NOTA DE LEITURA
Tenho a impressão que este livro é pouco conhecido dos historiadores portugueses. É pena, porque fala especialmente de portugueses, dos cristãos novos que, nos tempos da Inquisição, abandonaram o País para fugirem à perseguição. Em Amsterdão, Veneza, Livorno, Istambul, Esmirna e Aleppo, muitos tornaram-se judeus novos, mas outros permaneceram cristãos, outros ainda indiferentes perante a Religião. Mas não esqueceram o País. E o Português era a principal língua de trabalho deles, embora misturada com palavras italianas e espanholas.
Procurei o livro para ler sobre Livorno, Liorne ou Leorne. Ali Fernando I, dos Medici, promulgou em 1591 e 1593 as "Livornine", leis especiais destinadas a proteger especialmente a gente hebreia fugida de Portugal. Lá se sentiram bem e desenvolveram os seus negócios durante alguns séculos.
A tese do livro é muito interessante. Diz a Autora que as relações comerciais se baseavam não só (ou não tanto) sobre as afinidades da raça, cultura e religião, mas também (ou sobretudo) nas boas práticas do comércio, que se desenvolveram na altura e que nos são reveladas pela correspondência comercial. Faz então a história de uma firma de cristãos novos - Ergas e Silvera, de que chegaram até ao nosso tempo 13 670 cartas, que foram por ela estudadas.
Tenho pena que a Autora, tendo estudado bastante a Inquisição Portuguesa, não tenha sido mais decisiva a emitir uma opinião sobre ela. Na nota 3 do Cap. II (pag. 294), cita António José Saraiva e alguns autores judeus, mas não toma posição. A Inquisição foi desde o seu nascimento uma instituição perversa, mas, no final do séc. XVI, já todos os cristãos novos estavam assimilados à população portuguesa. Os que queriam ser judeus já se tinham exilado. A Inquisição continuou a persegui-los porque precisava de ter uma função para existir e apoiou-se no ódio rácico que contra eles existia entre a população. Nada a ver com luta de classes, nada a ver com a defesa da fé católica. Era perseguição racial pura e dura, tanto mais estúpida que, em meados do séc. XVI, era já praticamente impossível conhecer bisavós e trisavós para medir a parte de sangue judeu que corria nas veias dos presos: a Inquisição dizia então que tinha "parte" de cristão novo por ter essa fama.
Narra a Autora um caso muito interessante, do ano de 1739 (pag. 247). O Rei D. João V precisava de um empréstimo de 90 contos de réis (225 000 cruzados) para comprar armamento para a Índia. E foi pedir o dinheiro a quem? Pois aos cristãos novos portugueses que tinham fugido para a Europa ("mercadores do Reyno, Leorne e Amsterdão"). Para disfarçar a coisa, foram intermediários alguns mercadores italianos estabelecidos em Lisboa. E assim, a Inquisição continuava a levar os cristãos novos aos Autos de Fé, enquanto o Rei ia pedir dinheiro aos seus "irmãos" que tinham abandonado o País!
THE AMERICAN HISTORICAL REVIEW
June 2010, pags. 812-814
. . :
. . Pp. xiii, 470.
Emeritus University of Haifa
Francesca Trivellato's book accomplishes what so many who study the history of the Jews try to do. She has written a history whose principal subject is Jews but that fully qualifies as a historical work that enlightens us about a period as a whole. This is a far more difficult task than it may seem. Jewish history challenges the scholar to write both vertically and horizontally at the same time. One could study the history of Jewish commerce in a neat vertical casing: in the early Middle Ages, Jews were merchants (although there were fewer than often thought); they passed on to being moneylenders in the High Middle Ages (if only for the lack of choice) and then reemerged as merchants in the early modern period. In all three cases, they were accused of monopolizing the field and exploiting clients. To study Jewish economics this way is, of course, a study of attitudes toward Jews. It says little about commerce and its role in the larger economy. Going the other way, one could study Jewish merchants in the early modern period as just another brand of dealer in the growing Atlantic or other maritime trade, ignoring Jewish specificities and again ending with a half picture.
As Trivellato shows, these specificities did exist, but they may properly be understood only in the context of early modern international commerce, especially as this commerce was pursued through family-centered general partnerships, but also through highly sophisticated networking, whose nature, in the author's words, is “not amorphous, boundless, and spontaneous, but inscribed in social norms, legal customs, and rules for communication that gave them stability” (p. 275).No less important to this study is understanding the economic theories underpinning this kind of venture and what they have to say about changing patterns of trade in the eighteenth- century Mediterranean, and to some extent the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean as well—although Trivellato cautions that scholars should not allow economic theory to blur the centrality of the role of trust, which was crucial in relations between individuals when closing deals and in keeping a business afloat. Many readers will find the heavy dose of economic theory daunting. However, economics cannot be reduced to plunking a dime down on the counter for a piece of candy. And for so many scholars, deep discourse of this kind is both a boon and essential.
