Genoese Merchant Networks in Africa and across the Atlantic Ocean (ca. 1450–1530)

Dr. Carlo Taviani (in collaboration with and the Università degli Studi di Teramo)

Previously funded by the international research project of the Max Weber Foundation Knowledge Unbound (2019–2021)

MedAtlantic. Perspectives on the Past
(20 min.)

From the mid-15th century, Genoese families became increasingly active in the southern Iberian Peninsula, establishing settlements in various port cities and trading southward with Africa and northward with Flanders and England. The islands around West Africa became important regions for their trading activities: Madeira and the Canary Islands, inhabited by many Genoese merchant families, were crucial for the production of sugar and the expansion of the plantation complex, and the Cape Verde Islands also became an important hub for the early Atlantic slave trade. Most scholarship on the Genoese presence in these islands, in North Africa, and even in the New World has focused on famous voyages and ventures of explorers and adventurers, such as the legend of the brothers Vandino and Ugolino Vivaldi (1291), the "discovery" of the Canary Islands by Lanzarotto Malocello (1312), that of the Cape Verde archipelago by Antonio Da Noli (1462), the voyages to the Sahara by Antonio Malfante (1447) and to the Gambia by Antoniotto Usodimare (1455), and the famous "discovery" of America by Christopher Columbus (1492). All these individual Genoese explorers are well known, but their activities represent only the tip of the iceberg. The extensive Genoese social, financial, and intellectual networks behind their fame have yet to be uncovered.

This project aims to develop a cohesive data set with which to study the Genoese mercantile networks that have for too long been overshadowed by the historical personae of the great explorers and adventurers. How extensive were their networks? What information did these families have about West Africa and what goods did they trade? What institutions did they use, transplant, or appropriate? How were they involved in the enslavement of people?

In the past years the project has collected data in the notarial archives of Genoa, Seville, Malaga, Jerez de La Frontera, Tenerife, and Gran Canaria. The research was funded by the German Historical Institute in Rome through the project "Wissen entgrenzen/Knowledge Unbound". The company, which produces tools in the field of cultural heritage, creating and managing semantic data database, has realized a structure through CIDOC-CRM and we are using it to model our platform with Arches.Project, which is open-source data management platform.

The data model is defined in terms of classes and properties based upon – and extended from – the semantic ontology of CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model ( These classes and properties define the entities in the database and the relationships between them. The data model was developed by Takin.Solutions ( and has been specifically designed to incorporate the historical context of merchant activity in the fifteenth and sixteenth-century Atlantic world.

The primary classes and properties of the data model are the Persons, Institutions, Places, and Physical Objects of early modern Atlantic commerce and the relationships between them. The classes also define the legal and contractual documentation that record abstract commercial events – such as changes in Property Right Status, Ownership Status, Custodial Status, Obligation Status, Social Status, and Institutional Status – in keeping with the event-based structure of CIDOC-CRM. We are using the ARCHES project ( to construct the database.

Carlo Taviani is the project coordinator. His research focuses on the islands of the Atlantic between Africa and the New World as an interconnected economic system and analyzes the role of the Genoese traders as promoters of exploration in the shadow of the Iberian so-called "expansions".

Dr. Carlo Taviani
Project Researcher DHI Rome / Visiting Scholar 2018–2024