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Reviewed by:
  • The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period
  • John E. Wills Jr.
The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period. By Francesca Trivellato. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009. 488 pp. $50.00 (cloth).

In the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century maritime trade between South Asia and western Europe, Indian diamonds occupied a substantial place among Indian exports—perhaps, Trivellato estimates (p. 237), as much as 14 percent of the legal imports to London, and more via other ports and illegal channels. Among imports to India from Europe, coral from the Mediterranean, much prized for ornamentation throughout Hindu and Buddhist Asia, held a somewhat comparable place, although it was apparently harder to quantify. Both of these high-value, small-volume trades were coordinated in large part by networks of Sephardic Jewish family firms based in Livorno, Italy, with important nodes in London and many other European cities; chapter 9 provides an excellent analysis of these trades. Thus Trivellato is quite right to describe her project as both macro-historical and micro-historical. We quickly learn that her micro is dauntingly macro; the surviving archives of the Livorno firm of Ergas and Silvera, preserved in the Archivio di Stato in Florence, contain copies of 13,670 letters (p. 8). Trivellato may not have read every word of every one of them—one of her interpretive points is that their elaborate conventionalization built a sense of routine and trust among far-flung correspondents—but she has been through this whole mountain of documentation carefully enough to be able to give statistics on types of documents, destinations of letters, and so on. [End Page 377]

This is a book of very substantial theoretical ambition and sophistication. The author shows that some earlier studies of trade diasporas have described a tension between the internal solidarity of a group and its cosmopolitan openness to relations with others. She describes the Livorno Sephardim as practitioners of a “communitarian cosmopolitanism” (pp. 18, 73, 101), in which it was precisely the strength of their corporate ties as a community separate from others that enforced commercial and personal probity within the community and made it secure enough to then build bridges of trust and credit with merchants in Lisbon, where they could not go without running afoul of the Inquisition, and even with Hindu merchants in faraway Goa. This is a substantial challenge, well grounded in reading of the theoretical literature, to the accounts by Avner Greif and others of a modernizing progression from trust based on community ties and personal acquaintance to the impersonality of contracts enforced in courts.

Comparison always has to acknowledge incomparable historical contingency. The Sephardic exile “New Christians,” cherishing their Jewish heritage and passing as Christians most of the time, would seem to be excellent examples of the border crossers and cultural hybridizers we love to talk about. But as Trivellato points out, the Inquisition had no jurisdiction over non-Christians, but came down with full force on anyone who had been baptized and then had “apostasized.” Thus the logic of their situation led many Sephardim to draw a clear boundary around their Jewish identities and to shun contacts with “New Christian” border crossers (pp. 48–50). When the Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany very astutely granted wide privileges to Sephardim who would settle in Livorno, they managed to overlook the forced baptism of many of their ancestors and give full recognition and freedom of worship to the Jewish community. Trivellato gives a fascinating picture of the history of this community, including the intermarriages of its elite families and clues to reading and consumption from their wills. Comparison returns here in accounts of the varying fates of other Sephardic communities, especially those in Amsterdam, London, and Marseilles. The very thorough footnotes and bibliography open up a rich literature that will be unknown to many readers, as most of it was to this reviewer. Trivellato makes institutions and trade practices her focus and makes it clear that more is to be done with the personal and cultural dimensions of this community: “In fact, I wish...


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pp. 377-380
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