José María Pérez Fernández

University of Granada

Paper in Motion: Information and the Economy of Knowledge in the Early Modern Mediterranean

The pen is such a noble and excellent instrument, that it is most necessary not only for the merchant, but also for any other art, be it liberal or mechanical… And the merchant must not merely excel in his writing skills, he must be also good at keeping his documents (scripture) in order, of which we intend to deal in this chapter. ‘La penna è uno instromento scì nobile e scì excellente, che non solamente a’ mercanti, ma eziamdio ad ogni arte, et liberali et mechaniche, l’è necessariissimo. Et como tu vedi uno mercante che li grava la pena, overo ad issa penna sia mal apto, pòi dire ch’el non sia mercante. E non solamente dè havere destreza de lo scrivere, anche dè havere l’ordine in che modo deve hordinare le scripture sue, de le qual è nostra intenzione tractare nel presente capitullo.’ Benedetto Cotrugli, Libro de l’arte della mercatura (1458), ed. Vera Ribaudo (Venice: Edizioni Ca’ Foscari, 2016), chap. XIII, ‘De l’hordene de tenere le scripture con ordine mercantile’, 82, my translation. See documents 68 and 69 for other versions of this text.

This is how Benedetto Cotrugli (ca.1410–69) opens chapter 13 of his Libro dell’arte della mercatura (1458). He follows with a brief account of the origins of the pen, the writing instrument whose praise he is singing, and whose invention he attributes to the mythical Carmenta, mother of Evandrus, ‘la prima che trovò l’uso della penna’ (the first to find the use of the pen). Although Cotrugli is relevant because his manuscript has the first formal description of the method of double-entry bookkeeping, this emphasis on the importance of script and the need to keep documents in good order is part of a much larger constellation of authors regulating the instruments, skills and practices related to the registration of information and knowledge. See, among others, Giovanni Antonio Tagliente’s practical instructions on writing instruments and materials such as the pen, paper and ink in his booklet La vera arte delo excellente scriuere (Venice, 1525).

Other than Cotrugli, I will use the work of Luca Pacioli (ca.1446/48–1517) and Gerard Malynes (1585–1641), among several other authors of the period from the late fifteenth to the early seventeenth centuries, to illustrate some of the most relevant aspects of the normative and intellectual background behind the documents displayed in this catalogue.Gerard Malynes, Consuetudo, vel lex mercatoria (London: Adam Islip, 1622). With these authors, Cotrugli shares concerns closely related to the practice of trade and the emergence of modern financial capitalism. One of them involves its material dimension, in terms of the sheer movement of goods and people, on which Cotrugli composed a treatise titled De navigatione (ca.1464–65). His other concern addresses methods for the registration and administration of immaterial information and value. As is well known, Pacioli is the author of a brief essay significantly titled ‘De computis et scripturis’, namely, ‘Of Accounts and Records.’ ‘Particularis de computis et scripturis’ is part of Pacioli’s Somma di arithmetica, geometria, proporzioni e proporzionalità (Venice: Paganini, 1494). Malynes, on the other hand, brings together regulations for the material movement of merchandise and the immaterial circulation of financial value in his Lex Mercatoria. The full title of Malynes’s book is Consuetudo, vel lex mercatoria, Or The Ancient Law-Merchant. Diuided into three parts: according to the essentiall parts of trafficke. Necessarie for all statesmen, iudges, magistrates, temporall and ciuile lawyers, mint-men, merchants, marriners, and all others negotiating in all places of the world.

Cotrugli and Pacioli belong in an age when these methods for the applied use of figures (computis) and script (scripturis) were being systematised into handbooks for Italian readers, based on pre-existing and well-established practices: indeed, documents 52 and 66 in our catalogue prove that merchants like Francesco di Marco Datini had been using these methods decades before they were formally described in these essays. Gerard Malynes illustrates a different period, when the systems developed in the Italian peninsula had taken firm root in the north of Europe, and above all when financial capitalism had spread its wings after what is traditionally called the age of exploration had accelerated the process of European colonisation of outposts both across the Atlantic and all over the Pacific. The second part of Malynes’ long title does in fact emphasise the global scope of trade and finance as it lists the different sorts of agents that could benefit from the knowledge provided by its contents: Necessarie for all statesmen, iudges, magistrates, temporall and ciuile lawyers, mint-men, merchants, marriners, and all others negotiating in all places of the world.

