- Il rinascimento italiano e l’europa. IV. Commercio e cultura mercantile
Ten years ago, I and my coeditor of a volume on the history and civilization of Venice chose not to include an essay on the Venetian economy since, in our view, economic history, long a mainstay of Venetian studies, seemed mired in the past and focused on outdated questions and methodologies. Based on the evidence of the volume under review, the same cannot be said of economic history today. As the footnotes to the fourteen essays included in this volume indicate, the late 1990s and first years of the new millennium have witnessed an explosion of new work on nearly all aspects of the Italian Renaissance economy. The reasons for this renewed interest are not hard to discern: The present-day interest in [End Page 452] globalization and cultures in contact and conflict (an arena in which businessmen are often in the forefront), the looming decline of Western economic supremacy, and the collapse of various sorts of economic bubbles in the past few years all have served to refocus historians’ attention, in general, on economic issues and, in particular, on a period that saw Italian merchants and manufacturers first take the lead in European economic development and then see that lead slip away. Together, the essays provide much to consider not only regarding the Renaissance economy but the present-day one as well.
The editors have grouped the essays, most of which are works of synthesis but a few of which include original research (most particularly the essay co-authored by Neil de Marchi and Louisa Matthew and that by Luca Molà), under four rubrics focusing on particular types of merchandise (such as wool, silk, marble, antiquities, and slaves), conducting business in foreign lands, business techniques and practices, and panoramic overviews of the period of the “long” Renaissance—defined as running from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. In their own far too brief introduction to the volume, the editors highlight the need for greater study of the ways in which merchandise, manpower, and ideas circulated between Italy and the rest of Europe. They note the ultimate inability of the Italians to generate the same kind of demand in northern Europe for their goods (with the exception of silk, antiquities, and marble) that they had in the Levant, as well as the need to understand better why certain business techniques like the letter of exchange gained European-wide use whereas others, most notably double-entry bookkeeping, did not. They also observe that the Renaissance businessman remains a nebulous figure—still in need of disentangling from early- and mid-twentieth-century scholarly claims about the origins of capitalism and the ideology of the bourgeoisie. On this last topic, Molà’s fascinating essay on the role of Renaissance businessmen in promoting technological innovations is exemplary.
Several other themes that run throughout these essays, two of which might seem at first glance to be contradictory, are especially worth noting. Several of the essays emphasize the role of individual businessmen and the decisions that they made in Renaissance economic development. But governmental policies and needs were just as critical. As Mario Infelise observes in his essay on the circulation of commercial information, the state needed a global perspective on the news much more than the individual businessman did. Infelise’s essay, like several others, also sheds light on the extent to which business in the Renaissance operated at the intersection of the traditional oral and the new print culture. Finally, in an especially provocative essay Maria Luisa Pesante suggests that the preoccupation in Italian Renaissance economic discourse with distribution rather than production—a discourse infused with Christian ethics—in the end placed the Italians at a disadvantage especially vis à vis the English, who were able, in her view, to move economic thinking to a higher level of abstraction because of their emphasis on production. [End Page 453]
The essays in this rich volume provide eloquent testimony to...