By documenting both the practical and theoretical, the book follows two, if not three, generations of the Silvera and Ergas families in their early successes as international merchants, but then their ultimate failure, brought about by an astonishing case of poor judgment, when an opportunistic family member in Aleppo contracted to sell a big stone whose glitter was far greater than its true worth. By concentrating on these two families, the book, for all its complexity, has lure of a whodunit, especially in the “big diamond” chapter. The entire story of the Ergas and Silvera families is rivetingly told, pieced together from thousands of letters the Ergas and Silvera wrote and left behind. These letters’ number and distribution alone (we must not fail to mention the achievement in their categorization and analysis) are a tale unto themselves. Of nearly 14,000 letters in all, 4,000 each went to Venice and Genoa, the former being a key intermediary with partners in the North and East; direct contacts with Amsterdam numbered only 600. Five hundred letters went to Aleppo and London, and smaller numbers to other tens of places. But Genoa in the early eighteenth century barely had a Jewish community. Commercial advantage, it appears, could supersede the restraints of religion.
It would have been easy to make this study another episode in the adventure of those now known as “port Jews,” this marvelously useful term applied to draw attention to Sephardi merchants whose commercial endeavors are said to have forwarded Jewish modernization. Instead—the term itself seems downplayed to steer clear of a “type”—Trivellato measures her protagonists by focusing on modes of business partnerships, the use of tribunals, and ways of contracting, and by contrasting the general partnership to larger, often state and monopolistic mercantilistic endeavors that had the clout to control prices and supply.
We observe these phenomena through the optic of Jews living in a unique environment, that of Livorno, whose extraordinary communities, too, are discussed in detail—Jews formed up to ten percent of the population— where insertion into the units of civic governmental structure was by way of an extremely high level of autonomy with respect to intracommunal affairs, in the unique absence, furthermore, of the ghettoization that existed even in Medici Florence. As for the Jewish community, Sephardim dominated it, rigidly, but ultimately had to contend with and cede power to Jewish arrivals from other places in Italy and even North Africa who were not Sephardim and not ready to be controlled rudely.
The loss of Sephardi primacy notably parallels the lessening of Sephardi commercial preeminence, which itself was tied to grand changes in colonial, military, and international politic powers—to make the point of interdependence of Jewish and non-Jewish factors once more. That primacy’s end was also hastened by the reforms proposed by Duke Peter Leopold after 1765, which challenged the corporate existence of the community by questioning the possible insertion of Livornese Jews into a general civil scheme of law and governance that was already becoming ever more the rule in Jewish communities in Italy where ius commune held sway.
Comparing Livorno’s community with those in Amsterdam, London, and Marseilles, moreover, demonstrates that there was “no linear correlation between mercantile policies of toleration and the legal and social acceptance of Jews.” One must also not confuse the ghetto’s absence in Livorno with the arrival of secular modernity: in the hierarchic and socially rigid times of the first half of the eighteenth century, the time when the story of the book unfolds, one could look, talk, do commerce, dress, perhaps even eat like a non-Jew, but as a Jew (in fact, for the most part even as a convert) one did not, indeed could not, become a non-Jew. No Jew was ever so completely accepted, nor did anyone expect this transformation to happen. Yet it is precisely here that the traditional issues of Jewish history intersect with the interests and history of general economic and social theory, and both profit by the contrast. By highlighting, Trivellato says, the specificities of a particular (Jewish) trading diaspora one may delay creating a general theory of cross-cultural trade. But this has the advantage of avoiding “totalizing interpretations that conceive trading diasporas as either antiquated remnants of a premodern world or idyllic consortia of cooperative kith and kin” (p. 277). Moreover, since Sephardim (constituting a trading diaspora) were not expected ultimately to assimilate as were members of other trading diasporas, studying the former offers a more nuanced picture of market and community relations than that which can be gleaned from scrutinizing the latter. It is at this point where we see, too, how (Jewish) family strategies in calculating dowries and the like and the maintenance of family wealth were elements in creating partnerships. The institution of Levirate marriage was maintained to this end through at least 1670, and, even afterward, it remained a factor for some of the Sephardi merchants as they sought to control the devolution of their estates. Socially one had to marry “in,” but “in” did not necessarily mean to marry a cousin.
