Symposium on Early Modern Mercantile Culture

Further details and full programme.

The subject of mercantile culture has become one of the most fascinating and promising fields where scholars can produce transregional and interdisciplinary research. Early modern merchants in particular were moving, acting and writing in increasingly complex and global networks, where they had to face problems as diverse as distance, foreign status, mercantilist policies, and the constant need to quickly gather reliable information. The symposium organized at King’s College London for the 22nd and 23rd of June aims to bring together specialists in early modern mercantile culture, its broader intellectual and economic underpinnings, and its social and international facets. Among the speakers at the event, there will be three faculty members from King’s College (Prof. Francisco Bethencourt, Dr. Joao Silvestre, and Dr. Matteo Salonia). Topics covered by some of the papers include trade in late imperial China, business strategies in early modern Japan, and the impact of mercantile activities on visual art and literature.

Kaino Naizen (1570-1616), Namban Folding Screen, detail, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga

King’s is one of the best environments where a multi-disciplinary discussion on early modern trade and mercantile culture can be developed from a global perspective, as besides its world-leading History Department it can also take advantage of research produced at the Camoes Centre for Portuguese Language and Culture and of the input from the institutes concerning China, India and Brazil. The event, which includes Q&A sessions, is open to colleagues from King’s and other institutions, as well as to students and to the general public.

Hans Holbein the Younger, portrait of the merchant Georg Gisze, 1532, oil on wood, 85.7×97.5 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

These are the abstracts of the papers that will be presented by our two History faculty members:


Paper abstract – Prof. Francisco Bethencourt (KCL), “Visual Expression of Mercantile Culture”

Mercantile culture is generally addressed by the study of practical trade, behaviour of merchants during exchange, legal and institutional framework for transactions. We work on specific types of sources, mainly notarial records, account books, commercial law, treatises on usury, money and contracts, trials triggered by bankruptcies. However, the first half of the sixteenth century does not have a prolific set of sources that can help us in this field. This is why I decided to look at iconography, due to my previous experience with racism.  I will study two lost paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497-1543) on the Triumph of Poverty and the Triumph of Riches produced for the residence of the merchants of the Hanseatic League in London in 1532-1534. They are good for thought, since they were commissioned by top merchants in an important commercial environment with international connections. They concentrate a challenging density of symbols and narratives. My argument is that these paintings express the vision of the merchants on the debate on wealth versus poverty and the levelling proprieties of the market. This vision has not been fully taken into account by the historiography of economic thought concerning the period before the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.




Paper abstract – Dr. Matteo Salonia (KCL), “Self-perception and the Production of Knowledge at the Peripheries of Empire: the case of Giovanni da Empoli (1483-1517)”

There are still many questions surrounding the history of the first Portuguese fleets reaching the Indian Ocean immediately after Vasco da Gama’s expedition. Two of the most important issues that we have to explore when looking at the early empire-building process in this region are the identity (agenda; value system) of different actors among “the Portuguese” and the production of knowledge about space and human geography at the peripheries of the empire.

This paper offers a brief introduction to the life of Giovanni da Empoli (1483-1517), one of the first Italians to reach India and China by sea. Giovanni’s Letters offer an invaluable source for our understanding of early European expectations, perceptions and depictions of Asia’s human and economic geography. The paper also outlines possible lines of inquiry and discusses alternative research questions for the future.


Dr. Matteo Salonia and Prof. Francisco Bethencourt

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