“By Following the Lives of Enslaved People and Traders, It Is Possible to Infer How Knowledge Circulated” – Interview With Carlo Taviani

We regularly introduce scholars that work in the project by letting them answer three short questions. Today, we talk to Carlo Taviani who is a fellow at the Deutsches Historisches Institut in Rome. He received his PhD from the University of Perugia. He has been a fellow at the Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Storici, Villa I Tatti, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, the Italian-German Historical Institute in Trent, a visiting scholar at the University of Chicago and at the MacMillan Center at Yale and a visiting lecturer at the University of Cape Town. He taught at the Università degli Studi di Teramo, the Università degli Studi di Trento and the University of Cape Town.

What will you be working on while being involved with the “Knowledge Unbound” project and what did you work on before?

My current project focuses on a group of traders that came from the city of Genoa and moved towards the Maghreb, West Africa, the Atlantic, and the New World from the late 15th to early 16th centuries. Numerous Genoese traders were scattered on the Iberian Peninsula and expanded their businesses from there towards Africa and the New World. This research builds on the hypothesis that by using notarial archives of Genoa, it is possible to study the flow of capital that initiated the transatlantic slave trade and — more generally — the way business from the Maghreb moved to West Africa and the New World.

My previous research focused on the concept of financial corporation (or joint stock companies). I studied the Bank of San Giorgio of Genoa (1407-1804), an institution which dealt with public debt and which step by step acquired territories of the Commune, such as the island of Corsica and the Crimea in the Black Sea. I was interested in how the fortune of its model was reused when other and so-called modern corporations were founded, such as the Dutch East India Company (1602), the Bank of England (1694), and the Mississippi Company in France (1720).

What role does the concept of “knowledge” play in your own research?

The concept of knowledge plays a twofold role in my research. First, I am interested in how trade institutions, such as forms of contracts and commercial partnerships (the so-called commenda, mahona etc.) were used in Genoa and were later transplanted, innovated on, and changed by Genoese traders who moved abroad, mainly to the Spanish peninsula and through Spanish notaries. Institutional innovation was crucial in the early age of the transatlantic slave trade and it is possible that some of the most successful forms spread from the east and were circulated by Genoese traders;

Furthermore, the project aims at finding information on Africa (Maghreb and West Africa) which, to my knowledge, does not exist in other archives and repositories. Italian archives document the fifteenth century in a way that no other archives do. Using Genoese notarial deeds, it is possible — at times — to find information on goods and people from the African continent. The project’s aim is to shed light on forms of knowledge and exchanges between the Mediterranean and Africa that are still relatively unknown. By studying the presence of objects and materials in Genoa and abroad and by following the lives of enslaved people and traders, it is possible to infer how knowledge circulated. My project looks at luxury goods and objects (such as ivory, ostrich feathers, corals, exotic animals, textiles etc.) and studies the traders and the enslaved people who were involved in their movements. In doing so, the project documents a long stream of networks and cultural exchanges which moves from the Court of Mantua to the Atlantic, Africa and Santo Domingo in the New World in a so far overlooked period — the early sixteenth century.

Have there been any surprising moments in your research recently?

Yes, various moments. I will mention three of them here.

We are finding that among thousands of Genoese notarial deeds which directly or indirectly document the businesses of Genoese traders in the Maghreb, the Iberian Peninsula, the Atlantic, West Africa, and the New World, a group of selected people is emerging. It seems that only some Genoese traders had the knowledge and capital to trade in places that far away. Thus, the project is proving that behind the so-called explorers and adventures (Antonio Malfante, Antoniotto Usodimare, Antonio da Noli, but also Christopher Columbus) there was a network of traders which can now be studied in depth.

Secondly, our paleographer discovered that a small group of merchants, the Cicala family, traded from Cadiz and invested in India as early as 1507, a few years after Africa had been circumnavigated. This means that Genoese traders did not only invest in the Atlantic and the New World — as commonly believed —but that probably, at least at the beginning of the transatlantic trade, invested both Westwards (the New World) and Eastwards (India). Moreover, among the papers of this family we have also found an inventory which contains objects from West Africa. These kinds of findings are extremely rare for the early sixteenth century.

Finally, we located and transcribed a document that uncovers the selling of various bales of writing papers from Genoa to Oran in Maghreb and possibly to sub-Saharan Africa as early as 1451. Writing papers are very rare in fifteenth century Africa and almost undocumented in the area south of the Sahara. No archives and libraries have — as far as it has been studied until now — information on this subject.


Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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