There was also the question of law. Trivellato emphasizes that though the courts were based on justice for all following the same laws—and that Jews who knew the ropes could fair very well—at the same time, a slip by an individual could bring retaliation on the group. The findings in this vein are most important, and perhaps they should be linked to the apparent anomaly that the charter of the Jews of Livorno, which gave them infinitely more privileges than Jews elsewhere in Italy, was based on the charter issued to the Sephardi merchants of Ancona by Pope Paul III in 1543. This charter, like the livornina of 1591–1593 recognized effective corporate status for these Jews, theoretically impossible in ius commune, as legal commentators constantly reemphasized. Yet the 1543 charter was revoked in 1555 by Pope Paul IV (just after he ordered the Roman ghetto area walled in) when he burned twenty-five of these merchants at the stake for Marranism. Was this historical paradox? Or do we gain great insight into the extremes possible in the centralized, confessional state the pope ruled? This same kind of clash—to be sure without the violence—also seems to underlie the struggle of Duke Peter Leopold to homogenize laws and regularize the civil status of Jews throughout his apparently deconfessionalizing, yet hopefully centralized state. Here, too, eighteenth-century realities were militating against the Sephardi status quo, questioning once more just how far the image of the port Jew may be taken to unravel the mysteries of the Jewish emancipation that was just over the horizon.
This is a signal book, a model to be emulated, a tour de force in modern historiographical skill, one of the best I have ever read.
ECONOMIC HISTORY REVIEW
Economic History Review, 63, 2 (2010), pp. 553–554
Francesca Trivellato, The familiarity of strangers: the Sephardic diaspora, Livorno, and crosscultural trade in the early modern period (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009. Pp. xiii + 470. 18 figs. 8 tabs. ISBN 9780300136838
Yadira González de Lara
Universidad Cardenal Herrera, CEU
Building on her extensive research in international archives, Trivellato has produced an intelligent, crisp, and focused book about cross-cultural trade, understood as ‘prolonged credit relations and business cooperation between merchants who shared implicit and explicit agreements about rules of exchange but who, because of historical patterns beyond their control, belonged to distinct, often legally separated communities’ (pp. 1–2). The discussion centres on how Ergas and Silvera, a business partnership formed by two Sephardic families based in Livorno, secured the cooperation of relatives, co-religionists, and strangers for the purpose of expanding their trading networks in the Mediterranean and beyond during the early modern period. The book also examines in impressive detail the changing patterns of the Sephardic diaspora, the configuration of Jewish-Christian relations in Livorno, the tense but enduring association between Sephardic merchants and the French Crown in the Levant, the role of Livornese Jews in connecting the Mediterranean to the European transoceanic expansion, and their specialization in the niche trade of Mediterranean coral and Indian diamonds. It also unveils the half-forgotten reality of Livorno as the main redistribution centre of the Italian peninsula and probably the most important European port in the Mediterranean from the mid-seventeenth century until the rise of Marseille after 1715, its complementary role with Venice, and its emergence as the world’s centre of coral trading and manufacturing.
Following the trajectory of a business partnership through multiple locations allows for the identification of all of its networks, instead of focusing solely, as do most studies, on the economic ties among members of a single diaspora. Ergas and Silvera operated through a family partner in the Ottoman city of Aleppo and crafted matrimonial alliances with various Sephardic families in Venice. They, however, preferred competent Sephardim to immediate kin when seeking commission agents in Amsterdam and London. Cooperation among the Sephardim was not based on a vague sense of belonging to the same ethnoreligious community but was contingent on alliances built via marriage and economic interdependence. It seldom extended to non-Sephardic Jews. In contrast, Ergas and Silvera worked with Christian agents and suppliers when they were better positioned in the market than their co-religionists and maintained cooperative business relations with merchants as geographically and culturally distant as Hindu Brahmins in Goa.
These findings challenge the notion that blood ties and a shared religious or ethnic identity forged bonds of trust that gave trading diasporas significant competitive advantage. They also challenge the conjecture according to which cross-cultural trade requires the mediation of a centralized legal system. Ergas and Silvera were not always in a position to threaten their agents with a lawsuit, and when they were, as when they brought a Persian Jew to the Tuscan courts regarding the ownership of a large diamond, overlapping jurisdictions often frustrated settlement. Most notably, Ergas and Silvera’s extensive reliance on non-Jews refutes the widespread assumption that trading diasporas were closed and homogenous communities whose members relied on each other and lacked the means or aptitude to engage in protracted credit and agency relations with outsiders.
The familiarity of strangers offers a wealth of information regarding the truly global exchange of Mediterranean coral and Indian diamonds affected by Sephardim in Livorno, Christian agents of Italian origin in Lisbon, and Hindu merchant-brokers in Goa. Crosscultural trade between these communities was facilitated by a shared language of business correspondence and a continuous flow of commercial letters. It was by means of letters of recommendation, as well as letters of self-introduction, that Sephardim established new contacts, thereby expanding the network beyond the natural boundaries of each community. Merchants’ letters, together with printed materials, also disseminated the information required to detect misbehaviour and punish cheaters collectively. The combination of intra-community enforcement institutions and inter-community reputational concerns also facilitated cross-cultural trade. This form of communitarian cosmopolitanism was therefore consistent with a corporatist society of unequal and separate groups, religious prejudices, and denigrating representations of strangers.
