the light was always shifting, the colours were always changing - reading braudel's out of italy

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reading this - Fernand Braudel's short study of 1450-ish to 1650-ish Italy, finding that i want to make notes, ask questions, and haven't found a good place to do that. what about ilx.

The glory of the intellect may appeal to us more than the glory of wealth. For century after century, Italy provided a living example, a spectacle of intellectual prowess, agility and originality, a series of contradocitory cultural revolutions, as freedom was followed by order, progress by interruption, radiance by obscurity. On this great stage, the light was always shifting, the colors were always changing: the Renaissance, Mannerism, the Baroque - here was one of the most dazzling sequences of displays of intelligence since the world began.

eeeeee's yerman

Fizzles, Monday, 3 August 2020 18:51 (six months ago) link

so part of the reason i wanted to do this is that I find his project slightly oddly conceived, but full of short theoretical asides, and piquant anecdote. i keep finding myself thinking... that's interesting... why... is that?

Fizzles, Monday, 3 August 2020 18:54 (six months ago) link

his project oddly conceived.

his perception is that Italy of this period has been subject to *too much history*, 'fragmented into too many stories', which he wants to gather together into a single narrative. I was going to call his project Quixotic, and then stopped myself, but in fact described like that I think it is.

It is Romantic, for this 'grand narrative', 'means presenting a version that departs from the usual practice, a quest for the truth, one might say, or at any rate a particular way of trying to understand Italy's greatness, the better to do it justice.'

So this was originally published, I believe, in 1994. Partly to his point, but also against it, there has been a *lot* of stuff written about the Italian peninsula in this period. Has no one tried the grand narrative, the synoptic view before? I find it hard to believe. No one has quested after... truth before? It seems odd, a strange way of putting it.

And why now? I sense here, perhaps unfairly, that Braudel perceives that he, in France, at this point, is able to do this.

In a drunken blogpost I put it like this:

It’s an interesting… perspective, literally. Rather like finding the Archimedian Point, Braudel believes that he’s in a position that allows for this gathering together. This is a temporal position of course – that’s the obvious interpretation. But it’s also an ideological position – the Annales school – the ability to find objectivity through managing data, narrative through painstaking analysis of the documents, not pure inheritance of past narratives incorporating back to the Renaissance’s own ability at self-fashioning, self-narrative.

But if there is *anyone* who has a right to do this, it's Braudel. His extraordinary books on the Mediterranean and Civilization and Capital in the 15th to 18th Centuries manage to combine the most painstaking of documentary and statistical analysis, with a great deal of fascinating and vivid insight.

Fizzles, Monday, 3 August 2020 19:04 (six months ago) link

One immediate stumbling block for me is his framing category of 'greatness' - the very reason the book has been written, the very reason, you might argue, that so *much* has been written on this period of Italy. Two quotes will do, I think:

And we should in any case always remember that greatness is a very particular kind of measurement, not really applicable either to the Italy or the France of today. A united Europe might perhaps lay claim to it, for greatness can be founded only on influence and supremacy in relation to others. There is an obvious and necessary relativity to be observed


For although the time span may vary, the end of the story is always "decline" a word as complex as it is convenient.

So I always distrust narratives of decline? Decline for who? There are great moments of Art in decadence and ruin.

I have a feeling that for Braudel's framing of 'greatness' some geographical and economic power wielded widely from a small base, and from that small base and growing with that growth of mundane power, an intense cultural fermentation. It seems that the decline of greatness is likewise the decline of economic power. In other words is greatness 'merely' agglomeration, a sort of network effect? Or is it an entirely Imperial sense?

Braudel cites the Romans as another 'unquestionable' period of greatness. And I'm reminded that the wealth of Rome was dispersed across Europe and ended up fragmented in the thesauruses (as in treasuries) of small kingdoms and fiefdoms.

Greatness is a word that begs the question. It feels a bit old-fashioned now.

But I'm accepting the principle for the purpose of reading the book.

Fizzles, Monday, 3 August 2020 19:19 (six months ago) link

He then outlines his process in a short section titled The Dialectic of Internal and External.

He starts this section with a description of the 'steady flow of emigration' out of Italy, which nevertheless 'was not of massive proportions.'

The first he mentions are the Italian soliders 'who fought so often abroad'.

And then that emigration 'not of massive proportions', amounting to 'a few boatloads of people' but almost all 'persons of note': 'engineers, skilled craftsmen, carrying with them the secrets of a specialised technology; merchants (in large numbers); churchmen, and, even at this early date, political 'technocrats' from Concine to Mazarin or Alberoni; humanists (some professors, and some not), and lastly artists: musicians, architects, painters, sculptors, goldsmiths, theatre companies, directors, dancing-masters, and astrologers.'

Some boatload.

His emphasis of the comparatively low numbers of emigrants is perhaps to indicate this was, to use the word he uses, a *technocratic* supremacy - 'the export of luxury trades' he says you might call it.