Cotrugli’s manuscript and his own activities already evince the entanglement of different realms and practices that include trade, accountancy and information management on the one hand, and navigation and transport on the other. These are, in short, the material infrastructures and methods that make communication possible, in contrast to its inescapable immaterial components – the latter of which were greatly facilitated by the relatively new media of paper. Cotrugli’s treatise also formulates important ideas about mercantile economy in the strictly etymological sense of the word: the morphological combination of the Greek nouns oikos and nomos, to wit the merchant’s household and the laws that should regulate it. This was a common and widespread humanist concern which was also addressed, from different angles and with different nuances, by other contemporary or near-contemporary authors. It brings under its scope both the private and public dimensions of the new scriptural, legal and geographical spaces that this new class of international merchants, and the authors who responded to their demand for legitimacy, were all negotiating. The documents in our catalogue illustrate some of the methods and documentary genres they employed to create international networks with a view to the circulation of financial value and accumulation of capital.

Cotrugli, Pacioli and Malynes: each in his own way intends to systematise, regulate and make sense of accountancy and finance, with a view to maximising profit. In many respects, these methods boil down to protocols and practices devoted to the collection, registration and administration of economic and financial information. In so doing, they also had to address general methods for knowledge engineering – from calligraphy and grammar to rhetoric, and from manuscript mise-en-page to typographic design after the invention of print.Rhetoric meets algebra and communication techniques with the use of paper-based documents in sections like chapter 35 of Luca Pacioli’s ‘Particularis de computis et scripturis:’ ‘Del modo e ordine a saper tener le scripture menute come sono scritti de mano lettere familiari … e altri instrumenti e del registro de le lettere important,’ i.e., ‘How and in what order papers should be kept, such as manuscripts, family letters … and other instruments of writing and the record book of important letters’ (208v). See also document 51. These are methods for the codification, registration and application of words, figures and iconic signifiers, the inescapable semiotic foundations of disciplines that lie at the roots of the scientific and financial revolutions that took place between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, hand in hand with the colonial expansion of the European nation-states. These disciplines included geometry, mathematics, astronomy and cartography, in combination with the new technologies that resulted from the practical application of their principles.

It is always difficult to establish chronological boundaries, but for practical purposes we can use two important events to establish the foundational period (if not the moment) of this revolution in the economy of information. One concerns the materiality of the medium employed to register and communicate data, namely the arrival of paper from China across the Muslim world and its gradual adoption first in the Mediterranean, then across the rest of Europe. The other is the arrival of the Hindu-Arabic numerical system, another invention that came from the East, and also reached Europe by crossing the shores of the Muslim Mediterranean. In contrast to the materiality of paper, this innovative semiotic system addresses the need to codify and represent knowledge in an abstract fashion: alongside script and documentary-administrative practices, knowledge is the software to paper’s hardware.

Algebra and the use of the Hindu-Arabic numerical system reached Europe thanks to a Pisan merchant, Leonardo Fibonacci (ca.1170–ca.1240), who trained in this discipline during the years he spent in North Africa. We do not have time, nor is this the place, to discuss the importance of the knowledge that Fibonacci brought to the northern Mediterranean from its southern African shores. But its far-reaching implications for science, technology, accounting and finance can hardly be overstressed. To put it in very simple and blunt terms, the combined arrival of paper and the Hindu-Arabic system of numerical representation amounted to a revolution in terms of media and semiotics which came from the Far East, put down deep roots in the Mediterranean, and then gradually developed and flourished in northern Europe and the Atlantic World that came to dominate the globe during the next few centuries.

The accounting method of double-entry bookkeeping was nothing but a system for information management and processing, conducted along the principles and methods of mathematics, for whose development the use of Hindu-Arabic numerals was fundamental. We are, in this respect, very fortunate to have the Prato State Archives as our host, because Francesco di Marco Datini’s papers constitute a superb example – arguably the best that remains from that period – of the combined application of paper as a medium with the symbolic systems of script and figures, in other words of the science of information management at work with the purpose of optimising business administration and maximising profit. The international network of partnerships that Datini created, in combination with his extraordinary skills in information management, turned him into the business genius that he was.

All civilisations, ancient and modern, rest on a combination of material media and technologies with abstract (qua merely systemic) protocols for the collection, codification, registration and communication of information. In the case of Western science and economic development, the use of paper and the invention of print in combination with the Hindu-Arabic system of numerical representation greatly facilitated the development of early modern science.

