Second Lecture

Third Lecture

Fourth Lecture



TITOLO: Leonardo da Vinci (1 of 4 lectures)

WRITTEN BY: Lorenzo Matteoli

DATE: January 2005

English text edited by Mrs. Wendy Charnell


University of Western Australia Extension


Four Lectures by


Europe, Italy, Florence


Short outline of the four lectures

First lecture:
Two words on the “idea of history” and then a short perusal of Leonardo’s century (1452-1552), what was happening in Florence, Italy and in Europe, who were the main players, the habits and the culture of those years.

Second lecture:
Leonardo’s life: childhood, youth, mature man, old master. The places of his life, the people around him. Comments on his works throughout his life.

Third lecture:
The Last Supper: conceptual framework, history of the contract, relationship with other “last suppers”, technicalities of the painting, Leonardo’s style. Critics and assessments. A reading of the painting as it is now.

Fourth lecture:
The drama of the restorations: the reasons of the decay, a short history of the various interventions, a short account (scopes and methods) of the last monumental work by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon (lasted 22 years) and the meaning of this work for the theory of restoration in Italy and in the World.

An obvious/revolutionary (for the time being) proposal by the author.

First Lecture

Two words on the “idea of history”
and then a short perusal of Leonardo’s century (1452-1552),
what was happening in Florence, Italy and in Europe,
who were the main players, the habits and the culture of those years.



"History is for human self-knowledge ... the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is." R. G. Collingwood



The idea of history

To study a personality or a moment in history, a battle, a treaty, a law, a riot or revolution has little meaning out of its wider context where that specific person, event, fact or accident took place.
Without a careful exploration of the social, cultural, economic and geographic context we would be unable to free ourselves from the conditions of the present; our way of thinking and our ideological and critical mind set.
Any assessment or interpretation would be biased and distorted.
This is precisely the point of those who have a totally different opinion. They say: there is no sense at all in trying to assess a historic situation “out” of our system of values and out of the critical grid of our culture and ideology. Even if we try to eliminate our paradigm, we would be unable to do so and we would allege an objectivity that we do not have. A lively debate indeed! (see R.G. Collingwood “The idea of History”).

I want only to briefly mention the great problem of “history” and the study of history without going too deeply into a debate that would divert us from Leonardo and his adventurous life. It may be useful to approach the problem at least with our minds open to the vital provocation of doubt. Is history just facts and events with no concern about the ideas that formed them, or should we draw the ideas from the facts and events once we know them?
The lives of Leonardo, Churchill, Julius Caesar or Frederick the Second Hohenstaufen can all be related and understood within the present critical paradigm and culture, but should they also be explained as expressions of the ideas and culture of their own time? The answer to this question must, by necessity, be ambiguous: Reality is complex and confusing. Contradiction and ambiguity dominate: In some way they must become the main tools of the analysis and cognitive process.
According to present day values and criteria, Frederick Hohenstaufen was a cruel and despotic medieval ruler with a self- centered vision of the World, torturing, dismembering, ripping off the eyes of those who betrayed him was absolutely consistent with his moral code: he was anointed by God and represented God’s will on his lands any act against his person was an act against God and thus a horrible unforgivable crime. However, according to 12th century values and ethics, he was a semi-God, a pragmatic genius of Medieval warfare with an economic vision ahead of his time. To his foes he was the Antichrist, a diabolical creature of Satan himself.
To us, Caius Julius Caesar was the founder of the Roman Empire, a military genius and a courageous commander of his legions. For many who lived in his times, however, he was a despotic dictator and a tyrant whose foes plotted his death and eventually succeeded. When one writes about past events and facts, a short quotation of the debate about history is pertinent: how the “idea of history” evolved through the centuries and how this idea is perceived today. R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943) is worth reading.
Collingwood’s provocative assumption to understand history is to re-think the thoughts and re-live the ideas of the time. For Collingwood, history is actually the history of the thoughts that provoked the events. Events are not connected by a rational logic or by necessity and the only possible way of understanding the process is through the relationship of the ideas that moved the actors. You may compare ethics and values of the time with the present ones, but when you assess facts and events and try to understand them you must be clear about the critical sieve you are using.
Understanding this process implies an act of self analysis, self knowledge and a personal participation in the original theatre of history which is, to my understanding, the actual meaning of Croce’s famous line: ” …all history is contemporary history!”
Collingwood, who was in the mainstream of English positive-thinking at the end of the 19th century, with his critical review of Hegel and of the German Idealists (Fichte, Schelling), was actually the first to define history as a modern science, without falling into the deterministic pitfall of Marx and Engels, (i.e. scince is not certainty and the scientific method does not necessarily lead to certainty) and to intuitively introduce the methods of comprehension/expression that were recently proposed by contemporary philosophers such as Jacques Derrida. This is possibly the reason for the great popularity and re-discovery of R.G. Collingwood by history critics to-day.
Following Collingwood’s idea of history in my short essay about Leonardo I will try to explore the context, what was happening around him, what was his mind set and that of his peers and of the people who lived in Florence, Milan, Venice and Rome at the time. How was everyday life in those cities. What thoughts were actually motivating the people, the leaders and the thinkers and eventually their actions. I have tried to understand from the daily facts recorded in his “notebooks”, from the anecdotes of his early biographers and even from his horoscope (believe it or not) what kind of man was hiding behind the stereotype of the Renaissance Eclectic Genius that his “legend”, more than history, has brought to us.
I think it is more useful to try to understand the “man” Leonardo - what he did and what he was attempting to do – rather than the legendary image of the “Genius” Leonardo.

