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The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice

Author(s):Molà, Luca M
Reviewer(s):Federico, Giovanni

Published by EH.NET (September 2000)

Luca Mol?, The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice. Baltimore: John

Hopkins University Press, 2000. xix + 457, $48 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8018-6189-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Giovanni Federico, Department of Modern History,

University of Pisa.

Renaissance (Central and Northern) Italy was arguably the richest country in

Europe, if not in the world. A sizable part of its wealth came from

manufacturing, and silk was one of the most important industries in Italy.

Malanima estimates that, around 1570, the production of silk accounted for

about 2% of the GNP, and industrial processing was responsible for a further 3%

(Paolo Melanoma, La fine del primato, Milano, 1998, pp.170 and 174). Yet

this industry is strangely under-researched. Until the publication of this

massive volume, there was hardly a single modern work on the silk industry in

any major Italian city. Thus, Mol?’s book is especially welcome.

The first chapter describes the diffusion of silk processing in Italy. In the

Middle Ages it had settled in Lucca, and from there it spread in the fourteenth

and fifteenth centuries to all major Italian cities and to some minor ones. The

second chapter describes this process, focusing on the key role of the

migration of entrepreneurs and skilled workers. Their human capital was

precious, and all city governments tried to control its flow. Cities that

desired to participate in the silk business enticed the workers with prizes,

tax exemptions and privileges; conversely the established production centers

tried to prevent emigration, sometimes with very drastic measures (up to the

death penalty). The very spread of the industry illustrates that the obstacles

to migration were more impressive than effective. The mobility was high, and

there was an almost free market for workers, at least among the major centers.

The second part of the book deals with the business in the city of Venice.

Chapter three describes the supply of raw material — the raw silk from

overseas (the production on the mainland is dealt with later) and the spinning

of it in the city. Venice imported silk from four main areas: Persia, the

Balkans, Southern Italy and Spain. The city then re-exported it to other

Italian cities and abroad. Re-export was a highly lucrative trade, but it

supplied Venice’ competitors. Thus, the official policy oscillated between free

trade (which suited merchants but allegedly harmed the local industry) and

regulation (which was difficult to enforce, and entailed the risk of diverting

trade towards other routes).

Chapter four deals with the demand for silk clothes. Of course, they were a

luxury item, but their use was more widespread than one might suppose, thanks

also to a flourishing trade in second-hand material. The supply was divided

according to the ultimate use and to the quality of cloth in five classes:

panni domestici (for local consumption), da navegar (for export overseas), da

fontego (for export to Central Europe), mezzani (medium-quality cloths) and da

parangon (for comparison). The production was subject to increasingly strict

regulation as the quality improved. The panni domestici could be made as the

(local) customer wished, while the panni da parangon — the best ones — had to

be produced only with the best silk in prescribed quantities and sizes. The

guild officials assumed that only a strict control of the output could maintain

the Venetian industry’s reputation for excellence. Of course, these rules were

not easy to enforce.

Chapter five deals with dyeing. As in the previous chapter, the focus is on the

tension between the desire to prevent fraud by keeping a high quality via a

strict regulation and the need to innovate and satisfy the consumers’ desire

for cheaper cloths. The main innovation was the introduction of new, cheaper

pigments from South America, which was bitterly fought by some members of the

guilds. In the end, however, their use was allowed. The same pattern prevailed

in weaving, the subject of chapter six. The consumers wanted cheaper and

lighter fabrics. Producers were ready to provide them, sometimes by fraudulent

means (e.g. by increasing the weight of cloths by adding some “paste”).

Meanwhile the guilds tried to regulate and control the process, alternating

periods of liberalization and re-regulation.

Chapter seven also follows the same thread, addressing the use of other

materials, such as cotton, wool and waste silk (a by-product of silk reeling),

which could reduce the cost of the cloths. Mixed fabrics had been the norm in

the Middle Ages, to be — at least in theory — outlawed later in the quest for

quality. In the sixteenth century the use of other fibers was cautiously

allowed in the production of low-quality cloths but strictly forbidden for

high-quality ones.

The last chapter of this part focuses on innovations, using a database of the

some forty silk patents granted between 1474 and 1600 according to a 1474 law.

The author stresses, as he does in the previous discussion, that the Venetian

industry was not impervious to change.

The third part of Mol?’s book deals with the expansion of the silk industry on

the mainland. Chapter nine describes the diffusion of the production of raw

silk (sericulture) in the Northern Italian countryside. Vicenza (near Venice)

was one of the oldest sericultural areas in the North, but in the sixteenth

century sericiculture spread throughout the whole Veneto. The author reports

some estimates of total output: at the beginning of the seventeenth century the

Terraferma (mainland state) produced some 150 tons of raw silk, being the third

largest producer in Italy after Calabria and Sicily.

Chapter ten deals with the uses of this silk. Part of it was indeed used in

Venice, but most of the silk was exported after being spun (thrown) and after

having paid a duty. This duty was meant to increase the production costs of

foreign competitors and to increase the revenues of the Venetian state.

However, the duty itself was not crushingly high, as silk was extremely easy to

smuggle. The remaining silk was woven in the mainland cities such as Vicenza,

Bassano, Verona and others. Actually, the development of their industries had

been long hampered by the hostility of Venetian guilds. Weaving had been

forbidden in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. However, the

prohibition was officially lifted, after years of insistence, for some types of

fabrics only — notably the black velvets. Later, the Mainland cities were to

specialize in light fabrics and especially in mixed cloths.

At the beginning of the book the author quite accurately states his purpose:

“filling the gap in Venetian historiography about the silk industry with an

appraisal of the entire body of laws on the silk industry of the Venetian

state” (p. xviii). He accomplishes his task very well, providing a lot of

useful, interesting and sometimes entertaining information from a variety of

sources (including textbooks and judiciary sources) while providing some

insightful discussion. Especially important is the stress on the innovation in

product and, to some extent, in process (especially for dyeing). The author

questions the conventional wisdom about the negative effects of guilds’

regulation on innovation, and thus on the competitiveness of the Venetian

industry. However, the present reviewer would have appreciated a bolder

approach. The author follows his sources skillfully but sometimes too closely.

He discusses dozens of regulating decisions by several bodies on different

issues, and this might be confusing. Inclusion of a table with the dates of

main laws and decrees would have been useful. Above all, the author does not

dare to go beyond his sources, and this has two drawbacks. First, by their very

nature, the laws and decrees do not reveal much about the interests involved in

the decision-making process, while the petitions and judiciary acts are

one-sided. The author could have used some simple economic reasoning to debunk

self-interested claims and to assess the likely effect of different policies.

Secondly, he does not tackle some key questions that might be of interest to

economic historians outside the circle of specialists on the economy of

Renaissance Venice. How much did the policies he so carefully describes

contribute to (or harm) the development of the silk industry? Was the location

of the silk industry determined by supply-side or demand-side factors? How much

did the Venetian economy benefit from the silk industry?

Giovanni Federico is a life fellow in the department of history of the

University of Pisa. He has written a comparative book (An Economic History

of Silk Industry, 1830-1930, Cambridge University Press 1997) and several

other articles on the silk industry (including “An Econometric Model of World

Silk Production, 1870-1914,” in Explorations in Economic History, 1996).

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):16th Century