They created new conditions for systematic and analytical representations of nature, the earth and the cosmos, which in turn led to the development of new methods and technologies for transport and communication. At the same time, sophisticated contractual and administrative practices created the legal framework that contributed to the establishment and management of large and complex human communities spread over vast geographical areas.

The modern state thus emerged as a paper-based administrative Leviathan whose reach pervaded the most intimate corners of an individual’s life, as shown in Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s Village Lawyer.

Early modern empires, such as Spain and Portugal, and religious orders like the Jesuits built international networks of information exchange and knowledge administration based on paper and communication protocols. This mix also constituted the foundations for equally vast and far-reaching mercantile and financial institutions like those created and managed by Datini, Fugger and Simón Ruiz. All this led to a revolution in the economy of knowledge which affected vast geographical areas, diverse disciplines, practices and even the common life of millions of people. One of the purposes of this catalogue is to bring to the attention of the general reader the fact that well before our current age of electronic digital media, there was a revolution in knowledge and communication which laid the foundations for the world in which we live now.

This exhibition and its catalogue complement the exhibition that PIMo Workgroup 3 organised in Florence at the Biblioteca Riccardiana early in 2020 (Encounters at Sea: Paper, Objects and Sentiments in Motion Across the Mediterranean).Giovanni Tarantino, Giorgio Riello, and José María Pérez Fernández, Encounters at Sea: Paper, Objects and Sentiments in Motion Across the Mediterranean. An Intellectual Journey Through the Collections of the Riccardiana Library in Florence, with an afterword by Cátia Ántunes (Pisa: Bandecchi & Vivaldi, 2020). In that exhibition we sampled a series of books, documents and maps, both in manuscript and in print, to provide a cross-section of intellectual and material exchanges across the Mediterranean. In the essays that accompanied the catalogue, we put particular emphasis on objects and sentiments in motion and viewed them within the general framework of communication in the Mediterranean. This new exhibition and its catalogue focus on paper as the medium for more immaterial exchanges, and therefore as the infrastructure for the complex networks that made up communication in the global Mediterranean.

In contrast to the material interconnectivity of raw products, manufactured goods and artefacts of every sort, these documents codify immaterial value, also thanks to their semiotic configuration. They stand as signifiers, each with its own peculiar format, and are set in motion by protocols that make them instruments within complex communicative networks, endowed with a variety of perlocutionary functions.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Village Lawyer. Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent. Used with permission.

They are, to put it simply, inscribed pieces of paper that do things, some of them of great momentum and consequence. As such, the media used and their perlocutionary functions are sometimes difficult to distinguish – in a sort of early modern twist on McLuhan’s famous dictum, media is the message. In these cases, the medium is, if not totally identifiable with the message, at least perceived as an essential part of what the document in question performs. In some cases, Luca Pacioli uses the same noun (e.g., cartoline) to describe both the type of paper and the documentary genre he is describing. The result is that different material formats and semiotic functions – parchment is also included in Pacioli’s list – tend to appear bundled as a heterogeneous but nevertheless common category of documentary signifiers.Pacioli, ‘Particularis de computis et scripturis,’ 209r.

Each of the documents we display does something. For example, document 55 formally appoints Jakob Fugger’s nephew Anton Fugger, Georg Hörmann and Konrad Mair as representatives of the Fugger company in Tyrol and grants all three of them legal capacity to act on its behalf. Document 28 is a royal warrant issued by the Hispanic infanta and regent, Juana de Austria, which legitimises Simón Ruiz to trade with France without fear of sanctions. But alongside documents 1 and 2 – and other related documents not on display – document number 3 also illustrates a particular but nevertheless very eloquent episode within the long history of Mediterranean diasporas, that is, the consequences of antisemitism on the Iberian peninsula in the late fourteenth century, and how dramatically they affected the life of the individuals who produced these papers. These small, loose sheets of paper with a few lines swiftly scribbled upon them may register commercial transactions that circulated throughout the networks of the Datini companies, but they also constitute tragic documentary indices of personal biographies fraught with dispossession and exile.

