‘Euen as the Spirit of man is predominant ouer the Soule and Bodie in all the actions thereof, which by the bloud are quickened and preserued, euen so is the exchange for moneys by Bills of Exchanges, ouerruling the course of commodities and moneys in all places where the action of money is felt or seene, directing the same (by some due proportions) accordingly.’

This revealing passage opens the third part of Malyne’s Lex Mercatoria, whose self-proclaimed concern is ‘Exchanges for Moneys by Bills of Exchanges, compared to the Spirit or Facultie of the Soule of Trafficke and Commerce’ (ibid. p. 377). The bill of exchange appears as the most immaterial of all the various commercial and financial instruments that were part of the practice of trade. The far-reaching implications of the use of theological concepts to describe practices and phenomena which were so new as to lack their own specialised vocabulary is something I shall discuss elsewhere, but let me just say at this point that this quotation reveals one of the processes we aim to address with the exhibition, the catalogue, and the symposium that we held in parallel, i.e., the gradual and systematic dematerialisation first of the Mediterranean and European economies and, later, of the global economy too. This was to a very large extent made possible by the universal use of paper as its medium of choice. Malyne’s significant description portrays bills of exchange as standing at the peak of a gradual progress starting from the exchange of material goods, going towards the semiotically activated materiality of money – either as coined precious metals or as any other hard and heavy material signifier of monetary value – and further to the lightness of bills of exchange, which could codify a potentially boundless amount of financial value in ‘but a small peece of paper of some two fingers broad’ (Malynes, ibid. p. 394).

One of the documents in this section (doc. 78) displays a very different sort of immaterial value. This heavy tome registers the financial operations of a Mount of Piety using the well-established method of double-entry bookkeeping. But in contrast to other similar records, its edges portray religious images associated with the Pietà: they stand as the iconic signifiers of the moral and spiritual values driving this particular kind of charitable, non-profit financial institution (on which more in section 5).

This section includes several documents that illustrate the theory and practice of trade, from the earliest doctrinal handbooks penned by authors like Cotrugli and Pacioli (docs 67–69, also doc. 51), and the practical booklets with exchange rates and tables of equivalent weights and measures created by merchants like Francesco di Marco Datini (doc. 66) – meant for the everyday conduct of business by their clerks and accountants – to a section on particular cases that apply the methods and doctrines predicated by the former (docs 72–78). Some of these documents illustrate the sophisticated methods used for the administration of data and information in the efficient running of a company, and how they were formulated and applied in Italy first, and then evolved and developed well beyond its borders, gradually exerting an increasing influence in the north of Europe (docs 70 and 71), following the path of economic and political power away from the Mediterranean, on to the Atlantic and Pacific worlds that unfolded with the so-called age of exploration.

The documents we display prove how quasi-immaterial information and value were registered on paper, and how they circulated throughout these vast Mediterranean, European and later global networks, using a semiotically functional variety of documentary genres which were then cross-referenced with each other and eventually stored like any other sort of valuable commodity at the headquarters of these commercial and financial institutions (docs 79–83). The heterogeneous sort of information administered by these businessmen and their clerks stresses the fact that long before our digital age – in which intelligence and big data have become strategic commodities that stand on a par with primary goods like oil and gas – information was already a fundamental asset for international geopolitical and financial structures.