A little-known Guide for the Renaissance Merchant

Fifty-two discoveries from the BiblioPhilly project, No. 23/52

Giorgio di Lorenzo Chiarini, Libro che tracta di marcantie et usanze di paesi, Tuscany (Florence?), 1481, scribe: Lodovicho Bertini, Philadelphia, Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center, (SPC) MSS BH 007 COCH, fol. 9r

The cache of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts housed at Temple University Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center includes an overlooked source for our understanding of Renaissance economics: a rare manuscript copy of the commercial manual in Italian known as the Libro che tracta di marcantie et usanze di paesi or Book concerning the Trade and Customs of Various Places (MSS BH 007 COCH). This finely written manuscript represents a genre of text essential to the Renaissance merchant. In addition to learning the elements of mathematics and geometry (represented in items like the University of Pennsylvania’s LJS 27 and LJS 488), those who traded in the interconnected Mediterranean world of the fifteenth century needed to be well-informed about the types of goods available in a large number of cities, as well as the units of measure and coinage used, their denominations, and their exchange rates with major domestic currencies. Thus, the manuscript at Temple contains well-organized information for converting weights, measures, and money across Western Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Caucasus, with major sections devoted to the trading capitals of Florence, Venice, and Genoa. 

Briefly described in the Supplement to De Ricci’s Census,1 and again in an issue of the hard-to-find Temple University Library Bulletin in 1954, the manuscript seems to have escaped the notice of economic historians. The authors of the Supplement understood that the book was related to the much earlier merchant’s manual, Francesco Balducci Pegolotti’s La pratica della mercatura,2 which was written around 1340. But they also noted in passing that the Temple manuscript is actually a complete copy of a later text whose original composition is attributed to the Florentine merchant Giorgio di Lorenzo Chiarini: the Libro di mercatantie et usanze de’ paesi, or Book of Trade and Customs of Countries. Only three other manuscript copies of this text were known to Franco Borlandi, who produced a critical edition of the text in 1936.3 The earliest of these, dated to 1458, is now in Florence, as is another dated 1483 (Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, cod. Pal. Panciatichiano 72 and cod. Magliabechiano, XXIX, 203, respectively). A third, probably close in date to 1480, is Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms. it. 911. A comparison between these manuscripts and MSS BH 007 COCH shows marked similarities, though the Temple University manuscript is the only one to have originally included an introductory miniature.

f4   IMG_0820
Giorgio di Lorenzo Chiarini, El libro di mercatantie et usanze de’ paesi, Paris, BnF, ms. it. 911, fol. 1r and ibid., Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, cod. Magliabechiano, XXIX, 203, fol 1r (photo from Borlandi 1936)

Editions of the book were printed in 1481, around 1497, and 1498, while the widespread diffusion of the book’s contents was further assured by its verbatim inclusion within the two earliest editions of Renaissance Italy’s most popular text on mathematics for merchants, Luca Pacioli’s Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalità (Venice: Paganinus de Paganinis, 1494; Toscolano: Paganinus de Paganinis, 1523). However, the printed versions of the book abandon the tabular layout of the manuscripts and compress much of the information into running text, rendering it less useful as a reference tool. It seems clear, then, that our manuscript is not based on the first edition of Chiarini’s work, produced the same year as the manuscript.

The 1481 edition of Chiarini’s text (left), and its position in the 1494 edition of Pacioli (right)

Though our manuscript’s introductory miniature on folio 9r has been excised, and the coat-of-arms below it obliterated, the book helpfully contains a colophon on folio 100r stating that it was copied by a certain Lodovicho Bertini on an unspecified day in July 1481. A coat-of-arms of the Bertini family is discernable on a terracotta monument by della Robbia in the church of San Jacopo in Gallicano, north of Lucca 4, and it is not impossible that the same arms were originally present in the manuscript’s escutcheon. On folio 100r of the manuscript there is also an ownership inscription from the following century written by a certain “Matteo di Lorenzo du Matteo di Francesco,” stating that the book was purchased on 25 March 1591 in Florence, by which time it would already have been seen as an antique. Given the changes over time in commercial conventions and currencies, the usefulness of such a treatise would have diminished quickly, especially during the Age of Discovery. Between its possession by this owner (who may have had it fitted with its current binding) and its presence in the collection of the vellomaniac Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792–1872) as his ms. 6994, the book’s whereabouts are unknown.

(SPC) MSS BH 007 COCH, fol. 100r (final page of manuscript, with colophon by Lodovicho Bertini and ownership inscription of Matteo di Lorenzo di Matteo di Francesco)

Though facts about the copyist Bertini’s life are scarce, his work as a scribe is documented elsewhere. A year before completing this book, for example, he is known to have copied another manuscript known alternately as the Pratica di mercatura or Alphabeto di tutti e costumi, cambi, monete, pesi…. This manuscript is now in Pisa, Biblioteca universitaria, ms. 539, and as far as we can tell based on a list of the manuscript’s contents and a partial transcription, it is virtually identical with the present manuscript, despite never having been identified correctly as a copy of Chiarini’s Libro di mercatantie et usanze de’ paesi.5 Knowing the proper of the source of the text, and understanding that it was not an original work by Bertini, we can start to question why he undertook to make two copies of the same preexisting manual. Was one intended for a friend or relative, or for sale? Or did Bertini plan to keep both copies? A comparison of the reproduction and transcription found in Luciano Lenzi’s article from 2003 on the Pisa codex6 with a detail of folio 92v from our manuscript is instructive:


As is evident from this comparison, our copy is written in a more formal script, with a more refined layout.  It may have been a keep-at-home copy of the book complete with heraldry and introductory miniature, while the copy now in Pisa may have been intended as a more utilitarian vademecum to accompany Bertini’s travels.

  1. Seymour de Ricci, Christopher Urdahl Faye, and W. H Bond, Supplement of the Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada, (New York: Bibliographical Society of America, 1962), 472, no. 2.
  2. See Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, La pratica della mercatura, ed. Allan Evans (New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1970, original edition 1936), xliii–xlvi.
  3. Franco Borlandi, ed., El libro di mercatantie et usanze de’ paesi (Turin: Lattes & Editori, 1936)
  4. Dionigi, Renzo, Stemmi robbiani in Italia e nel mondo: per un catalogo araldico, storico e artistico (Florence: Polistampa, 2014), 189.
  5. See Gino Arrighi, “La ‘Pratica di mercatura; di ser Lodovico Bertini (1480). Il Cod. 539 della Biblioteca Universitaria di Pisa,” Atti della Fondazione Giorgio Ronchi 40 (1985): 343–48; Luciano Lenzi, “I capitoli dedicati alle monete nella ‘Pratica di mercatura’ di Ser Lodovico Bertini (1480),” Rivista italiana di numismatica e scienze affini, no. 104 (2003): 305–28; and also Angela Orlandi, Ora diremo di Napoli: i traffici dell’area campana nei manuali di commercio (Florence: Firenze University Press, 2012), 35, n. 39.
  6. Lenzi 2003, 307