Indeed, many of the documents we display often serve different purposes simultaneously – some of which may not have been originally intended by those who produced them in the first place. Number 43 registers the purchase of paper for administrative use at the same time as it documents, for historians of the future, that paper produced in Italy and France circulated globally through Portuguese networks. In other words, it stands as documentary evidence of the universal use of paper as a medium for the control and administration of an empire. The discipline of history, in fact, began with the invention of script and the semiotic activation of a document, irrespective of whether the information was inscribed on media other than paper, such as stone, metal, wood or any other material. Documenting is one of the instrumental functions that the practice of accounting and the discipline of history have in common: ‘le scripture,’ says Cotrugli as he tries to persuade merchants of the importance of the use of pen and script for their business, ‘fanno li homini litterati vivere mille dapoi mille anni riponendo a memoria lo nome glorioso e li ilustri fati, la qual cosa non si può fare senza questo glorioso instromento de la penna.’Cotrugli, Libro de l’arte della mercatura, 82.

Characteristically, many of our mercantile and financial documents are of a contractual nature, which turns them into legally binding instruments. This results from the combination of a controlling political authority that supervises and legitimises the documents, with the credit or credibility of all the parties involved. But on a par with these two is a third essential component in their contractual and legal power, i.e. the protocols, the set of established discursive formulas and the semiotic design of the document itself. This sort of contractual culture was described and regulated in essays such as De contractibus, by one of the most prolific intellectuals of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, theologian Jean Gerson (1363–1429). Cotrugli does in fact stress the importance of good record-keeping because having all this information at hand, and the documents that register it in proper order, can help solve potential legal disputes: ‘sono cagione di fugire multi litigii’ (Ibid.). Besides this function, which is their raison d’être, these documents also codify information and denote values that pertain to other realms and practices. Each one becomes a small piece within the vast and complex multicultural mosaic that was the Mediterranean world throughout which they circulated. They may have had a primary, practical function, but they also carried with them traces of the individuals and the communities that produced them, and of their addressees. In short, they are eminently entangled documents.

This is why the use of the word economy in my title is polysemic, for with it I intend to denote, besides the administration of economic and financial resources, the way in which any complex organisation is managed: the system of knowledge production, its configuration and its circulation. This involves human resources, material infrastructures, means of transportation, the creation of hubs where information is collected, stored, processed and then re-broadcast if necessary, as well as sophisticated systems for the classification of data and information with a view to turning it to financial profit or political advantage – or both. In short, to gain some sort of hegemony.

The polysemy of the noun economy allows me to emphasise the overlapping of phenomena that are traditionally approached from different disciplines, such as economic history or the history of finance, versus cultural studies in general and especially epistemologies and critical categories that pertain to the realms of theology or philosophy. In addition, I can mention semiotics and pragmatics, and, of course, media and communication studies, book history and above all the history of paper as a medium.

For example, the discipline of theology, and its discursive and iconic components are particularly well represented in some of our documents. As number 67 shows, the illustrator of Filippo Calandri’s Trattato di aritmetica uses the iconic format of medieval canon tables to represent equivalence in currency value through mathematical calculation and a combination of symbols and figures. But it was the same iconic format that had been used for many centuries in canon tables which represented the occurrence of the same passage in the life of Christ within each of the four gospels, that is, their doctrinal, spiritual or allegorical equivalence.For several images of canon tables as they were used in Greek and Latin gospels during the Middle Ages, see Kathleen Doyle’s ‘Illuminated Canon Tables’ (, accessed on 5 November 2021).

Filippo Calandri’s, Trattato di aritmetica, detail. Biblioteca Riccardiana, Florence. Reproduced with permission.

Calandri uses this system to codify financial values – some of the symbols that he uses in the highly ornamented columns stand for different types of currency – whereas traditional canon tables conveyed spiritual values. Calandri helps readers find their way around the currency markets and helps them conduct profit-seeking operations with the symbols that represent them. Traditional medieval canons, in contrast, guided their readers through the doctrinal meanings and equivalence between the same episodes within the narrative structures of each of the four gospels.

Gerard Malynes also resorts to concepts and categories from the disciplines of philosophy and theology to explain the complex nature of bills of exchange, and the apparently miraculous way in which a small and virtually immaterial piece of paper could codify and convey an enormous amount of value from one location to another and transfer it from one individual or organisation to another.For a bill of exchange of the sort described by Malynes, see documents 79 and 80. Document 80 is the actual bill of exchange, whereas document 81 is its register in the ledger, which illustrates how these documents and the value they represented were recorded in different sorts of documentary repositories. Document 83 is another bill of exchange, entangled with information about the current geopolitical situation, that is, the conflict that involved the Hispanic monarchy on the one hand, and the Dutch rebels and the English Crown on the other. Other documents, such as number 13, involve legal disputes related to a bill of exchange, as well as the practice of translation. Several others (33, 49 and 81) exemplify the registration of data related to the different phases through which a bill of exchange circulated as it travelled from one place to another. Religious values and icons also overlap – quite literally, for they are both inscribed on paper – in some of the documents from the Italian mounts of piety (see docs. 91–93, also doc. 78).