There is, however, a weak point in the book. In describing communitarian cosmopolitanism, Trivellato places the Sephardic–Christian–Hindu network within the context of Avner Greif’s Institutions and the path to the modern economy: lessons from medieval trade (2006), but erroneously identifies the Maghribi traders’ coalition with the community responsibility system. This deprives the reader of a clear understanding of how intra- and inter-community institutions supported the network and obscures the relations between markets and communities. These critiques notwithstanding, I highly recommend this book to both historians and economists.
JOURNAL OF WORLD HISTORY
Journal of world history, june 2011, 377-380
The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period. By Francesca Trivellato. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009.488 pp..
John E. Wills Jr.
University of Southern California, Emeritus
In the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century maritime trade between South Asia and western Europe, Indian diamonds occupied a substantial place among Indian exports—perhaps, Trivellato estimates (p. 237), as much as 14 percent of the legal imports to London, and more via other ports and illegal channels. Among imports to India from Europe, coral from the Mediterranean, much prized for ornamentation throughout Hindu and Buddhist Asia, held a somewhat comparable place, although it was apparently harder to quantify. Both of these high-value, small-volume trades were coordinated in large part by networks of Sephardic Jewish family firms based in Livorno, Italy, with important nodes in London and many other European cities; chapter 9 provides an excellent analysis of these trades. Thus Trivellato is quite right to describe her project as both macro-historical and micro-historical. We quickly learn that her micro is dauntingly macro; the surviving archives of the Livorno firm of Ergas and Silvera, preserved in the Archivio di Stato in Florence, contain copies of 13,670 letters (p. 8). Trivellato may not have read every word of every one of them—one of her interpretive points is that their elaborate conventionalization built a sense of routine and trust among far-flung correspondents—but she has been through this whole mountain of documentation carefully enough to be able to give statistics on types of documents, destinations of letters, and so on.
This is a book of very substantial theoretical ambition and sophistication. The author shows that some earlier studies of trade diasporas have described a tension between the internal solidarity of a group and its cosmopolitan openness to relations with others. She describes the Livorno Sephardim as practitioners of a “communitarian cosmopolitanism” (pp. 18, 73, 101), in which it was precisely the strength of their corporate ties as a community separate from others that enforced commercial and personal probity within the community and made it secure enough to then build bridges of trust and credit with merchants in Lisbon, where they could not go without running afoul of the Inquisition, and even with Hindu merchants in faraway Goa. This is a substantial challenge, well grounded in reading of the theoretical literature, to the accounts by Avner Greif and others of a modernizing progression from trust based on community ties and personal acquaintance to the impersonality of contracts enforced in courts.
Comparison always has to acknowledge incomparable historical contingency. The Sephardic exile “New Christians,” cherishing their Jewish heritage and passing as Christians most of the time, would seem to be excellent examples of the border crossers and cultural hybridizers we love to talk about. But as Trivellato points out, the Inquisition had no jurisdiction over non-Christians, but came down with full force on anyone who had been baptized and then had “apostasized.” Thus the logic of their situation led many Sephardim to draw a clear boundary around their Jewish identities and to shun contacts with “New Christian” border crossers (pp. 48–50). When the Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany very astutely granted wide privileges to Sephardim who would settle in Livorno, they managed to overlook the forced baptism of many of their ancestors and give full recognition and freedom of worship to the Jewish community. Trivellato gives a fascinating picture of the history of this community, including the intermarriages of its elite families and clues to reading and consumption from their wills. Comparison returns here in accounts of the varying fates of other Sephardic communities, especially those in Amsterdam, London, and Marseilles. The very thorough footnotes and bibliography open up a rich literature that will be unknown to many readers, as most of it was to this reviewer. Trivellato makes institutions and trade practices her focus and makes it clear that more is to be done with the personal and cultural dimensions of this community: “In fact, I wish we knew more about what it meant for some members of the same Sephardic family in Livorno to uphold orthodoxy while others derived their wealth and recognition from forging economic alliances with non-Jews.” This is illustrated startlingly by a portrait of Jacob Baruch Caravaglio, clean-shaven and Book Reviews 379 dressed exactly like his Christian contemporaries, with an exceedingly ill-fitting wig (pp. 87, 98).
Journal of World History readers may also get an itch to broaden the comparisons, to ask about the Sephardim in Istanbul and the rest of the Ottoman Empire, to ask how the communitarian privileges of the Livorno Sephardim compared with those of an Ottoman millet, and even to go global on comparative diasporas, with the variously communitarian cosmopolitanisms of the Armenians and the Hadramis in the Indian Ocean and the Chinese in Southeast Asia. This reviewer cannot resist adding his only Sephardic tourism hint: when next in Amsterdam, ask at the Rembrandthuis Museum for directions about 200 meters east on Jodenbreestraat to the magnificent “Portuguese Synagogue,” built at the height of Golden Age prosperity and open to the public.
