MTI21a The nature of Genoese Commerce    Amos Pate

Genoa is located on the west coast of Italy and lies between the border of France and the Appenines.

The second half of the 11th century witnessed an alteration in the pattern of Italian trade due to Norman pressure (in the form of crusades) and the weakness of Italy's protectors, the Byzantine emperors. Amalfi and other ports of southern Italy suffered and subsequently Venice, Pisa and Genoa became important.

Food was a major consideration of Genoese trade. Genoa couldn't produce significant amounts of food and as a result imported this necessity via sea. Wine and salt came from Spain, wheat from Sicily and the Black Sea region (in the 14th century), and meat and cheese from southern Italy and the Mediterranean islands.

Genoa would develop and supply Constantinople with grain in the future. Eventually she became responsible for a large fraction of the total Mediterranean grain trade.

At first Genoa's overseas trade was confined to the western Mediterranean. This changed when the Normans were attacking southern Italy and the Genoese and Pisans decided to chase Saracens from the islands and raid the North African coast.

Before 1100 the trade of Genoa didn't amount to much. The Genoese tended to generally trade with areas where the Venetians hadn't already established themselves. This could have been a result of pride, resentment, or perhaps a combination of fear and respect because they couldn't hope to raise a competitive challenge.

Genoa reaped the benefits of trading with the Berbers of Africa and the Muslims of Spain in the 12th century. They had displaced the Syrions and Jews and proceeded to exchange Italian fustian and linen for raw cotton, spices, alum, skins and hides from the Atlas region. More bizarrly though was the transportation of gold dust across the Sahara Desert from Senegal.

Genoa was very important in the commerce of Cyprus, western Asia Minor and the Black Sea coast (where she had established a cluster of colonial posts when the Byzantine Empire was temporarily overthrown in 1204). Her chief base in the Mediterranean was the island of Chios, whose chief commodity was alum.

A great deal of Genoese trade took place in the western Basin of the Mediterranean Sea and was intrinsically linked with the ports in the south of France, Catalonia and Spain. Genoa's main cargoes consisted of bulky goods with a low value (such as wheat, alum, salt, cotton and wool). Silks and spices played a small role.

The Byzantine nomisma lost it's value in the 12th century and declined dramatically after Crusaders occupied Constantinople in 1204. In 1252 Genoa was accustomed to using gold nomisma and dinars of the Mediterranean world, but began to issue her own gold called genovino.

Genoa's attempts to break into the Levantine trade can be seen as the linchpin to the wars with Venice in the 13th and 14th centuries. Genoa continued to branch out and established a route to the Canary Islands in the 14th century.

The 15th century was at best a period of stagnation in the Genoese economy. After about 1400 the Levantine bases were taken by the Turks, which meant the Genoese had lost their monopoly of a lucrative trading commodity.

Paradoxically, during the later Middle Ages Genoa was using advanced commercial techniques, reflected in the development of accounting and financial methods. Banking organisation improved with the conversion of scribbled memos into separate columns for credit and debt, progressing to double entry bookkeeping. These changes brought about more involvement and helped to check the operations of partners and agents. In this department the Genoese were ahead of their successful Venetian rivals.

A vernacular poet of the 13th century boasted

"so many are the Genoese
So scattered world wide
That they form other Genoas
wherever they reside".

Lopez believes that each outpost run by the Italians served as a "jumping board fro further expansion". The Genoese and Venetian exploits are good indications of the wealth of opportunity that lay at the Italians feet as they ventured further and penetrated deeper into Europe.


Amos Pate