Europe and Italy
between 1450 and 1550

In the year 1452, when Leonardo was born, Europe was a fairly complex geopolitical place, but 9 basic regions could be identified:
A. The German Empire - what was left of the Sacred Roman Empire founded by Frederick II Hohenstaufen
B. The Kingdom of France, Louis XII (1498-1515)
C. The Kingdom of England, Henry VIII (1491-1547)
D. The Kingdom of Aragon, Spain Sardinia and Sicily, Ferdinand of Aragon with Isabel of Castile (1474-1516)
E. The Kingdom of Portugal, Manuel the Navigator (1495-1521)
F. The Kingdom of Polonia-Lithuania
G. The Kingdom of Hungary
H. Moscow Principality
I. The Ottoman Empire

Regions under the (Virtual) Sovereignity of the German Emperor
Milan, Visconti/Sforza: Francesco Sforza, Ludovico Sorza (il Moro)
Genoa, Repubblica Marinara
Savoy (Chambery,Turin and Nizza),
Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici
Pisa Repubblica Marinara
Mantova 1490-1530 Isabella d’Este (wife of Francesco II Gonzaga)
Urbino Guidantonio da Montefeltro, Federico da Montefeltro
The Serenissima Republic of Venice
TheVatican State (Papacy)
The Kingdom of Naples
enjoyed (so to speak) more or less independent regimes with variable institutional mutual alliances (Aragon, Castile, France, Papacy, England, Venice, Milan)