Movements of goods and interweaving of state power and diasporic networks in early modern times are probably less well studied for the Mediterranean than for the Atlantic or the Indian Ocean. In chapter 4 Trivellato provides a detailed account of the Sephardic trade network, with special emphasis on a powerful Sephardic-French symbiosis at Aleppo, for which French archives make possible some good statistics. A sophisticated account of Sephardic commercial organization in chapters 5 and 6 shows them not following the broad European trend toward limited partnerships, finding open-ended general partnerships and broad use of commission agency advantageous in trades where information was usually out of date and the range of goods traded was broad. The very great degree of trust granted to a distant commission agent was made possible by the solidarity of a community that could expel a member for grave offenses and by marriage ties. But if the net of information about trades and traders in a distant place, even Hindu merchants in Goa, was sufficiently dense, the trustworthiness of a possible commission agent could be gauged and trust affirmed in fulsome and formulaic business letters (chapter 7). The proliferation of epistolary forms was aided by the printing of many manuals of correspondence. Again thinking comparatively, Chinese letter-writing forms were equally highly developed, and must have had their uses in commerce, but I know of no study. The huge cache of letters from one firm makes possible detailed study of its connections in various places and their changing importance (chapter 8).
Trivellato’s book is rich in data, ideas, and suggestions for further study and interpretation. For the most part it does less with lived experience, although much can be glimpsed in its well-chosen direct quotations. It ends in chapter 10 with a big story of the sharp decline of the Ergas and Silvera partnership after it entered into a somewhat too open-ended partnership with a Persian merchant to sell in Europe a diamond of about sixty carats. As Thomas Pitt had found decades earlier, the trouble with big diamonds was that there were so few potential buyers. The tale of woe winds on from 1740 to 1749 and ends with a sale devoid of profit. Ergas and Silvera were saved from complete ruin by a singularity of Jewish marriage and property law; women received large amounts of payment from both families upon marriage and had full control of these “dowry” funds, and in any bankruptcy proceeding preservation of these funds took precedence over payment to commercial creditors. The Ergas and Silvera families were much less wealthy after this debacle but managed to shield enough of their funds in this way to avoid total disaster. Trivellato thanks a number of people named Ergas and Silvera for their reminiscences about their family history; the global and the local or familial, the macro and the micro, remain marvelously intertwined.
· / Volume 85 / Issue 02 / Summer 2011, pp 391-393
The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period. By Francesca Trivellato. New Haven: Yale Universify Press, 2009. xiii -1- 470 pp. Illustrations, tables, figures, bibliography, notes, index. Cloth, $50.00. ISBN: 978-0-300-13683-8.
Reviewed by Miriam Bodian
This richly illuminating book stands in a class of its own as a business history of the Sephardim (Jews originally from Portugal and Spain) of western Europe. Scholars have long taken an interest in the mercantile activities of these Jews and New Christians (the term used for descendants of forcibly baptized Jews in Iberia), whose migrations in the early modern period allowed them to form a powerful commercial diaspora. Herbert Bloom and Hermann Kellenbenz were pioneers in the field. More recently, Jonathan Israel (among many others) has shed great light on the shifting trade networks of this diaspora. Until now, however, no one has explored in a detailed, systematic, and coordinated way the business world of such merchants—their strategic structuring of the family, their ways of enlisting state power on their behalf, their communications practices, their strategies in contract negotiation, their navigation of judicial systems, and so on. By closely examining the business environment in which these men operated, Francesca Trivellato provides a rich context for analyzing the issue that she makes central to the book: the terms and circumstances that allowed these merchants to enter into necessarily vague contracts with agents living in faraway places, who were sometimes utter strangers.
The evidentiary anchor of the book is a collection of 13,670 letters written in the first half of the eighteenth century by members of the business partnership Ergas and Silvera, based in Livorno. Yet the book is not a microhistory. It ranges widely over time and place, exploring the entire network in which Ergas and Silvera operated, from Goa to London. While asking a number of questions, Trivellato's overriding aim is to test "commonsensical statements about the importance of blood, religious, and ethnic solidarity" (p. 42) in the commercial practices of ethnically organized merchant groups. Is it really so, she asks, that merchants in the western Sephardi commercial networks took for granted that kin or coreligionists were more trustworthy than strangers? In choosing agents in faraway places, did they never make decisions based on competence rather than kinship?
The book opens with a detailed reconstruction of the genealogies of the Ergas, Silvera, and Bamch Carvaglio families. The ramified family trees Trivellato has constructed reveal the core importance of endogamous marriage alliances in the economic strategies of these merchants, something that has long been known. These genealogies, together with a later chapter on dowries and inheritance, give us a picture of the economic significance of such unions.