Some of these documents also exemplify the functional connection between the public and private realms, namely the merchant’s business and his family. See for example document 34, an autograph letter by Margherita Datini, wife of the merchant and author of one of the most significant epistolary collections produced by a lay woman in the late Middle Ages. The authors at the service of mercantile humanism were busy producing a series of textual and legal spaces, as well as a series of complex material and virtual networks to connect them, all with a view to legitimising those profit-seeking practices that so far had not enjoyed the same social and cultural prestige as aristocratic and chivalric values. Even more humble authors like Giovanni Tagliente, whose very practical 56-page booklet appears to merely discuss writing materials and instruments for trainees alongside ad hoc formulas of courtesy and communicative protocols in letters of all sorts, were also engaged in the normalisation of both public and domestic spaces. This included formal business and political correspondence with superiors, subordinates and between peers, alongside the discursive patterns that were to be used to express and share emotional ties and establish a hierarchy among the different members of the family. More prominent humanists like Leon Battista Alberti also proposed new methods and norms for the organisation of business and familial economies, as well as their social legitimation, in his I libri della famiglia (1433–41). With another of his treatises, De uxore ducenda, Cotrugli makes his own proposals for social institutions like marriage and its function as the axis between the private and the public dimensions of the person who would later be referred to as the homo economicus. Algorismus (1478), another practical handbook for the education of merchants penned by a contemporary of Cotrugli, Pietro Paolo Muscharello, offers eloquent proof of this combination of private family affairs with the public business of the merchant. In fols 74r to 75v, Muscharello proposes a mathematical problem which involves the inheritance of a merchant and how it can be divided between his two children. The figures and operations used to find the right answer are illustrated with a scene that shows the dying man in his bed, surrounded by his distressed wife and children and a notary public in the act of drafting his last will and testament.The manuscript is part of the Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection at the University of Pennsylvania. It is digitised and freely available online. The image in question can be viewed at¤tpage=179 (accessed on 14 November 2021).

Luca Pacioli has an entire section in which he gives detailed instructions on how to produce letters, store and classify those which are received, and keep well-ordered copies of those which are sent abroad, so that they can all be easily retrieved and cross-referenced whenever necessary.See above, n. 6. This is a very relevant section in Pacioli’s De computis et scripturis, because it deals with letter management in great detail, yet another important aspect of the significance of information registration and management which also involves rhetoric, and overlaps, as I have just mentioned, with other related practices. The business letter is part of a long continuum, a constellation of prose typologies employed in correspondence of a very heterogeneous nature – as demonstrated by the large catalogue of epistolary genres discussed by Tagliente and in many of the handbooks for epistolography that circulated throughout Europe. They overlap, for instance, with the literary prestige of the so-called familiares and the well-established classical and modern traditions upon which this genre stands, represented by such authoritative names as Cicero, Seneca, Pliny the Younger and Petrarch, among many others, all prominent members of the humanist epistolary canon.

The texts produced by authors like Tagliente and Pacioli, Cotrugli and Alberti, were establishing norms for a complex system of scriptural economies which systematised and regulated different realms and practices. In this respect, script was creating private textual spaces for both emotional and family relations, a rhetoric for the expression of sentiments which included domestic power hierarchies and normalised relations between genders. But it also set protocols and discursive patterns for political, legal, financial and business correspondence. Usually studied separately from each other, a more comprehensive approach can demonstrate how the discursive representation of all these different aspects of early modern culture were in fact part of a vast network sustained by a body of doctrine and informed by a host of prose typologies that sought to measure and regulate life in all its complexity.

