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  • The Familiarity of Strangers: the Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross- Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period
  • Gayle K. Brunelle
The Familiarity of Strangers: the Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross- Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period. By Francesca Trivellato (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2009) 470. pp $48.75

Trivellato’s The Familiarity of Strangers is a thought-provoking study of the Sephardic merchant community of Livorno in Tuscany, from its initial settlement in the 1590s through the mid-eighteenth century. Trivellato focuses in particular on the business partnership between two of the most prosperous families (Ergas and Silvera) of Livorno’s thriving early modern Sephardic community between 1704 and 1746. The trading networks of these two families, like those of most of Livorno’s [End Page 458] Sephardic merchants, stretched from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic world, although they specialized in the exchange of Mediterranean coral for precious stones from India.

Trivellato views her study as primarily economic history, and she is especially interested in the commercial practice of commission agency. Through commission agency, merchants who shared no ethnic, religious, or familial ties were able to trade with one another over long distances with a measure of trust, mutual interest, and cultural understanding. Most of the historians who have studied the Sephardic diaspora have taken a different approach, emphasizing the importance of shared ethnic and kinship ties in the functioning of the global commercial networks through which Sephardic commerce and banking often operated. Trivellato, however, complicates the interpretation of the role that Sephardic merchants played in early modern global commerce by examining how they forged and maintained commercial networks not based on ethnicity or religion—how strangers with little in common except commercial interests used commission agency and other means to engage in mutually beneficial trade.

Trivellato thus seeks to understand an area at the heart of scholarship about emerging early modern global trade networks—cross-cultural brokers and cross-cultural trade. Historians have traditionally argued that diasporas were vital to the development of global trade networks in the early modern world because groups such as Sephardic and Armenian merchants, although small in number, were able to create trust in trade networks due to their shared religion and/or ethnic and kinship ties. Trivellato argues essentially that these ethnically or religiously based networks intersected and traded successfully with those of strangers belonging to alien societies, religions, and cultures because they found other means to develop and maintain trust.

The Sephardic merchants of Livorno accomplished this feat by developing a culture of “communitarian cosmopolitanism” (18). By this term Trivellato seems to mean that the Sephardic merchants of Livorno managed to sustain a distinct identity within a Sephardic diaspora— encompassing both Portuguese New Christians of Sephardic Jewish ancestry and practicing Sephardic Jewish merchants—while developing a cosmopolitan worldview that smoothed their commercial relations not only with nearby Christians merchants but also with Muslim and Hindu merchants in their long-distance trade networks. Hence, in Trivellato’s view, cross-cultural trade also fostered opportunities for intellectual and cultural exchanges between the Sephardim and Christians. Far from eroding the identity of the early modern Sephardim or obviating all of the differences between them and Christians, these exchanges facilitated a new cosmopolitanism in early modern urban society. This is a fascinating study that will interest scholars of the early modern world as well as of European history. [End Page 459]

Gayle K. Brunelle
California State University, Fullerton


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