The account proceeds with a survey of the history of the western Sephardic diaspora and, more particularly, the community of Livorno. It is in the context of community that Trivellato discusses a central concept in this book, namely, "communitarian cosmopolitanism." Essentially, this is a short-hand term for a kind of social structure found in early modern cities like Livorno, Venice, and Amsterdam. Although these cities were multireligious and multicultural, and thus the site of utilitarian contacts between different ethnoreligious groups, they were governed by mechanisms that ensured the social segregation of these groups. Trivellato emphasizes this structural characteristic because it was crucial, she believes, in shaping cross-cultural business ties between, for example, the firm of Ergas and Silvera and their Hindu trading partners in the coral trade in Goa.
Incorporating both the theoretical insights of others and the concrete evidence she has unearthed, Trivellato makes a persuasive case that kinship and ethnic networks were not in themselves a backward form of economic organization. "In approaching the commercial organization of the Sephardic merchants," she writes, "we gain more illuminating insights by examining the variety of resources—ranging from kinship ties and communitarian structures to legal contracts and courts—that they used to secure their relations with overseas agents . . . than by dismissing their social organization as inefficient" (p. 162). In general, the picture of the successful early modern long-distance merchant that emerges from this book—Sephardic or otherwise—is that of a sophisticated economic actor, more analytic and less "traditional" than has often been assumed, who made complex decisions based on careful calculation.
The final riveting chapter thus comes as something of a surprise. It tells the story of decisions Ergas and Silvera made over the course of several years concerning the sale of a single large diamond—decisions that eventually led to the firm's bankruptcy. The Livornese business partners may have possessed a "consummate ability to adapt to minute market fluctuations" (p. 272), but they were also capable of glaring miscalculation. The Familiarity of Strangers aims to correct an underestimation of the early modern mercantile mind; one would like to be sure after reading this chapter that it does not err in the other direction.
The book's great strength, in my view, is its multifaceted, meticulous reconstruction of the Sephardic merchant's immediate and transnational business environment. Trivellato has achieved this re-creation by weaving together a wealth of archival material and evidence culled from an exhaustive reading of secondary sources. She has greatly illuminated the neglected realm of the western Sephardic Mediterranean. In sometimes dense, but always precise, language, she has convincingly argued for a revision of long-standing attitudes about premodern ethnic trade networks.
Miriam Bodian is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of two books and many articles on the Sephardic diaspora in the early modern period.
JOURNAL OF INTERDISCIPLINARY HISTORY
Gayle K. Brunelle. "The Familiarity of Strangers: the Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross- Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period (review)." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 41.3 (2011): 458-459.
Gayle K. Brunelle California State University, Fullerton
The Familiarity of Strangers is a thought-provoking study of the Sephardic merchant community of Livorno in Tuscany, from its initial settlement in the 1590s through the mid-eighteenth century. Trivellato focuses in particular on the business partnership between two of the most prosperous families (Ergas and Silvera) of Livorno’s thriving early modern Sephardic community between 1704 and 1746. The trading networks of these two families, like those of most of Livorno’s Sephardic merchants, stretched from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic world, although they specialized in the exchange of Mediterranean coral for precious stones from India.
Trivellato views her study as primarily economic history, and she is especially interested in the commercial practice of commission agency. Through commission agency, merchants who shared no ethnic, religious, or familial ties were able to trade with one another over long distances with a measure of trust, mutual interest, and cultural understanding. Most of the historians who have studied the Sephardic diaspora have taken a different approach, emphasizing the importance of shared ethnic and kinship ties in the functioning of the global commercial networks through which Sephardic commerce and banking often operated. Trivellato, however, complicates the interpretation of the role that Sephardic merchants played in early modern global commerce by examining how they forged and maintained commercial networks not based on ethnicity or religion—how strangers with little in common except commercial interests used commission agency and other means to engage in mutually beneªcial trade.
Trivellato thus seeks to understand an area at the heart of scholarship about emerging early modern global trade networks—cross-cultural brokers and cross-cultural trade. Historians have traditionally argued that diasporas were vital to the development of global trade networks in the early modern world because groups such as Sephardic and Armenian merchants, although small in number, were able to create trust in trade networks due to their shared religion and/or ethnic and kinship ties. Trivellato argues essentially that these ethnically or religiously based networks intersected and traded successfully with those of strangers belonging to alien societies, religions, and cultures because they found other means to develop and maintain trust.
The Sephardic merchants of Livorno accomplished this feat by developing a culture of “communitarian cosmopolitanism” (18). By this term Trivellato seems to mean that the Sephardic merchants of Livorno managed to sustain a distinct identity within a Sephardic diaspora— encompassing both Portuguese New Christians of Sephardic Jewish ancestry and practicing Sephardic Jewish merchants—while developing a cosmopolitan worldview that smoothed their commercial relations not only with nearby Christians merchants but also with Muslim and Hindu merchants in their long-distance trade networks. Hence, in Trivellato’s view, cross-cultural trade also fostered opportunities for intellectual and cultural exchanges between the Sephardim and Christians. Far from eroding the identity of the early modern Sephardim or obviating all of the differences between them and Christians, these exchanges facilitated a new cosmopolitanism in early modern urban society. This is a fascinating study that will interest scholars of the early modern world as well as of European history.