The German Emperor (heir of Frederick the Second Sacred Roman Empire) was a virtual authority: Under his Sovereignity, Kings, Princes, Dukes, and Counts had complete autonomy on their lands where they excised taxes, administered justice, had armies and managed their wars. Each local Lord had his vassals and had an army or relied on mercenary armies (Swiss, German, Hungarian or Italian). Such armies were under the command of professional military commanders (Condottieri: from the term “condotta” which was the contract they signed with their clients, Captains of Venture).
At the time, the Capitani di Ventura and Condottieri with their heavily armed details were the only ones who could travel safely. The story of mercenary armies is an interesting one. The Condottieri either died or became very rich and powerful and often overthrew their clients and took over their lands and castles. It was a dangerous profession, but it could also be very profitable.
The political situation in Italy was very volatile: Alliances shifted continuously between cities and small kingdoms: Milan with Venice against Florence, Florence against Genoa and Pisa, the Pope trying to secure his control over central Italian cities… a great market for the “condottieri” and mercenary armies.
Florence was ruled by the Medici family for most of Leonardo’s life: Lorenzo the Magnificent ruled from 1469 to his death in 1492. He was followed for a short time by Piero de’ Medici who was thrown out by Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican preacher of looming catastrophies.
Florence was ruled by Girolamo Savonarola and his fundamentalist peers from 1492 until 1500, when Savonarola was put to the stake as an heretic by Pope Alexander VI (Borgia). Florence elected Piero Soderini as “gonfaloniere” and was ruled as a “republic” until 1513 when the Medici regained control of the city with the help of the Pope (Giulio II Giuliano della Rovere) and the Spanish army. Giuliano de’ Medici (Duc de Nemours) ruled Florence for a short time. By that time, Leonardo was living in France, far from Florentine politics.
Milan was ruled by the Visconti until the Dukedom was taken over by Francesco Sforza. Ludovico Sforza was the second son of Francesco Sforza, who had made himself duke of Milan. While still a child, he received the epithet il Moro (“the Moor”) because of his dark complexion and black hair. Brought up in his father's refined court, he remained, after his father's death in 1466, in the service of the new ruler, his elder brother Galeazzo Maria.
However, when Galeazzo was murdered in 1476, leaving the duchy to his seven-year-old son, Gian Galeazzo, Ludovico first revealed his appetite for power, plotting to win the regency from the child's mother, Bona of Savoy. The plot failed, and Ludovico was exiled but eventually, through threats and flattery, won a reconciliation with Bona and in 1480 brought about the execution of her most influential adviser and chief minister, Cicco Simonetta. Shortly after, he compelled Bona to leave Milan and assumed the regency for his nephew.
Leonardo met Ludovico when he was sent to Milan by (1480?) Lorenzo de’ Medici to present the Moor with a special gift, a silver “lyra”, that he was also able to play in a masterly way.
Ludovico lost his state and all his possessions and died a prisoner of the French King Louis XII in 1508. His memory is tarnished by the fact that he called a foreign king (Charles III) to settle Italian squabbles, which had long lasting consequences on subsequent Italian history.
His court in Milan was famous all over Europe for its luxury, grand parties, extravagance and arts patronage.Highway bandits, Merchants and bankers
When the Normans came to Italy at the turn of the millennium, after a few decades spent as mercenaries fighting for the Greeks against the Longobards or viceversa (Hauteville, Drengots), some of the families became lords of the lands they had received as payment for their services. However, not all of them ceased their very profitable trades as thieves and brigands and certainly not immediately (Roger I, and Robert Guiscard 1100 circa). Only during the very well- administered reign of Frederick the II were the bandits brought to justice and travel in Southern Italy and later throughout Frederick’s Empire became reasonably safe. During the late twelfth and thirteenth century, travelling again became a risky business, especially for merchants carrying precious goods and money, because the various small kingdoms were not able to secure the land beyond the walls of their cities. Villages and monasteries, were fortified and even large farms had a closed court with heavy doors closed and guarded at night. For security reasons, in many places if you were late showing up at the door, you had to remain outside for the night. Robbing merchants was not only a sport for highway thieves, it was often the Lord of the region, or a relative of his, who was the perpetrator.
Merchants who travelled throughout Italy and Europe had to have armed details and they themselves were skilled swordsmen and were physically fit. No authority was actually capable of granting the travellers. Pilgrims were also robbed regularly even if they travelled under the protection of the Holy Cross, the Pope, the Virgin Mary and many other allegedly powerful Saints. Pilgrims usually travelled in large groups and on foot and their sign of recognition (on their return stretch) was a Palm Leaf (Pilgrim’s Palm, Gericho Palm).
Merchants organized “caravans” and travelled together in strong contingents with mounted escort details capable of handling assaults of considerably large gangs of highway robbers, who would not attack anyway when clearly outnumbered. Smaller parties or lone travellers were in constant danger.
A complex network of wealthy people located in all the major European towns (most of them Jewish or Italians) were capable of granting money on letters of credit so that the merchants could travel “light”. This practice was imported from the far East through the Muslim world (that is probably where the word “check” comes from - in Arabic it was called “sakk”) because the practice of “money orders” had been in effect in China for many centuries.
The 1400 economy was still a closed system, even for a relatively large city like Florence. All the food was brought in from the country within a distance of 10-15 km (2 hrs walking or riding). Textiles, leather-goods, timber and construction materials (bricks, mortar, stones, marble) were procured from the region within a 50 km distance.
Florence exported silk, leather-goods, jewellery, wool and wool cloth, ceramics and crockery, silverware and cutlery. The trade went as far as the merchants were able to find markets. Florentine merchants and money men were in France and in England at the turn of the millennium.
Transportation was by ship (from Livorno, Pisa and Genoa) to Marseille, Nice, London, Bordeaux, Bruges, Amsterdam, Hamburg. Land routes were still the ones built by the Romans and not much better (Aurelia, Cassia, Flaminia, Aemilia, Romea). From Florence to Venice or Milan it was a 15 to 20 days horse ride. Heavily loaded mule trains would reach Milan from Florence in 20 to 30 days, but that did not happen often.
Leonardo would travel very light, riding his own horse followed by two or three mules carrying his belongings (books, tools, paintings).
In the appendix to this chapter you will find an excerpt from Catriona Macperson’s studies on Mediaeval Merchants with a very colourful description of their culture and values.