Cotrugli and Pacioli describe the good merchant as an expert in data collection and management.First of all, the merchant’s scriptorium had to be kept in good order, and for example, as regards the letters received: ‘devi notare donde, e l’anno, [lo] mese e lo dì, et meterle ad uno loco et ad tute fare resposta et notare di sopra: ‘risposta’; poi ogni mese fa’ mazi da per sé et conservali’ (Cotrugli, Libro de l’arte della mercatura, 85). No merchant can ever record too much information, says Pacioli, who emphasises the need to record who, what, when and where with as much detail and clarity as possible: ‘El chi. El che. El quando. El doue: con tutte sue chiarezze e mentioni.’ Pacioli, ‘Particularis de computis et scripturis,’ 200r. This is a careful habit which Pacioli describes not just as a remedy for the vicissitudes of fortune, but also as an important strategy for the merchant to grasp any business opportunity that may come his way.Pacioli, ‘Particularis de computis et scripturis,’ 199v–200r. Pacioli’s handbook enjoyed an enormous success, and was translated, rewritten and imitated all over the rest of Europe. One of the most important among them was Jan Ympyn (ca.1485–1540). He spent 12 years in Italy where he acquired skills in the so-called Venetian method, in other words double-entry bookkeeping, and the authors who systematised it. His rewriting and improvement of Pacioli’s text rendered this method available for vernacular readers in Dutch, French and English. Important financial agents like Sir Thomas Gresham (on whom more below), as well as authors like Gerard Malynes and James Peele (who penned The Maner and Fourme how to Kepe a Perfect Reconyng in 1553) are all in debt to Ympyn’s translations, which constitute excellent case studies for the transnational and translational circulation of knowledge and practical skills.‘Ympyn is remembered today for his posthumous treatise on double-entry accounting, Nieuwe instructie ende bewijs der looffelijcker consten des rekenboecks (Antwerp, 1543), which was translated into French as Nouvelle instruction et remonstration de la très excellente science du livre de compte (Antwerp, 1543), and into English as A notable and very excellente woorke, expressyng and declaryng the maner and forme how to kepe a boke of accomptes or reconynges (London, 1547). The Dutch and French versions, which were published under the supervision of his widow, are the earliest texts on accounting in their respective languages. The English version of Ympyn, almost certainly printed by Richard Grafton, is the oldest extant text on accounting in English’ (R. H. Parker, ‘Jan Ympyn,’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (, accessed on 5 November 2021).

The influence and international prestige of the Italian or Venetian method is demonstrated by several of the documents we display in the exhibition. Number 71 is a posthumous inventory of the properties of a certain Pieter Barentsz which includes ‘three books of Italian bookkeeping’ and ‘one book of Italian bookkeeping by Anthonio van Neulighem.’Anthonio van Neulighem was the author of Openbaringe van’t Italiaens boeck-houden (Amsterdam: Paulus Aertsz van Ravesteyn, [1631]). This must be the book listed in the inventory, which dates from 1640. See the appendix for a partial transcription and translation of the document by Tessa de Boer and Ramona Negrón. Documents number 18 and 37 were penned by Matthäus Schwarz, who managed the Fugger business as its chief accountant and administrator. Schwarz also put together a manuscript primer on ‘Venezianische Musterbuchhaltung’ (Venetian bookkeeping), which must have been used for training within the company but was never distributed among the general public on account of the real figures that it included among its samples – it was common for these extremely practical handbooks to provide samples of documents for the instruction of apprentices.

Other than the international distribution of skills and know-how in the management of paper-based information, many of the documents we display trace the paths of paper itself. These go in all directions from the important Mediterranean centres of production – confirmation that soon after its arrival in Europe, the Italians developed important new techniques for paper production which gave them a competitive edge and great leverage in this thriving international market. Paper travels east to the Levant in document 19, and in document 43 we see it sailing west across the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, all the way to Lisbon. From this commercial and imperial hub, it travels south along the West African coast first, and then around the Cape of Good Hope towards the different Portuguese outposts around the shores of the Indian Ocean. This is a significant case that brings to the foreground the global mobility of paper and the relevance it had attained as the material administrative infrastructure of empire and trade.Chapter XVII in Malynes , ‘Of the beginning of Sea Lawes’ (119–20), includes a potted history of the evolution of international sea law which amounts to a genealogy of seafaring empires from the ancient Mediterranean to Malynes’s own global times.