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Seth J. Frantzman
In Francesca Trivellato has accomplished something special - a brilliant description of a family, of a nation, of a period of history, of an economy and of a culture. The period she focuses on is the Mediterranean between the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the conquest of northern Italy by Napoleon in 1796. She chooses to examine the micro-history of two Sephardi families, the Ergases and Silveras, whose business headquarters was in Livorno. The author traces the history of these families' business partnership from its origins in the 1590s to its bankruptcy in 1746. This book is not a derring-do history of family intrigues, mistresses and murders. Partly this is because the Ergases and Silveras were not the Borgias, the infamous 16th-century Italian noble family known for their rapacity, adultery, simony, incest and intrigue. The Ergases and Silveras were wealthy Jewish merchants, and whatever intrigues did go on are not revealed in the sources, which consist primarily of business letters. Secondly, the book concentrates not on the scandalous but on the practical. Trivellato is a professor of history at Yale University who has produced a profoundly academic work. Therefore the book's parlance is, at times, laden with jargon that is primarily interesting to other scholars and their obscure debates. Readers are confronted with confusing terms such as "communitarian cosmopolitanism." We hear about "liberal-pluralistic models of assimilation" and "multiplex relationships." If one can persevere through this aspect of the text, he or she will find that the author has merely devoted a passing few pages of each chapter to assuage the gods of academia, leaving the majority of the book accessible to a wider audience. The Ergas family arrived in Tuscany in 1594 and settled in the port town of Livorno. They described themselves as "Levantine Jews." This was a term applied to Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492 or who had left afterward and made their way to the Ottoman Empire. More than a hundred years later, David Silvera arrived in the same town. His family were "New Christians" or Jews who had converted to Christianity after 1492. They had been quite famous in Lisbon and in 1632 several of them had served as bankers to the king of Spain in Madrid. The history of the Inquisition and the expulsion from Spain is not always as black and white as many would like to believe. Many Jewish families remained in Spain or returned to Spain after 1492, usually passing themselves off as Christians. Some of these families lived as Christians for more than 100 years before returning to Judaism outwardly. One Silvera family member confessed to the Inquisition that he had come and gone from Spain by crossing the Pyrenees and that it was in this way he had established his family in Amsterdam in the 17th century. Trivellato reveals an entire Sephardi world that many are not familiar with. The Sephardim who fled Spain established themselves throughout the Mediterranean, in the Ottoman Empire, in London and Amsterdam. In Italy their principal settlement was Livorno. Livorno was something unique in history. Cosimo de' Medici of Tuscany purchased the town from Genoa in 1421. He changed it from a sleepy fishing village to a major port from which he hoped merchants would help Tuscany compete with Venice and other Italian city states. The author describes it as a "social experiment." To populate the new city, the Tuscan rulers invited people from all over the Mediterranean and the city teamed with Armenians, Greeks and others. One British sea captain believed the city to have been half Jewish in the 1790s. In fact the Jewish population was 11 percent, around 4,000 out of 36,000, in 1778. But this meant that it had a large Jewish population and was the "second largest Sephardic settlement in the West after Amsterdam." Special laws enacted in the 1590s gave Jews unparalleled rights, making them citizens and granting them almost complete equality with their Christian peers. The Sephardim of Livorno became very wealthy in trade. In some ways they assimilated, creating coats of arms for themselves and shaving their beards. They also looked down on their Ashkenazi brethren, who were less cultured at the time and much poorer. From Italy to Amsterdam, the Sephardi families refused to intermarry with Ashkenazim, although they prayed beside them at a time when both groups shared synagogues in many places. The author examines the entire world of the Sephardim throughout Europe and the Ottoman Empire. It is a world that is often forgotten, especially its European settlements. Who recalls that Sephardim were once the majority of the Jewish community in Hamburg? In the end it was a giant 62-karat diamond that brought down the Ergas-Silvera partnership. Anyone interested in Jewish history would be remiss not to read this excellent and fascinating work that takes the reader from the diamond stalls of Amsterdam to the docks of Goa in India. This is one of the best and most original books on Jewish history published this year.
Reviewed by Judith Roumani
This work, which has grown out of a Ph.D. dissertation completed for Brown University in 2004, affords both scholar and non-scholar alike a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Sephardic traders, the descendants of exiles from Iberia, in the Tuscan port city of Livorno, one of the capitals of the Western Sephardic diaspora. The original focus has been broadened conceptually and chronologically, so that the account of the activities of Sephardic merchants and their families based in Livorno from the 1590s extends over the seventeenth , eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A long decline began from about 1715, with the rise of Marseilles as a competing port, but Livorno still enjoyed considerable continuing prestige for another two hundred years. Its synagogue (damaged in the Second World War and demolished soon after) was the second largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe and one of the most beautiful, and even today Livorno, its port a destination on the Mediterranean cruise circuit affording access to Pisa and Florence, has a small Sephardic community well aware of its traditions. In their heyday, the Sephardic traders of Livorno, as the author tells us, connected the Mediterranean with the Atlantic, established a cross-cultural network with Catholics in Portugal and Hindus in India, bartering Mediterranean coral for Indian diamonds. Their story is thus, as Trivellato tells us, “a global history on a small scale” (p. 7). In masterly fashion, she shows trading diasporas linked in networks that include strange bedfellows, such as Sephardim from Livorno and Brahmins in Goa.
