of Western Australia Extension
Four Lectures by
Europe, Italy, Florence
Short outline of the
Two words on the idea of history and then a short perusal
of Leonardos 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.
Leonardos life: childhood, youth, mature man, old master. The places
of his life, the people around him. Comments on his works throughout his
The Last Supper: conceptual framework, history of the contract, relationship
with other last suppers, technicalities of the painting, Leonardos
style. Critics and assessments. A reading of the painting as it is now.
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.
(for the time being) proposal by the author.
on the idea of history
and then a short perusal of Leonardos 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.
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
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 Gods 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
Collingwoods 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 Croces 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
Following Collingwoods 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
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 dEste (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 Leonardos 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
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 Fredericks 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
(Pilgrims 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
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
Macpersons studies on Mediaeval Merchants with a very colourful
description of their culture and values.
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 Gutenbergs 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
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
The early Mediaeval Merchants: a tough lot.
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 ladys
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
mans 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
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
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,
Norways 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 merchants 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 employers 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 ones neighbours 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 oclock 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:
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
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
From: IL LIBRO DI RICORDANZE DEI CORSINI (1362-1457)
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
this is another story