Spanish Imperium Genoese Emporium


View of the City of Naples and Vesuvio from Castel Sant’Elmo

by Céline Dauverd

The word imperialism inevitably conjures up reflections about the relationship –or lack thereof—among western countries and let’s say Algeria, Lebanon, South Africa, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Mexico or Libya. However, these are all regions plagued by relatively modern colonialists who carried the so-called “white burden” of enlightening the rest of the world while extracting resources that fueled the hegemon’s local production. While the story of imperialism has witnessed practitioners among numerous non-western complex societies such as the Q’in dynasty in East Asia, the Mexica dynasty in Central America, or the Mali dynasty in West Africa, I decided to associate a period usually characterized by rationality and selfless discovery with an area regarded as culturally radiating in order to underscore that imperialism is a shifting concept, very human in essence, neither necessarily western nor generally modern. Dynastic and Merchant Empires examines how Spanish Crown and Genoese merchants developed both a financial and spiritual alliance in Renaissance Naples, thereby shaping Southern Italy into a stepping stone for mercantile and dynastic imperialistic pursuits. Hence, when I took on this research I sought to do away with the east-west narrative of racial superiority, the infertile post 9/11 civilizational clash account, and was more intrigued by the idea of imperialism as the product of a time usually defined as the Renaissance, an era which the educated mass perceives as epitomizing a cultural leap forward due to the intellectual recovery of the ancient world, freedom from the oppressive institution of the Church, concentration on human achievements through art and sciences, and the creation of municipal liberties and civic communes. Because I was asking seemingly anachronistic and unbefitting questions, and because southern Italy is commonly perceived as backward, feudal, and inanimate when compared to its giant sisters Venice and Florence, Renaissance Naples became the perfect cultural laboratory for the imperialist experiment.

Naples, from Cosmographie Universelle, by Sebastian Munster,1556. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Site Richelieu

The focus on dynastic and mercantile imperialism triggered important questions about early modern migration and trade. In contrast to the rest of the Italian peninsula, commerce in the south was endemically diasporic. Hence, I threaded my narrative with the concept of “trade diaspora” arguing that Genoese traders had established southern Italy as one of their commercial outposts in the western Mediterranean, using their family network to penetrate the local market. I noticed that they monopolized the trade of certain commodities and acted like “hermit crab” in their ability to adapt to new types of economic and political milieux. While family business dictated the term of their relations with their host society, the notion of “trade diaspora” opened to me the possibility that Genoese merchants had fashioned an informal empire within the formal empire of the Spanish.

Attributed to Francesco Rosselli, Tavola Strozzi, View of the City of Naples in Italy from the Sea, 1470

I also felt the idea of diaspora was nested in the story of the entanglement of Mediterranean and European politics. For instance, I realized that close proximity to Spanish rulers –who had acquired the Kingdom of Naples through the might of their dynastic effort– granted the Genoese family network to extend its mercantile empire, while the Iberian crown benefited greatly from the Genoese financial network in its imperial expansion, something I called “symbiotic imperialism.” This “symbiotic” relationship between Iberian crown and Genoese merchants made Naples a pivotal point in the Spanish imperium, and benefited both parties in their efforts to advance their interests over the highly contested Mediterranean Sea. How so? Constant Ottoman incursions against the coasts of southern Italy accentuated the Spanish reliance on Genoese ships and funds, while the Genoese depended on Spanish imperial authority to protect their coastal trading posts. But while I became convinced that financial developments on the European continent and the Mediterranean Sea had been largely determined by the Genoese-Spanish union, hence intimately linking the two regions, I was also able to work from, and yet push the limits of the eminent twentieth century historians’ chronicles. While Fernand Braudel, Jacques Heers, David Jacoby, Maurice Aymard, Kirti Chauduri, James D. Tracy, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and Philip Curtin all see commerce as factor of change, my project has demonstrated that dynastic imperialism regardless of time and place was necessarily reinforced by mercantile imperialism. The economic embargoes on North Korea, Burma, Syria, or Cuba are modern examples of symbiotic imperialism, indicating that this practice is not showing signs of abatement. Utilizing southern Italy as one of their network bases enabled the Genoese to serve the Spanish crown in its grand colonial project. In turn, they were eager to fight French and Venetians’ claims over Levantine trade to prevent their economic growth in the Mediterranean. Thus, the Kingdom of Naples, usually seen as fringe of empire was really one important node of the imperial system and held an active role in the Genoese trade diaspora who integrated it.

Genoa dominated the banking system of Europe throughout the pre-modern era. Genoa was the Wall Street of Italy. The city had an efficient form of capitalism and for its inhabitants the big investment was the Spanish Crown. Thanks to their international network, the Genoese became mediators for the Spanish imperial project on the European continent. What was the Genoese role in greater European developments? They were chief informal actors of the wars in Europe: the Mediterranean wars (1480-1669), the Wars of Religion (1524-48), The Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), and the no less infamous continuous rivalry and intrigues with the French and the Popes. Throughout the Castilian Mediterranean Empire, they benefited from ample opportunities to raise fiscal and land revenues, to acquire fiefs, tax privileges, and live as absentee owners which in turn allowed them to become a crucial link to Habsburg imperial expansion on the European continent.  In that sense, the Genoese diasporic community generated necessary revenues for the Iberian Crown to sustain numerous armies in Europe, to feed the Spanish territories on the continent, and to combat frequent rebellions.

Church of San Giorgio dei Genovesi, Naples

As I pursued my research in the archives of Spain, Sicily, France, and Italy, however, I realized, to my great stupor, that the economic symbiosis was coupled with a spiritual alliance. It looked as if religious threats reinforced the commitment of both Spanish Crown and Genoese merchants to the material and spiritual welfare of the kingdom. My investigation of Naples’ social and cultural universe centered on two points of convergence: ceasing the spread of the Reformation on the European continent, and safeguarding the western Mediterranean from constant Turkish forays. Both Protestants on the European continent and Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean threatened to undermine the Genoese and Spaniards’ pledge to European spiritual reforms. By allowing myself to indulge in cultural history, I gathered that in the kingdom of Naples these religious menaces were materialized by the two parties’ commitment to charities, hospitals, churches, religious festivals, orphanages, and confraternities. The Genoese fulfilled a spiritual and moral obligation to the kingdom while upholding the Spanish empire as a Catholic polity, which in turn reinforced their symbiosis with the Spanish crown. Imperialism knows no age, religion, nor nation but it has invariably hinged on mercantile interests.

All photographs courtesy of the Author.

About the Author:

Céline Dauverd is an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. She specializes in  Renaissance Italy, Golden Age Spain, and the pre-modern Mediterranean. She has interests in trade, migration, religious identity, and imperialism in the Mediterranean especially through the relationship between Habsburgs and Ottomans. Her monograph is entitled Dynastic and Merchant empires: the Genoese Trade Diaspora in Spanish Naples, 1450-1650