The focus on history on a small scale leads the author to bring our attention to two families who formed a business partnership, the Ergas and Silvera families. They operated together over about forty years during the early eighteenth century, Livorno’s most active trading period, until their bankruptcy. The Jewish community of Livorno numbered 3,486 by 1738, and Jews composed between 8% and 15% of the total population. They were not obliged to live in a ghetto. Livorno Jews had rights equal to those of Tuscan citizens and the right to run their own judicial system, a privilege that no other foreign group enjoyed.
The Ergas and Silvera families were highly successful for many years because they combined both a trading diaspora composed of family members and fellow Sephardim living in far-flung cities such as Aleppo, Amsterdam and London, and a trading network with trusted non-Jewish business associates, in Lisbon, Goa or Madras. The triangle was thus more like a many-pointed star, founded on a basis of reciprocity and trust. It is amazing that such a complex system could be maintained over many years on such a fragile and risky foundation.
At their height, these two families, linked by marriage as well as by their joint business ventures, enjoyed the highest social prestige. They imitated Christian customs by possessing coats of arms, carriages, and private boxes at the theater.
Extended family relations were conducted on the basis of “generalized reciprocity” or mutual favors, kinship ties being considered the best assurance for good business conduct. Trust among Jewish merchants was maintained by highly effective mechanisms of “reputation control.” Non-Jews played a part as commissioners or agents, and risk could be minimized there also by reputation control. Ergas and Silvera entrusted their valuable cargoes to Christians in Lisbon and bartered with Brahmins in Goa. Despite the loss of records over the years and destruction of archives, we fortunately have over 13,000 letters written by the partnership over forty-two years, in the form of copies they kept of their outgoing letters. The author analyses their language (often an amalgam of Portuguese, Spanish, and Tuscan Italian, with Hebrew and other languages thrown in) and the etiquette of business letter-writing. Despite their care, the delicate enterprise foundered due to one ill-advised transaction: Ergas and Silvera’s commitment to invest in and sell an enormous diamond from Madras, in collaboration with a Persian Jew by the name of Menasseh. This Menasseh brought it to Europe for them but relations quickly soured. Though one of the largest diamonds in the world and praised as one of the most beautiful (even then reviews could be untrustworthy), in a setting of silver, it proved impossible to sell. It must have had some flaw that Ergas and Silvera never would admit to.
Menasseh, together with their agent, traveled the European capitals, especially Paris, Amsterdam, London and Prague, racking up an enormous expenses account, notably in Paris. Ergas and Silvera felt that Menasseh was not really interested in selling the diamond at all. Though there seemed to be strong possibilities in London, it received no bids at auction. While the “Big Diamond” must have acquired a bad name, their creditors were pressing in on them and they moved with their families to the countryside of Tuscany.
Bankruptcy eventually struck, and our two merchants likewise sued Menasseh for breach of promise; in this phase, too there was no satisfaction to be had, as various courts found in favor of one or the other side. What appeared to be a resolution was soon overturned by another Jewish or secular court decision, in one of those nightmarish scenarios of endless litigation that eventually ruins both sides.
An important point is that the wives of Ergas and Silvera decisively defended their dowries (large sums they had brought to the business enterprise upon marriage) and successfully kept these funds out of reach of their husbands’ creditors, by arguing that in case of divorce the dowry monies had to be returned to the wives, and therefore did not really belong to the husbands. They won this case in a Tuscan court in Pisa.
Ergas and Silvera ended up impoverished, henceforth engaging in only small business transactions, and the families slipped into oblivion over the next century, coinciding with the decline of Livorno as local coral resources were depleted, and the Jewish community lost its special privileges with emancipation in the mid-nineteenth century.
Subsequently, as Livorno lost its importance as a port, it gained in importance by becoming a publishing center for Sephardic communities in the various languages used by Sephardim, a center of Jewish learning and Kabbalah, and for a time the seat of the Collegio Rabbinico for all of Italy.
One hopes that this fascinating and abundantly documented history, through its chosen method of micro analysis, eschewing grand narratives, will bring the early life of the Sephardim of Livorno, with their far-reaching diaspora connections and admirable risk-taking spirit, to the knowledge and appreciation of a wide readership.
Judith Roumani is the editor of Sephardic Horizons