The Fortune of the Casa di San Giorgio and the Origins of the Corporations

Dr. Carlo Taviani (project in collaboration with Villa I Tatti, University of Harvard)

Corporations are currently among the strongest and most influential organizations in the world. One important turning point in the development of their capacities took place in the early modern period when they successfully acquired huge amounts of capital in order to better afford the exorbitant costs and risks of travel from Europe to Africa, Asia and America. During this period they also assumed political tasks, progressively ruling lands and people. The Dutch East India Company (VOC, 1602), the British East India Company (EIC) and many other corporations ruled lands and people in Africa, Asia and America.
During the late nineteenth century, some legal German historians defined some legal characteristics of the corporations (tradable shares, limited liability, lock in capital). They studied the Medieval and Renaissance history of the Mediterranean and came to believe that some Renaissance institutions of the Mediterranean were similar to the corporations of later centuries. They focused in particular on one institution, the Genoese Bank of San Giorgio, founded in 1407.
I propose to reverse the prospective of the legal historians mentioned above. The key-point is not to determinate whether the Mediterranean institutions – and the Bank of San Giorgio – already possessed the characteristics of the later corporations; it is the opposite: did the founders of early modern corporations know older financial models? Ultimately, did the founders of corporations learn from the past?
The first aim of this research is to build a small genealogy of the corporations; secondly and from a broader perspective its aim is to focus on how models, patterns and elements of institutions change, migrate, took different forms or influence other institutions via cultural patterns and traditions.
It considers the results of the Institutional History and uses the methods of the humanities (history, art history, history of literature and philology).  

Dr. Carlo Taviani
Project Researcher