Genoese Merchant Networks in Africa and across the Atlantic Ocean (ca. 1450–1530)
Dr. Carlo Taviani (project in collaboration with Villa I Tatti, University of Harvard)
As part of the international research project of the Foundation Max Weber Stiftung Knowledge Unbound.
Documentary film on the project
MedAtlantic. Perspectives on the Past (20 min.)
From the middle of the 15th century, Genoese families were increasingly active in southern Spain and Portugal, establishing settlements in various port cities and trading southwards with Africa and northwards 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 similarly became an important node for the early Atlantic slave trade. Most scholarship on the topic of the Genoese presence in these islands, in North Africa, and even in the New World has focused on famous journeys and enterprises 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), the "discovery" of Cape Verde by Antonio Da Noli (1462), the journeys of Antonio Malfante into the Sahara (1447) and that of Antoniotto Usodimare to the river Gambia (1455), and the famous "discovery" of the Americas by Christopher Columbus (1492). All these individual Genoese explorers are well known, but their activities represent the tip of the iceberg. The extensive Genoese social, financial, and intellectual networks that underlie their fame have yet be uncovered.
This project aims to develop a cohesive set of data with which to study the Genoese merchant networks that have for too long been overshadowed by the historical personae of the great explorers and adventurers. How wide were their networks? What kind of information did these families have about West Africa and what goods were they trading in? Which institutions did they use, transplant, or appropriate? Around 1500, Genoese merchant networks which had been oriented towards Africa shifted towards the New World. Although Genoa was geographically distant from the commercial movements in Africa and the New World, it nevertheless remained the hub of this complex system, the central location for documentation and notarial practices.
Through a critical examination of the secondary literature of scholars who have worked in Seville, Lisbon, and the Canary Islands, we will illuminate the crucial role of Genoese merchant families through an intensive analysis of documents in the notarial archives in Genoa, supported by maps of Genoese origin and objects exchanged among merchant networks, preserved in libraries, archives and museums spread widely across Europe.
Steven Teasdale is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. His research centers on early modern Genoese merchant networks in the Mediterranean and Atlantic worlds of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, in particular examining the intersections of slavery, banking, commerce and humanism in the transition of Genoese commerce from the Black Sea region to West Africa.
Gerda Brunnlechner is a PhD candidate and an online research tutor at the department for Premodern History of the FernUniversität Hagen. Her PhD project, "The so-called Genoese World Map of 1457" focuses on the conceptions of space and time detectable on this map. As a byproduct of this project she wants to retrace the information networks of the Genoese mapmakers during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in order to reveal discrepancies between state of knowledge and its implementation on individual maps. The objective is to fathom more clearly the interplay between mapmakers and structures to enhance the understanding of the mapmaking process in general.
Daniele Tinterri (PhD, Università di Torino – EHESS, Paris): he will focus on the organization of Genoese networks. Genoese played a key role in shaping trade between Iberian monarchies and the Atlantic: the Sopranis list among the most influential traders in Seville; Stefano Giustiniani manages a company in Santo Domingo in 1523; Paolo Adorno owns an ingenio in Brazil by 1532. These and other examples have been cited by scholars; nonetheless, this theme still needs a careful and systematic study.
Through the analysis of documents coming from archives spread from Genoa to Lisboa, Seville and the Canaries, the project aims at identifying different social and economical strategies applied in order to strengthen and widen networks in contexts differing for institutional, economical and social assets. It aims also at verifying the influence contexts may have had in the familiar and economical strategies adopted by the merchants.
Ingrid Greenfield (PhD, University of Chicago – Postdoctoral Fellow, Villa I Tatti – the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies): her primary areas of research are the visual and material cultures of early modern Italy and Africa, and the history of collecting and display of African arts from the Renaissance onward. Her work focuses in particular on the exchanges between sub-Saharan Africa and the Italian peninsula in the long sixteenth century, and the collecting of foreign prestige goods by elites in both regions. Her current project seeks to bring into focus the slave trade's role in driving material exchange – direct and indirect – between Africans and Italians in the early globalization of trade relationships. For art historians, the study of Genoese merchant networks can provide important avenues for thinking through the dynamic processes and practices associated with the history of acquisition and display (or what we might broadly call 'collecting'), especially regarding the movement of artworks, artifacts, specimens of flora and fauna, raw materials, and even people.
Padraic Rohan is a PhD candidate in the history department at Stanford University. His dissertation focuses on the transformation from the Genoese maritime empire in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean to the Genoese role in banking, sugar, and slavery in the Spanish empire and the Atlantic world. He is currently comparing the 1455 Ottoman survey of newly conquered Istanbul to the Genoese notarial records, in order to study those Genoese merchants who left Constantinople after the Ottoman conquest. Genoese activity in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean offers a crucial perspective on Ottoman history of the fifteenth century; and in tracing the links between this activity and Genoese economic power in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in Spain, the Canaries, and the Atlantic world, he hopes to construct a more durable narrative of the rise of Europe and its place in world history.
Christian Cwik is Chair for Atlantic and European History at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago. His research focuses on the impact of Genoese traders on the development of the Circum-Caribbean Castilian provinces including Castilla de Oro, Cumana, Coro, Panamá, Veracruz and the Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, Cuba and Puerto Rico. He is currently expanding his earlier study on New-Christian networks between the Iberian Peninsula, the Western Coast of Africa, the Afro-Atlantic islands and the Indies into a history on overlapping Genoese trade networks. He is supporting Carlo Taviani in building a data set of the Genoese merchant networks.
Carlo Taviani is the project coordinator. His research focuses on the islands of the Atlantic between Africa and the New World (Madeira, Canary Islands, Cape Verde, São Tomé, Hispaniola, Santo Domingo) as an interconnected economic system and analyzes the role of the Genoese traders as promoters of exploration in the shadow of the Spanish and Portuguese so-called "expansions". He is building a data set of the Genoese merchant networks.
Dr. Carlo Taviani
Project Researcher DHI Rome / Visiting Scholar 2018–2022