Sergio Tognetti. Un' industria di lusso al servizio del grand commercio: Il mercato de drappi serici e della seta nella Firenze del Quattrocento.
The presumed health of the Florentine economy in the late-medieval and early modern centuries has generated one of the persistent, if not always particularly illuminating, debates in the city's ever-flourishing historiography. Sergio Tognetti, a young Florentine florentinist, now makes his second book-length contribution to this debate. In his first, published three years ago, he focused his attention on the history of the Cambini bank, whose activities in Lisbon during much of the fifteenth century had enabled him to bring to light an aspect of Florentine history that has not often received the attention it perhaps deserves: the city's important economic and cultural links with the Iberian peninsula, especially its non-Mediterranean parts. Through his careful investigations in the rich documentation of the Cambini company, Tognetti was able to show how florid contacts between Florence and Lisbon had been, and how fruitful, for an understanding of Florence's history, such an opening of historiographic horizons could be. His second book, under review here, follows very much in the same line. It is focused, monographic in nature, and addresses important questions regarding the history of the Florentine economy in the fifteenth century. In this sense, Tognetti's investigation of the silk industry in the fifteenth century makes an important if limited contribution to the longstanding debate on the Florentine economy.
The book's importance lies in Tognetti's meticulous analyses of the extant evidence and in his punctilious presentation of the data contained in account books of silk firms. The sharpness of the focus and the understandable decision to limit the investigation essentially to two firms (the Serristori and the Cambini) also perhaps inevitably mark the limits of this study. The book comprises three substantial chapters: the first ranges mostly over retrospective questions regarding the conditions of the Florentine economy in the decades following the mid-fourteenth-century crisis, and the "riconversione economica" of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Based mostly on a judicious analysis of the existing literature, this chapter presents a general picture of the Florentine economy. Key points are the author's insistence that the introduction of the silk industry enabled the city's economy to compensate for the slack created by the crisis in the wool industry and that the peculiar strength of this economic conversion was the confluence of banking capital into the silk industry, a point that, if not new, is properly emphasized by the author.
Chapters 2 and 3 are case studies based mostly on the records of the Serristori and of the Cambini family companies. In these excellent analyses, Tognetti is able to put to good use his command of the sources, especially of catasto declarations and of account books. The history of the Serristori enables Tognetti to trace the change of this once modest family of artisans and notaries to a major banking and commercial force and to show how the eventual preeminence of the Serristori in the silk industry was in large measure based on their substantial profits in the financial sector. The chapter on the Cambini leads Tognetti to consider a range of complex issues, about the organization of their silk firm, the channels through which they secured raw materials for their silk manufactory, the markets in which they placed their products, and the complex (if, one must confess, insufficiently studied) mechanisms through which demand for these products was generated and sustained. Throughout, Tognetti is able to present his argument clearly and efficiently, drawing on often impressive quantities of empirical data, which are organized in tables and in a series of appendices that are useful in clarifying his points.
This little book is endowed with considerable strengths. It is also plagued by some not minor problems. Most crucial is the absence of a conclusion of sorts that might set Tognetti's findings into some sort of larger perspective. The book ends in the midst of a technical discussion on an issue dealing with the price of a shipment of Calabrian silk to Florence in 1460. Even if this chapter were an article, a journal editor would have demanded a more forceful and clear conclusion. Equally, the publisher would have done Tognetti a favor by insisting that this book be properly rounded out. There are other problems: Tognetti rests his case as regards his approach to the subject with an appeal to the method of case studies. This is fine so long as an effort is made to cast the individual studies against the backdrop of a larger canvas. Here, one is struck by Tognetti's reluctance to venture into more-comprehensive analyses of the Florentine economy, even if one must admit that his discussion of broad theoretical issues about the operations of premodern economies helps to present his case studies in broader perspective. There is also a recurrent refrain regarding the marvels and strengths of Florentine capitalism, even if, by now, one should have learned to temper such triumphalist rhetoric. Finally, although Tognetti makes much of the Mediterranean arena in which the Florentine silk industry is alleged to have developed, a study of his book's tables and appendices rather shows that the Florentine silk industry did not rely much at all on Mediterranean markets. Rather it was places to the north, in France and elsewhere, that provided the stimulus necessary for the development of the Florentine silk industry.
These shortcomings notwithstanding, this monograph makes a useful and important contribution to our understanding of the fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century Florentine economy. One now wishes that Tognetti would use his considerable knowledge of the sources and historiographic problems to tackle broader, more complex, and ambitious issues regarding the course of Florence's economy in the late-medieval and early modern centuries.
The European University Institute
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2003|
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