The Project

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

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 project Atlantic Italies. Economic and Cultural Entanglements (15th-19th Centuries) , funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (2018-2022), joins recent attempts to develop a trans-imperial approach to Atlantic history. The project is structured along two axes:

These sub-projects 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 two sub-projects combine intercontinental and local scales of observation and – adopting a recent turn – in­clude a micro-historical approach to global entanglements.

The project was based at the University of Bern from November 2018 to July 2019. Since then, it has been based at the University of Zurich.