Historisches Institut

Forschung Neuere Geschichte

Atlantic Italies: Economic and Cultural Entanglements (15th-19th Centuries)

Förderprofessur Prof. Dr. Roberto Zaugg
November 2018 bis Oktober 2022
Finanziert durch den Schweizerischen Nationalfonds

Planisfero di Cantino, portugiesische Weltkarte, ca. 1500, Biblioteca Estense (Modena).

According to a predominant grand narrative, the Mediterranean entered a process of economic marginalization once Iberian seafaring had opened up intercontinental oceanic routes in the late fifteenth century. This trend intensified in the 1570s when the Mediterranean was ‘invaded’ by merchant ships from north-western Europe, which simultaneously eroded Iberian hegemony in the Atlantic. With the emergence of Atlantic Europe, the Italies – i.e. the various territories which made up the peninsula – lost the pivotal position they had occupied in the late-medieval world-economy, and while representative institutions and Protes­tantism are said to have paved the way to modernity in the Dutch Republic and in England, the hegemony of ‘absolutist’ Spain allegedly suffocated the development of the Catholic Peninsula.

This interpretive framework has caused the history of the Italian Peninsula to be related mainly to European and Mediterranean contexts, while neglecting its global dimensions. By the same token, historians dealing with Europe’s Atlantic engagement have largely focused on the imperial cases of Portugal, Spain, the Dutch Republic, France and England. To be sure, fifteenth-century seafarers such as Columbus have been objects of inquiry (and nationalist myth-making) at least since the late nineteenth century, and mass migrations from Italy to the Americas in the nineteenth-twentieth centuries have also been well investigated. Between these two periods, however, the entanglements linking the Italies to the Atlantic have by and large remained a historiographical blind spot.        

Recent scholarship has shown that, while north-western Europe’s emergence is undeniable, the Italies nevertheless contin­ued to play an active role during the Atlantic Age (mid-fifteenth to mid-nineteenth century). Thousands of ecclesiastics from the Peninsula participated in the evangelization of overseas territories, while Genoese merchants were involved in the colonization of the Cape Verde archipelago, sugar plantations in Brazil, the slave business, and transatlantic migrations. Although projects for establishing char­tered companies and territorial colonies failed, the circulation of people, commodities, knowledge and financial flows between the Americas and the Italies was not negligible, not least because parts of both were provinces of the Spanish empire for centuries. Port cities became conduits for a variety of African and American goods (tobacco, sugar, cacao, coffee, salted cod, dyestuffs, ivory, gold, cotton, gum arabic, ostrich feathers, malagueta, cinchona, etc.), which exerted a lasting influence on consumption patterns and material culture. American crops transformed agriculture and culinary habits, while new plants enriched drug making.   

By focusing on actors, merchandise and markets from states without colonial possessions, the Atlantic Italies Project joins recent attempts to develop a trans-imperial approach to Atlantic history. The three subprojects examine economic connections and related cultural phenomena (consumption, mate­rial culture, knowledge circulation). They build upon the historiography on Atlantic trade, especially the recent current which, instead of focussing on imperial structures and chartered companies, explores the role of more informal networks. They also expand on studies dealing with consumption patterns and the hybridisation of material culture. The three subprojects combine intercontinental and local scales of observation and – adopting a recent turn – in­clude a micro-historical approach to global entanglements. On the basis of this common frame and methodology, the subprojects purposely investigate three diverse topics, focussing on the history of the Mediterranean, the Alps and the Church.

  • “Mediterranean connections” (Roberto Zaugg) studies the trade and cultural transformations of red coral, a commodity which for centuries was exported from the Italies to Atlantic Africa.  
  • “Alpine connections” (Riccardo E. Rossi) analyses the trade and consumption of Atlantic commodities in the Italian-speaking regions of the Old Swiss Confederacy.
  • “Church connections” (Eva B. Dal Canto) examines a specific group of brokers involved in transatlantic connections – namely Italian Capuchin missionaries and papal nuncios – and analyses their role in trade and the intermediation of economic knowledge.