As some of our documents illustrate, there were signifiers other than Hindu-Arabic numerals and script which were also part of the overall semiotic systems used to convey information. These paralinguistic signs (punctuation or ad-hoc symbols such as those employed for currency), and other icons like trademarks, all pervade the documents involved in the practice of trade. A significant case is that of Sir Thomas Gresham’s portrait. Gresham (1519–79) was one of those accountants and financial experts who fell – through Ympyn, it seems – under the influence of Pacioli and the Venetian method. A well-seasoned international merchant and expert in transnational money markets, he acted as an agent for the English Crown on the Antwerp bourse during times of great political and financial instability at home and abroad, and was founder of the London Royal Exchange.Several decades later, Malynes would also develop a similar profile, which combined the roles of merchant and informer with that of consultant on currency markets, fiscal policy and public debt. A trademark was a symbol generally used for the very practical purpose of identifying the merchant in letters and other documents. It was also stamped on bales during their shipment and transportation. But in Gresham’s anonymous 1544 portrait, his trademark is brought to a position of prominence, situated next to the solemn figure of this young man flaunting his wealth and status. Here, the trademark is one of the signifiers that represent him, his profession and his social standing, on a par with other standard iconic components in the art of the period like the memento mori represented by the skull. On the upper right-hand side of the portrait, next to Gresham’s head and on the opposite side of the trademark that identifies him as a merchant, is a hybrid, scriptural-iconic inscription which represents his marital status, in other words, the other main component in his merchant’s life – his family. This inscription bears his initials and those of his wife, Anne Gresham (née Ferneley), around the legend ‘love, serve and obei.’

Portrait of Thomas Gresham. Flemish school, collection of the Mercers’ Company, City of London. Public domain image.

Pacioli discusses the use of trademarks and seals in commercial correspondence. For him, they are means to identify the addresser and addressee, and part of other protocols to be used not just for commercial correspondence, but in general in other realms and practices where formal epistolography required the precise identification of the agents involved – such as correspondence from cardinals and the Pope himself.Pacioli, ‘Particularis de computis et scripturis,’ 209r. Documents that use trademarks for several different ends include numbers 50, 54 and 79. Number 50 in particular is a remarkable case which combines the practice of translation, authentication and the use of trademarks. Document 54, a letter from the Datini Archive, has an inventory with a series of trademarks next to each item to identify the different companies involved in the information conveyed by the letter.

Seals were sometimes even more important than trademarks, for, like signatures or the so-called deposited hand, they were scriptural practices and traces that authenticated the document in question, and therefore guaranteed its perlocutionary force.Pacioli has a section on protocols to avoid fraud and insure the legitimacy of the information for potential use in a legal dispute. This section is followed by instructions on how these books must be authenticated and registered with the authorities (Pacioli, ‘Particularis de computis et scripturis,’ 200r–200v). When he deals with banking-related documents, for instance, Pacioli stresses the need to cancel documents, and semiotically nullify their perlocutionary power, to stop anybody else from claiming a debt or requesting money that has already been paid or withdrawn.Pacioli, ‘Particularis de computis et scripturis,’206v. Document 37 also constitutes an interesting case for the use of paralinguistic symbols in combination with the mise-en-page in four different columns to establish equivalences, cross-reference the information, and in general provide an overview of the state of affairs within a significant sector of the Fugger business. Pacioli gives detailed instructions on how to rationalise and systematise accounting, which include graphic or scriptural conventions. He explicitly describes the combined use of ‘narrative discourse’ (tua scriptura narratiua) with mise-en-page and paralinguistic symbols (e.g., con una sola riga a trauerso così /). He also emphasises that, in order to be effective, these methods must be used consistently across all the different documents. He also insists on the need for the use of specialised vocabulary (termini) and other conventional signs (segni).Pacioli, ‘Particularis de computis et scripturis,’ 201v. When he describes his method for the rationalisation of accounts, he stresses the systematic way in which information must be displayed consistently in different formats and functions, cross-referenced and carried over from one register to another. See, for example, the very eloquent title of chapter 14: ‘Del modo a portar le partite de giornale
in quaderno e perche de una in giornale sene facia doi in quaderno e del modo a depennare le partite in giornale e de li doi numeri dele carti del quaderno che in le sue margine si pone e perche’ (Pacioli, ‘Particularis de computis et scripturis,’ 202r).
Documents which illustrate this method in our catalogue include numbers 73, 80 and 81.

The value of information as an immaterial commodity appears with great eloquence in document 20, the seventeenth-century manuscript Compendio di Geografia e Statistica. The product of a comprehensive view of the globe, this manuscript database of sorts also demonstrates that information circulated about and around the world as never before. This fascinating document straddles two different worlds. On the one hand, it reflects a pre-modern outlook which still enlisted the imaginary kingdom of Prester John among the nations of the earth, but on the other it also prefigures a mentality in which statistics and figures about all the countries of the globe start to be perceived as valuable commodities. The Portuguese document with information on Persia (doc. 47), penned by a native merchant who also worked as an interpreter for the Portuguese, proves that information on foreign countries had always existed before the age of statistics. It is a heterogeneous practical record that combines cartography, history and current news, of the sort that was frequently used by travelling merchants and ambassadors. In contrast, the comprehensive and systematic nature of the Compendio di Geografia e Statistica signals a significant change in methods and the approaches to data about countries around the globe.

