four sections: "Un panorama in trasformazione," "Le merci," "Commerciare fuori dalla patria," and "La practica degli affari." By no means, say the editors, is this meant to be an exhaustive treatment of merchant and entrepreneurial culture in the Renaissance; no single volume could hope to synthesize such a vast scholarship. Their stated hope is that the essays presented are sufficient to correct the valuation of the role of Italian uomini d'affari in the context of the European economy.
The first section, "A Panorama in Transformation," includes two decisive essays that delineate the place of the Italian economy in the changing European context and Italian responses to these daunting changes. These essays should do much to reframe the debate from its present state, which might be characterized as a laundry list of the difficulties facing Italy, to a much more interesting and detailed examination of the innovations and improvements that these difficulties motivated. One essay is by Stephan R. "Larry" Epstein, whose premature passing is mourned as much for the brilliance of his company as for the depth of his scholarship. Epstein's potential as an economic historian who cast sunlight on the ill-conceived decline of Italy, makes the loss all the more felt.
Section 2, "The Merchandise," presents nine synthetic articles that provide an overview of the scholarship revolving around diverse sectors of the Italian economy. Especially relevant to the discussion on challenges and adaptation are John H. Munro's and Sergio Tognetti's contributions to the study of commerce in woolens and silks. Art historians and historians of material culture will be well served by the volume's contributions on the commerce in books, majolica, paintings, marble, and antiquities.
"Trading Outside of the Patria," examines foreign traders in Italy and Italian [End Page 1237] traders abroad. These essays argue that commercial culture in Italy carried abroad by Italians propelled the communication of ideas and information, religious sentiments, and cultural crosspollination that had a broad, social impact beyond the confines of commercial culture...