The Arts
The hundred years between 1450 and 1550 were the years of the vigorous birth and consolidation of the movement officially called “Renaissance”: The re-birth of art and human intelligence after the gloomy and dark years of the Middle Ages.
This is actually more a presumption or allegation of the Renaissance people than an historic fact. There was no real “death” of intelligence, arts or values in the Middle Ages and consequently there was no need for a re-birth of them. What happened in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries was, in fact, a consequence of the long and powerful Mediaeval conceptual experience. If we can talk of a “Renaissance” it is probably the one that took place around the 9th and 10th century with the return of the “Gothic” and “Celtic” values and cultures after the period of Roman domination. Also, Frederick II Hohenstaufen can be regarded as a pioneer of that “return”. Even if he thought he was bringing back the values of the Roman Emperors, he was in fact an interpreter of the “Celtic” post Roman culture.
Numbers and the techniques of dealing with numbers were the real revolution. With the introduction in Europe of the Arabic numbers (by Leonardo Pisano aka Fibonacci Liber abaci (first published in 1202 but universally known only after Gutenberg’s invention in 1450) and with the unbelievable mathematical processing potential they implied, the qualitative thinking and intuitive methods and theories of Mediaeval culture were confronted with a new “science”. Aristotle and Plato did not give up easily, though, and their categories dominated the official culture for centuries after. It has to be contended that in some areas of thinking (mainly dealing with religious dialectic) they are still endorsed.
The scientific method of speculation eventually overwhelmed the Mediaeval intuition. Whereas in many areas this was a huge advantage, in some areas it was not. Many centuries later, the betrayal of “science” would become apparent.
Leonardo, even before Galileo, embraced the method of “observation”. 230 years before him, Frederick II had clearly stated, “I only believe in what I see with my own eyes…”. So much for matters of “faith” or Religious dogmas. He was an Emperor and took the risk, but paid a high price. Later in his life he was excommunicated and ruined by the Pope (Innocent III and Gregory II).
Leonardo was a painter and much more cautious, but repeatedly in his notes he makes the same statement and lives by it. The nights spent dissecting corpses to discover “how the human body works” are just one example.
By contemporary standards, that was dark witchcraft and many burned at the stake for less.
Here is a list of the major painters who worked in an area that Leonardo da Vinci probably felt his own “circle”. Most of them were his friends, some of them his pupils and certainly all of them shared the “de Medici cultural aura”:

Filippo Brunelleschi 1377-1446
Paolo Uccello 1397-1475
Fra Angelico 1400-1455
Masaccio (Tommaso Cassai) 1401-1428
Filippo Lippi 1406-1469
Domenico Veneziano 1410-1461
Piero della Francesca 1416-1492
Andrea del Castagno 1423-1457
Sando Botticelli 1445-1510
Domenico Ghirlandaio 1449-1494
Pietro Perugino 1450-1523
Pinturicchio (Bernardino di Betto) 1454-1513
Ambrogio de Predis 1455-1508
Filippino Lippi 1457-1504
Lorenzo di Credi 1459-1537
Michelangelo Buonarroti 1475-1564
Raffaello Sanzio 1483-1520
Melzi Francesco 1493-1570
Giorgio Vasari 1511-1574

Literature, poetry, painting and sculpture, architecture and technology
The great changes, Humanism and Renaissance: a reassessment.
The slow birth of a modern World



Appendix 1

The early Mediaeval Merchants: a tough lot.

Excerpt from:
Medieval Merchants and Artisans
By Catriona Macperson (AKA Milly McCloskey)