Translators and interpreters were fundamental agents within the human infrastructure for trade and communication. The tariffe listed in document 19 show their services as one of the expenses incurred in trade between Venice and the Levant. Document 46 proves that they were held in some esteem as valuable assets in the global mechanisms of Portuguese imperial administration and trade. Many of the documents we include in the catalogue are multilingual (nos. 12 and 13), whereas others are the result of certified translations, all of which constitute both documentary and linguistic testimony of intercultural relations among different linguistic communities across the Mediterranean (see for example doc. 14). Closely connected to the practice of translation and interpreting, we have included two samples of lexicography, Vasco da Gama’s Portuguese-Malayalam lexicon (doc. 45), and Pietro Niccodemi’s Arabic-Italian dictionary (doc. 48). Lexicography is a discipline that deserves a special place in the cultural history of the global economies of information and knowledge, and Vasco da Gama’s case also stresses its strong connections with conquest and empire.

Naturally, information of all sorts was a very valuable asset for merchants, since both regional events and those of vast geopolitical bearing could affect their affairs.Pacioli devotes an entire chapter (26) to the documents to be produced and managed by travelling merchants. ‘Commo se habino asettare neli libri le partite de li viaggi in sua mano e quelle de li viaggi recomandati e commo de necessita de tali nascono doi quaderni’ (206v), i.e., ‘How entries should be made in mercantile books relative to trips which you conduct yourself or you entrust to other people, and the two ledgers resulting therefrom.’ Document 56, attached to a business letter, informs about the results of the Battle of Lepanto, whereas document 57 reports a failed attempt at invasion by the Turkish navy in Calabria. Document 82 directly links the political instability created by the recent death of Alessandro Farnese with the predicament of money markets in the Netherlands. The Turkish threat, this time in central Europe, is also the subject of one of the Del Vernaccia letters that we display (document 58), whereas the two other letters from this archive (documents 59 and 60) read as vivid proto-journalistic reports on the Portuguese rebellion against the Hispanic monarchy. All these documents, and the Del Vernaccia letters in particular, demonstrate the entanglement between commercial correspondence and secret intelligence in times of war. See the appendix for the transcription and translations of documents 58, 59 and 60.

Classifying the documents into several different categories has not been easy, given the fact that although they may be considered to belong to one specific typology, most, if not all of them, display formal features and functions that overlap with other categories. Far from a problem, this inherent entanglement is precisely one of the main points that our exhibition and catalogue want to make. This classification is therefore a provisional proposal which does not aspire to become a fixed typological chart. Like the documents and what they do, it is multifunctional and fluid. Consequently, rather than focusing our attention on distinct typologies – which of course do exist, especially in highly regulated practices like accounting and finance – we would like to underline the material and immaterial networks which emerge from the connectivity that all these documents perform. Our interest in the materiality, formats and semiotic functions of these documents stems from our main intent, which is to contemplate them as active signifiers which perform a variety of specific functions as they register information that is simultaneously of great use not only for their original senders and recipients, but also for economic and cultural historians.

As with the catalogue and exhibition, it is not our aim to be comprehensive and systematic when it comes to the theories and doctrines that emerged between the fifteenth and the early seventeenth centuries for the collection and management of information, but rather to sample a few representative cases. As I mentioned in the introductory paragraphs of this essay, Malynes is representative because his work provides a description and a normative approach to trade and finance from a more advanced, as it were, or sophisticated perspective, when many of the methods and practices that had first proliferated in the Mediterranean were already acquiring a truly global dimension and even gaining notoriety among the general population. This was a period when the sophisticated methods of international credit and bond markets had become a source of great concern among political authorities. As is well known, after the second half of the sixteenth century the Hispanic monarchy became painfully aware that, no matter how powerful its administrative and military machinery, the supranational networks of international finance and credit did escape its control and could (and did) wreak havoc on its economy.

The pervasive use of paper as the medium of choice for all these administrative and financial operations turns it into a fascinating case study, a gateway for fresh approaches to the complex and inherently entangled phenomena that shaped the economy, politics, societies and cultures of the periods and regions represented by the documents we display. They constitute a mere foretaste and above all an incentive for further research into paper, its multiple uses and functions.