On Florentines and Fieldwork

By Eleanor Russell

Perhaps surprisingly to non-specialists, vast amounts of documentation survive from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, far more than from earlier periods. These surviving documents are not, however, necessarily coherent, and large bodies of sources remain rare. Even merchant correspondence, carefully preserved by traders for their records, has generally not remained intact. One important exception to this is the archive of the Spinelli, a Florentine family who were prominent in trade and silk manufacture in the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. Their correspondence, tax records, wills, family trees, account books, and numerous other types of documents are kept in the Beinecke Library at the University of Yale, from where I was able to obtain a Visiting Fellowship to study this important collection.

For historians, fieldwork does not mean literally going into the field but rather going into an archive and reading documents. This can, perhaps surprisingly, be quite challenging. Transcribing even one sixteenth century letter can take hours, if the handwriting is poor! It is also difficult to obtain funding, to plan the research trip, and to gain entrance into the archives, particularly if there are language barriers. My research into the Spinelli family was motivated by the question of how much trade and finance had changed for smaller companies between the later fifteenth and the mid-sixteenth centuries. Extensive research has been performed upon the activities of the larger companies, but others remain neglected. The Spinelli family in particular has received fairly little attention in the literature; the studies that exist focus solely upon the fifteenth-century merchant and silk manufacturer, Tommaso de’ Spinelli.

The various types of documents provide different information about the family’s activities. “Catasto”, or tax, records, indicate the wealth of Spinelli households and the products of their country estates. Account books of their banks show the sums that they lent and the names of their creditors. The few trading account books reveal information about trade items. Perhaps the most interesting, however, are their letters. These contain conversations between family members, with borrowers, with business partners, and with bureaucrats and rulers granting favours and permissions.

Although the Spinelli archives provide a vast amount of information, it is still inconsistent, making it risky to rely upon statistical analyses. Many of the account books are missing and surviving ones cannot be assumed to be representative. Even the tax and census records, which are relatively complete, cannot be entirely trusted because of the possibility of tax fraud. The researcher must judge how best to form useful conclusions without seeing patterns that are not there in the sources. As a result of this analysis, I was able to conclude that the Spinelli had far more involvement in the trade of non-Italian goods in the sixteenth century. Their account books show a significant increase in the trade of Flemish cloth, one of the mainstays of European commerce, due to the family’s presence in the great trading centres of Antwerp and Bruges.

This expansion of trade goods included extensive trade and financial dealings with Spain and Portugal, a point rarely addressed in analyses of the mid-tier Florentine companies. Several letters indicate that the Spinelli had representatives in Spain and Madeira, from where they were involved in the sugar trade, and with Florentine companies such as the Marchionni who were directly engaged in large-scale colonial trade.

Like the great Florentine companies, the Spinelli entered into commercial relationships with German firms. One of the letters was written by a ‘Bartolomeo Belzer’ in Antwerp to ‘Gerart di Pleyna’, ambassador of Galicia, asking for the repayment of a loan by the Spinelli. By comparing these names to other sources, we can identify these actors as Bartholomäus Welser, of the powerful Augsburg merchant and banking family, and Gerard de Plena, count de la Roche and one of Charles V’s councillors alongside Giovanni Battista Spinelli. This letter, and others like it, suggest that the Spinelli – and therefore probably other mid-size Florentine companies – mimicked the great firms’ increased lending to rulers and diplomats beyond Italy.

Image: It’s the frontispiece of the Liber taxarum of Tomasso Spinelli with the family crests. URL: Yale University Library,  https://beinecke.library.yale.edu/programs-events/events/Rich_Archive_Struggling_Family%3A_The_Spinelli_Family_Archive_and_the_Generation_of_the_Late_1500s

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