Early on the dangers faced by merchants forced them to travel in caravans or armed groups. Roads were infested with bands of criminals, down-at-the-heels knights and thieves, most of whom lived by pillage. Some nobles (the robber barons) became highwaymen to augment their income. Banding together gave the merchants the armed force necessary to maintain their security. Enough sources are available for us to form a clear picture of the many armies of merchants, for that is what they were, their number rapidly increasing in Western Europe from the tenth century on. The pack-horses and wagons loaded with sacks, cases, bales and casks were surrounded by the merchants who were armed with bows and swords. These were not soft, silk and velvet clad fops in counting houses or effeminate figures at home in some lady’s chamber, but were experienced, battle-hardened travel-wise tough men who were perfectly willing to die rather than lose a profit by letting predators steal their goods. At their head were a standard-bearer and a leader of the company of "brothers" who were bound together by an oath of loyalty to each other. Usually the merchandise in these "trains" was bought and sold in common and the profits divided according to each man’s investment. The longer the journey and the rarer the goods, the bigger the profits would be. Except in winter, the venturesome merchant could be found on the road, motivated by profit and adventure with its accompanying thrills and excitement. He travelled on land or sea, doing everything himself, going to places far and near to see first-hand the goods he would buy for trade or resale. As time passed this situation changed. The economic system became more complicated and the merchant was needed at home at the centre of his affairs. An era of peace meant the merchant did not have to personally guard his goods but could rely on ships carrying his goods to make it safely into port. As merchants became better educated they could carry on their business by correspondence. The wealthier merchants now had partners or agents to represent them in their foreign branches. Well in place in the latter half of the thirteenth century in Italy, it spread to other countries, enabling the merchants to rid themselves of the military equipment which was so necessary in earlier days. At sea merchant ships on a long voyage still had to arm themselves for centuries against piracy.
Despite the difficulties merchants of the Middle Ages faced, commerce thrived. Roman roads fell into ruin even though the tolls to keep them in repair were still being collected. Princes were collecting tolls and taxes but were not using any of the revenue for rebuilding roads and bridges. Many wealthy towns, from the twelfth century on, gained exemptions from tolls in foreign countries where their merchants travelled, but there were still enough tolls to hinder traffic on the highways of trade and travel. Bridges were built in towns at the expense of the merchants. Without sound bridges, crossing large rivers would be another obstacle. Pilgrims, merchants and travellers kept open the passages through the Alps, providing a line of communication between Italy and Northern Europe.
Even though water transportation was a better method than land transportation for moving goods, it was not without its obstacles. Most ships were small and light and many times foundered in storms. Privateers armed with letters of reprisal seemed to be everywhere. If a Genoese captain attacked and plundered a Venetian ship, its captain (i.e. the Venetian captain) would go to his government and secure a letter of reprisal which authorized him to attack the first Genoese ship he met. This practice would start a never-ending chain. This practice often affected merchants of other cities also because not always was the person attacked from the enemy city. Slow communications often caused problems because a merchant could lose his cargo and ship by entering what he thought to be a friendly port, only to find out that a war had started while he was out at sea. Floods in the spring and fall, droughts in the summer, and heavy winter frosts quite often made the rivers and streams impassable. In an effort to improve water transportation, quays for loading and unloading ships were built along the major waterways, along with dikes and canals. Wooden dams, much like present day locks, were constructed to maintain the water level, through which boats could be pulled by ropes operated by a windlass. Ports with storage sheds and cranes for unloading ships were built. Once unloaded the ships were hauled from the water to be repaired. Money for all these improvements was paid by towns and frequently by merchants. At sea ships propelled by sails and oars were small and not very seaworthy. Navigation, to say the least, was crude, even so, there were more losses due to piracy than shipwreck. Piracy in the ninth and tenth centuries was the chief trade of all the northern nations. Goods from wrecked or stranded vessels became the property of the lords of the shores on which they were found. False lights were sometimes placed to deliberately cause ships to run aground.
Each feudal lord taxed the goods which passed through his territory. There were sales taxes and fees charged for the right to hold a market. These lords also established units of weights and measures and coined money. In each new territory the merchant entered, he had to deal with different units. This hampered trade, forcing the merchants to ally themselves with kings to destroy much of the power of the feudal nobles.
During wars enemy merchants were arrested, their ships and cargoes were confiscated. Foreign merchants who were not protected by treaties ran the risk of having their goods confiscated by territorial princes who might need them. Foreigners were also liable for special taxes. While princes could oppress merchants, they could also protect them. Merchants were protected from robbers and highwaymen by the public peace of the lords whose lands they travelled through.
In the thirteenth century, most of the merchants engaged in international commerce, were better educated than the average citizen. Some knowledge of foreign languages was necessary for merchants to deal in international trade. A number of little conversation books are still in existence. They were written at Bruges in the middle of the fourteenth century to teach French to businessmen. The keeping of books and accounts required a knowledge of reading, writing and arithmetic. Children of the merchants, in order to carry on the family business, needed these skills. There were monastic schools but they were inadequate to fulfill the special needs of the children. Towns began to open small schools which were the beginning of lay education in the Middle Ages. This practice upset the Church and even though they could not stop it, they were able to put the schools under their supervision, while the towns obtained the right to nominate the schoolmasters.
