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
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).