Linking the Mediterranean: The Construction of Trading Networks in 14th and 15th-century Italy

Linking the Mediterranean: The Construction of Trading Networks in 14th and 15th-century Italy

By Emanuele Lugli

The Globalization of Renaissance Art: A Critical Review, edited by Daniel Savoy (Leiden: Brill, 2018)

16th century map of the Mediterranean

Abstract: This essay explores Mediterranean trade as described in eight mercantile manuals composed in Venice and Florence between the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries.  Whereas scholars have read these manuals as historical documents, this essay reflects on their creative dimension. It reads them as projects: proposals on how trade can overcome its imbalances by adopting a logic that defies geographical proximity. In other words, these manuals construct trade as a network.

While the word “network” is on everybody’s lips these days, it is mostly employed uncritically to signify inter-dependence generally, without realizing that networks instead identify specific behaviors and opportunities for growth. To overcome such a shortcoming this essay retrieves quantitative geographers’ analyses of networks in the 1960s and then applies some of their conclusions to interpret early modern mercantile manuals, thus suggesting new paths for art historical research and interpretation.

Introduction: When the Mediterranean Sea is discussed historically, it is never a simple question of geography. Its meaning remains somewhat indeterminate. It refers to intellectual journeys that do not circumnavigate any one particular region; it indicates periods that splash over. In art history, my main field of inquiry, the Mediterranean offers a way to shake the identification of the arts with national boundaries and to resist the equivalence of their meaning with religious interpretations. It is a critical term even if it is often unclear what it may be critical of. Its semantic porousness is sometimes a way to question disciplinary boundaries and to turn the Mediterranean Sea into an auxiliary plane for thinking and making sense of historical events.

The Mediterranean, then, comes close to representation. The moment it is distinguished from a geographical area, it denotes something other than itself. Inspired by the Mediterranean as an unsettling mode of thinking, this essay retrieves its operational dimension in the very historical sources—commonplace mercantile books, portolans, and maps—that construct the Mediterranean basin as an economic unity.

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