The growth of trade, industry and towns changed medieval life radically. As trade and industry grew, prices rose. The manorial system continued to support the nobles. While manorial markets, in some cases, began to show a profit, most nobles did not try to live within their incomes which were fixed by feudal custom. Unfortunately their fixed incomes did not keep pace with the rise of prices and standards of living. The noble ladies wanted to dress as well as the wives of the wealthy merchants, but this proved difficult to accomplish with their shrinking incomes. The castles began to look more like country residences rather than fortresses. No longer could the lords take what they wanted by force because the merchants knew how to protect themselves, and did not hesitate to do so quite handily. When their expenditures exceeded their incomes, the lords borrowed and mortgaged the future income of their manors. Usury brought on bankruptcy and many small nobles lost their estates to merchants.
The merchants knew that because of their low birth the nobility looked down on them. It must have been particularly satisfying to many merchants to know they had the wealth to sustain the very class of people who looked down on them. When kings became stronger than feudal lords, the merchants looked to them for protection. Frequently merchants allied themselves with kings to reduce their nobles to obedience. There had always been three classes in feudal society. The first was formed by the clergy, the second by the nobles and the third by the peasants. The townsmen, forming a new middle class, sandwiched themselves between the nobles and the peasants. In this position they continued to grow in size and importance. Since they did not pray, rule or grow anything, they were looked on with suspicion by all three classes. Their growth continued in spite of this unfriendly attitude.
Medieval commerce developed from the export trade, not local trade. The export trade gave rise to a class of professional merchants who promoted the economic revival of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. By looking at the goods they carried, which were of foreign origin, it is easy to see that long-distance trade revived the economies of Italy and the Low Countries. The spice trade made Venice and the large ports of the Western Mediterranean wealthy. Spices from Arabia, China and India were brought to Syria, then taken in European ships to Italy and from there to countries north of the Alps. From the beginning of the thirteenth century, apricots, figs, raisins, oranges, rice, perfumes, medicines, dyestuffs such as alum, cochineal and Brasilwood (which actually came from India were imported into Europe. Raw silk and cotton were imported into Italy and later into Europe. Damask from Damascus, muslins from Mosul, baldachins from Baghdad and gauzes from Gaza soon followed the importation of silk and cotton. Modern Europen languages still contain words of Arabic origin, which were introduced by Oriental commerce. For example we have English words such as artichoke, bazaar, orange, arsenal, tarragon, magazine, taffetas, tariff and jar to mention a few. Returning from Europe the Italians brought timber, arms and slaves to the Levantine ports. In the thirteenth century Italian merchants maintained agents at Bruges to purchase wholesale Flemish and Brabantine cloths. Bruges took the place of the Champagne fairs as the chief trading center of the north. Bruges became a wealthy commercial and industrial town. Instead of periodical visits, as at the fairs, the merchants established permanent settlements at Bruges.
During the twelfth century, control of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea passed to the German cities, which improved the fortunes of Bruges. The Hansards and Italians were drawn to Bruges because of the cloth industry.
In Northern Europe, the German Hansa was the trade link between Western Europe and the East, much like the large Italian ports in the Mediterranean basin. The Hanseatic and Italian East were quite different though. The Moslem and Byzantine worlds supplied for trade, products from a well-developed civilization, while the Hansard East, mostly in the process of colonization, was still in a state of primitive barbarism. The Hansards operated in a harsh, cold climate, where they had to contend with forested lands and waters which froze in the winter, making trade difficult to say the least. German towns appeared along the shores of the Baltic, and on the island of Gotland, from the middle of the twelfth to the middle of the thirteenth centuries. Traders established themselves on the coast of the Lithuanian, Slav and Lettish lands before they were completely conquered.
German merchants not only traded at Gotland, but soon followed the Scandinavians towards Russia and the Novgorod fair, which was an important market for oriental goods, furs and wax. They speedily acquired a place of their own on the edge of the marketplace, known as the Peterhof, and were granted privileges by Prince Constantine in 1205-07. Two distinct groups of German merchants made the journey from Gotland to Novgorod annually. One group travelled in winter (Winterfahrer) and the other in summer (Sommerfahrer). Merchants, who arrived in autumn, spent the winter in the Peterhof gathering choice furs. They left in the spring with the first thaw, generally before the arrival of the summer merchants who stayed until early autumn.
Still following in the path of the Scandinavians, the German merchants extended their activity to the Baltic countries and up the Dvina to the Russian markets in Polotsk, Vitebsk and Smolensk on the upper Dnieper. In the Baltic countries they came into contact with the pagan Lithuanians, Livonians, Letts and Finnish Estonians. Trading with the pagans was a very risky business. However, the merchants, whether as soldiers or traders, played an important part in the colonization and establishment of cities where they could carry on their trade.
German merchants and settlers spread into eastern Germany, founding towns between the Elbe and Oder Rivers, where all the princes, both German and Slav, welcomed them. Not content with eastward expansion, during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, German merchants and colonists moved into Scandinavia. Not only merchants but German craftsmen settled in Swedish towns. Hanseatic merchants carried on trade in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and from the thirteenth century on, German trade began to expand across the North Sea, in the direction of England and the Low Countries. Towards the end of the twelfth century, German merchants from Lubeck followed the Scandinavians to Bergen, Norway’s busiest port. They traded rye, flour and malt for dried cod, fish-oil, butter and hides. By the end of the thirteenth century the Hanseatic merchants, because of their geographical position, made themselves indispensable middlemen between the West and the East. Hanseatic trade stretched from Novgorod in the east, Bergen in the north, and Bruges and London in the west.
In 1157 Cologne merchants obtained their first privileges in London. In less than twenty years, (ll75) they obtained the right to trade freely throughout the kingdom. Richard Lionheart freed their London house from all impost duties, in return for three ships which they fitted out for his crusade. In 1266-67 merchants from Hamburg and Lubeck were given the privilege of forming a Hansa of their own similar to that of the merchants of Cologne. By 1281, after much feuding between Cologne and Lubeck, there emerged in London a single German Hansa of merchants. By the middle of the fourteenth century the Hansa of merchants was replaced by the Hansa of the towns.
