This section deals with basic skills and materials involved in the practice of script and the production of paper-based documents. The importance of the materials and methods used for the written registration of information and its management is emphasised in treatises on accounting and the ars mercatoria such as those by Cotrugli or Pacioli (docs 51, 68 and 69), both of whom devote important sections of their handbooks to these matters, before delving into what today we would call the skills and know-how required for all the different aspects involved in business administration.

We start with a manuscript letter in Margherita Datini’s hand (doc. 34). The wife of powerful Prato merchant, Francesco di Marco Datini, Margherita employed scribes for her many exchanges with her husband, as well as with other members of her family and household. In this document, however, we see her own hand at work, which stresses the difference in formal features between the hand of a person like Margherita, who was not a professional scribe, in contrast to the penmanship displayed in other documents produced by skilled officers and administrators (e.g., doc. 37). The methods involved in the training and education of one of these professional scribes and administrators is shown in document 35, which exemplifies the way in which these young clerks, future lawyers, accountants, court or church officers were trained in their basic skills. This document is a beginner’s workbook for children to practise their writing and mise-en-page through the repeated reproduction of lines of poetry by famous Italian poets. This use of poetry might be deemed somewhat striking until we think that for many of these 

poets their day job would have involved some sort of administrative task or other. Let me just mention the fact that thirteenth-century poet Jacopo da Lentini – generally considered the inventor of the sonnet – was referred to by Dante in his De vulgari eloquentia as ‘il notaro’. The list of poets who were officers, secretaries, lawyers and in general top clerical officials and administrators would be too long to detail here, but they go from Jacopo da Lentini at the Sicilian court of Emperor Frederick II to English epic poet John Milton, secretary of Latin letters to Oliver Cromwell, among many others.

Document 36 is a humble but nevertheless eloquent testimony to the important role of the scribe as a fundamental agent in the administrative-communicative infrastructure of trade and empire. The person whose payment is recorded in this document may have been just a tiny drop in the ocean of Portuguese imperial administration, a small cog in its geographically vast machinery, but for this very reason he is representative of the sort of human infrastructure required to run these large and complex operations.

In contrast with the learning exercises and the modest office of a humble scribe, document 37 displays the sophisticated skills of a top accountant at work, one who has already learned the basics of the trade, and has moved onto the highest echelons in the management of financial data and mercantile information. As the document shows, this chief accountant of the Fugger banking company is capable of dealing with data of a very diverse nature, as well as using paralinguistic signifiers, arranging them as a map of inter-related information on a large piece of paper so that they can be absorbed all at once. Thereby, the work provides a snapshot of a large section of the bank’s affairs in a significant part of its business with one of its most important – and also tricky – customers, the Hispanic monarchy, its officers and financial agents.

The next few documents exemplify different aspects involved in the paper trade, and the writing instruments that form its modest but nevertheless inescapable material infrastructure – if scribes and administrators, accountants and translators, with their different skills, constituted the functional human infrastructure, paper and ink made up the hardware they employed to process their information (docs 38–44). I must once more underline that paper circulated widely not just across the Mediterranean, but also beyond, to northern Europe, and in general on a global level. We have seen elsewhere how Italian paper was exported to the North of Africa, and to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean (see docs 5 and 19). But through Portugal it also reached West Africa, and eventually, the Portuguese outposts in the Indian Ocean (see docs 43 and 44). The document about paper in Tangier (doc. 41) illustrates the connection between the old Mediterranean and the new global world (new for Europe, of course) brought about by exploration, which turned paper into the material medium employed for the administrative implementation of this major wave of Western colonisation. In short: every ship, every military expedition, was accompanied by at least one scribe who needed a constant supply of paper, ink and writing instruments.

Next to paper, instrumental equipment, scribes and administrators, we find interpreters, translators and lexicographers as part of the infrastructure that facilitated trade and imperial expansion. They engaged in practices, disciplines and skills without which efficient communication would not have been possible, having left innumerable traces of their work in archives all over the world (docs 45–50). The importance of language skills features in many different primary sources. To name one of the most visually eloquent, in Jost Amman’s fascinating Allegory of Commerce, scribes, stevedores, merchants and other agents and processes involved in trade all appear in the company of two beturbaned gentlemen who exemplify what the engraving describes as linguarum peritia: skills in languages. Furthermore, in document 19 (Tariffe Mercantili del Levante) we saw records which list the services of interpreters alongside other expenses for trade in paper and other products between Venice and the Levant.

The amount of information that had to be efficiently collected and classified, as well as stored in such a way as to be easily cross-referenced and retrievable, was enormous. Hence, sophisticated methods were required for its codification, registration and administration, which included the creation of different sorts of functional documentary genres. Some of the documents we show exemplify how these methods were developed and regulated first de facto in Datini’s remarkable archive, and then in a more theoretical way, in authors like Cotrugli or Pacioli, among others.

Although this is an age during which new specialised practices and disciplines started to emerge, we can also find many cases of interdisciplinary entanglement among different phenomena and realms. One of the most interesting among them is the intersection of financial and commercial information with political news, which demonstrates how important it was for successful merchants to be promptly and well informed on the latest political developments which could affect the conduct of their business. In other words, before the emergence of newspapers and journalists, it fell to merchants and their networks to create the first international, up-to-date news networks for their own private use, frequently on a global scale. Indeed they were frequently as well informed as major political authorities would be. These networks coexisted, and sometimes intersected, with equally as sophisticated networks of diplomatic exchange – including secret intelligence – and with the creation of the first postal systems.

The sort of information codified and exchanged by merchants could go from basic figures, samples of colours, materials and designs (docs 61 and 62), to information about inflation in a particular region (doc. 53) or events of great international geopolitical bearing, such as Lepanto, the death of Alessandro Farnese, the Portuguese rebellion against the Hispanic monarchy, the unstable political situation in Eastern Europe under Ottoman occupation, or the close relation between business deals and the financing of large-scale political operations (docs 55–60, 82). Some of these documents actually read as vivid journalistic reports that manage to convey the sense of momentum dictated by the frantic path of events (e.g., docs 59 and 60). Finally, the last documents in this section illustrate the connections between the worlds of business and finance and the world of art, as well as book production and trade, underlining the importance of this sort of information for disciplines like the history of art, intellectual history and book history, among others.