Up to the middle of the thirteenth century most merchants were itinerant traders or peddlers. Sometimes aided by one or two servants, they travelled abroad with their goods, sold or traded them at their destination and returned home to sell the goods they had acquired abroad. Dangers on land and sea forced these merchants to travel in bands. They were armed, on their guard, ready and willing to fight the ever-present thieves and pirates. Early sea trade was carried on by groups of citizens from various towns, who jointly bought vessels. The profits from each shipload would be divided according to the size of the investment each man made. The most important man in each group of owners would be captain. (schep-herr, from which was derived schepper, schiffer, then skipper).
Before ships left port, merchants and captains would work out contracts for transporting goods. Until the thirteenth century, these were oral agreements, made in the presence of witnesses over a glass of beer, but by the fourteenth century written contracts replaced the oral ones.
Because of high risk and the exacting nature of their work, many merchants never married. Records of 187 merchants show that 82 were married and of these 43 had legitimate children. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, early traders were replaced by independent merchants in charge of their own firms. Gradually, as conditions became safer, merchants would remain home to carry on their business affairs, sending clerks to accompany their merchandise. The travelling merchant now became a sedentary worker, carrying on his business from home or office aided by a small staff.
When he was about six years old, a merchant’s child would go to the parish school. Between the ages of twelve and fifteen his formal schooling would end. Rarely did a merchant go to a university. At the end of his schooling, his commercial apprenticeship began, under the direction of a merchant, usually a relative. During his apprenticeship, he would spend years in different countries, learning accounting, bookkeeping, how to inspect merchandise, the buying and selling of goods and the credit system. He became a clerk after two or three years, which entitled him to buy and sell on his own, after attending to his employer’s business. Eventually he became head of his own firm. Dollinger gives us an account of what was expected of a merchant, who attended meetings in the guild hall, as recorded in the statutes of the Artushof of Danzig.
"...show a proper concern for preserving the good name of the association, maintaining a fitting standard of behaviour and avoiding extravagance. It was forbidden, under pain of fines or even exclusion, to throw plates and dishes at other members, to draw a knife, to play at dice for money, to pour into one’s neighbour’s glass a mixture likely to make him drunk, to talk scandal, particularly about women, or to utter abuse, especially of the authorities. The number of courses at a meal was strictly limited, as was the number of mounte-banks. Wine was reserved for guests. The company was ex- pected to break up at ten o’clock when the ‘beer bell’ was rung, and so on. One of the favourite amusements was betting, of which a careful record was kept, the stake being usually a sum of money or a length of cloth. The merchants betted on anything: an approaching marriage, the duration of a war, the price of herring, the result of an election or a tourney. The subject of some bets was preposterous. For example, one man betted that a certain cook would acknowledge that her master was the father of her two children; another undertook for ten guilders not to comb his hair for a year. Feasts, celebrated with splendour, occasionally enlivened the rhythm of the daily round."
The average merchant started his day right after mass and breakfast soup and finished with a four or five o"clock snack. He worked later if a ship was expected to arrive or sail in the evening. He liked good food, good drink and the opportunity to spend evenings in the guild hall, where he could drink beer, play games or sing and dance. To quote Franz Wessel from Stralsund, by the age of 22, a young man was expected : "to drink much, smash glasses, devour great quantities, leap from one barrel to another etc. and be seen at banquets and carousals."
Not all merchants elected to remain home while agents carried on their foreign business. Many must have felt the call to adventure and the desire for the active trading life. Even when they were old, most merchants went on a long journey from time to time. Before starting on such a journey, they would put their affairs in order. Quite often this was the time for making wills and it was not uncommon for large sums to be left to the Church, in an attempt to purchase salvation.
Merchants doing business in foreign lands usually were protected by charters issued by the ruling sovereign. In times of war or civil strife, these charters failed to provide much protection. Merchants, particularly the Hansa merchants, faced arrest and seizure of their goods. The Kontor (fortified trading center) at Novgorod is an excellent example. In 1424 all the German merchants there were imprisoned and at least thirty six died. Seventy years later Ivan III deported forty nine merchants of the Peterhof to Moscow. Three years later they were released and on the way home they all died at sea.
Abroad, in towns where the guilds had their own houses, the merchants lived fairly well isolated from the local townspeople. This isolation was encouraged by the guilds mostly for protection against attack and robbery. When they lived in rented quarters amongst the local population, they were able to move about more freely.
I would be remiss if I did not include an account of the "famous Bergen games". Each spring at the Kontore (plural of Kontor) they were held shortly after the arrival of the Hanseatic fleets. Here the young journeymen were tortured before they could become full members of the groups. There were three ordeals. First the journeyman was raised and suspended over a smoking chimney, while the members questioned him. When he was nearly asphyxiated, he was let down. Next he was tossed into the harbor three times, and each time as he was climbing back into the boat, members in other boats thrashed him. Last and by far the worst ordeal was by whipping. Naked, blindfolded and drunk, he was whipped till he bled. The noise of cymbals and drums covered his screams. After all this he had to sing a funny song for the members. The Church protested these games but not until the death of the Hansa did they stop. This cruel torture had one advantage. If a member survived, and he usually did, he became a full member with all its attendant privileges, and he became a member of a family which would stick by him in good or bad times. The Bergen Games are reminiscent of some modern day fraternity initiations.

Catriona Macperson (AKA Milly McCloskey)
For more on Medieval traders check at:



Appendix 2

This plain and "matter of fact" report taken from the diary of the Corsini Family tells quite a story about the professionality and about f the character of the early Florentine merchants. No frills, no elaborate wording, no self indulgence: been there, done that.

Matteo Corsini (1322-
In the year 1344, Matteo Corsini was 22 years old and began his life as a merchant travelling to the commercial hubs of northern Europe where other members of the family had already established agencies and had been operating very successfully. He first went to see Mssrs Lotto Stracciabendi and Giorgio di Cherchino in London and there he added to the financial activity (money lending) the trading activity (cloth and herrings) which he carried out with his brothers Duccio and Bartolomeo, who had already been operating in England for some time. It was a very difficult time for the Florentine entrepreneurs who had been ruined by the English Financial catastrophe of 1343 (Edward III Longshanks). The Corsini were among the first to recover from the disaster. They had come to Florence from Poggibonsi (Siena) in the second half of the XIII century, they settled Oltrarno in the “Popolo di San Felice in Piazza” and soon became very rich trading wool and cloth (they bought wool in England and sold the woven fabric on all the European markets). They played important roles in Florentine politics. The first major character of the family was Neri di Corsino who lived between 1244 and 1318. He was elected “priore” eight times and in 1295 he was “Gonfaloniere di Giustizia” (equivalent to Chief Justice).This is an excerpt from his diary (Libro delle ricordanze dei Corsini):

“Recording that I, Matteo son of Nicholò de’ Chorsini del Popolo di San Filice in Piazza, left Florence on April 21st of the year 1343 and on the 1st of June joined the money lending counter with Lotto Stracabendi and Giorgio di Cherchino in London. During the same year I left Gernamuda (Yarmouth) with Sixty bales of herrings and went to Bordello di Guascogna (Bordeaux) to sell them and came back to London on May the First 1345. And in the year 1345 I left Bristol with 60 pieces of cloth and went with them to Lisbon in Portugal where I have arrived on the 8th of August and came back to Bruges on the first of January 1346…”

a cura di A. Petrucci- Roma, 1965

Approximately 600 years later (1975) I myself was travelling throughout Europe with Dr. Neri of the Corsini Family, himself a merchant trading metal powders, buying them from the Germans (Mannesmann Pulvermetall) selling them in Italy…but this is another story… (LM)