It all forms what he calls 'a complex form of influence, compounded of adventurism, of every aspect of culture, and of every kind of financial expertise' not unlike, he says, the United States today.

He then makes a series of extraordinary - it almost seems to me mystical - set of statements - in fact the slight sense of mysticism I get emanating from the book is part of the reason i wanted to explore it here.

Fizzles, Monday, 3 August 2020 19:31 (six months ago) link

The first:

After the Council of Trent, Rome's agenda consisted of the reconstruction of traditional civilisation in the name of the Church triumphant, making it once more competitive and predominant, with a transformation of its style and modes of expression. And in a very shot time that civilization spread to cover almost all of Europe, the Catholic and indirectly the Protestant as well: curious evidence of the unity of a world divided - perhaps falsely - against itself.

Perhaps falsely! That suggests a secret, gnostic unity in the background. his argument *seems* - *seems*, I'm not clear - to suggest that the counter-reformation produced a cultural response that was uniform across European culture. It also suggests - perhaps this is very much the secular French, Annales method - that religious sectarianism is in fact a surface element to something deeper. *Perhaps* falsely, perhaps. He's not sure, he must explore.

Fizzles, Monday, 3 August 2020 19:36 (six months ago) link

I find the notion that the counter-reformation produced a european cultural response that could all be traced back to the locus of the Council of Trent extremely surprising. So much of that art must have also represented the divisions of religion and society. Is he suggesting that aesthetics, deeper down, are undivided? I find it strange to consider this can be.

This is, perhaps, a very capitalist (as a method of history) way of looking at it. The routes of exchange and trade never close down despite doctrinal differences. The Venetians made a very good trading relationship with the Islam of the north African hinterland.

perhaps, then, this is no more than the progressiveness of the liberal historian, the progress of capitalism and history. I feel there's more there, though... that 'perhaps'.

Fizzles, Monday, 3 August 2020 19:41 (six months ago) link

Second quote:

Whatever the images or words in which our arguments are expressed for want of better ones (influence, cultural diffusion, model, example, enlightenment) they all relate to a single problem. This may seem obvious but once one starts to analyse the problem, it immediately becomes more complex. There are too many landmarks, all of them uncertain: and too few firm, clear, and incontrovertible conclusions. Every fact, every event, has been minutely studied by generations of devoted historians, but none has illuminated more than a corner of the stage, of the huge system within which Italy's exceptional destiny has been inscribed and elaborated.

Wow. Lot there. 'They all relate to a single problem'. The 'this may seem obvious' is a hell of a Poirot turn. I am here in the position of a mentally labouring Inspector Japp, to whom it is not obvious whatsoever. I assume he means the mechanics of the spread of culture - the *how* of each of the images or words he uses. What are the mechanisms of influence and exchange. it is perhaps a version of the map and territory problem, where we know too little of the territory and there is too much on the map. How do we convert anecdote into history (his next section is called Beyond the Anecdote).

But the quote doesn't stop there. he restates the problem, the reason for the book, the fragmentary nature of history so far: 'none has illuminated more than a corner of the stage': extraordinary bombast! impossible, surely!

of the huge system within which Italy's exceptional destiny has been inscribed and elaborated.

Has Braudel been consumed by some sort of mad theology of history? what do these portentous images mean? a *huge system*, destiny inscribed thereon. strange.

Fizzles, Monday, 3 August 2020 19:49 (six months ago) link

he elaborates his theory:

That destiny was in fact the prisoner of a kind of external structure, one that was slow to change, although in the long run it was to be radically transformed. One has constantly to be aware of both the detail and the overall picture - or more precisely to challenge the dialectic of internal and external factors, and seek a single unifying truth.

There it is again, that *structure*! Again, that 'single unifying truth.'

What can that structure be?

he continues:

Indeed, that wider stage on to which Italian life was projected makes sense only if it is constantly related to and set alongside what was happening inside Italy on home ground, at the heart of the system. It is sometimes said that light shed from the margin is the best, that a complex whole may best be apprehended from its outer limits. That may well be so, but we nevertheless have to deal with two separate geometries, two realities: core and periphery. Their contrasts and coincidences, and even more their failure to coincide, are the raison d'etre of the debate we shall be following. But what a bundle of difficulties and dilemmas is contained within the enormous mass of history to be subjected to this double analysis. Relations between Italy and the countries and coastlines of Islam and Byzantium were by no means simple...

two separate geometries, two realities.

and after this vast cosmic abstraction, he expresses the challenge in the most concrete of geopolitical terms.

What task has he set himself here? It is surely more than a summary narrative of Italy during these two centuries - there is a Moby-Dick like pursuit of within that narrative, something that he can call 'the truth', and the perception of a looming, superhistorical, supratemporal 'structure' over history and us all.

Fizzles, Monday, 3 August 2020 20:04 (six months ago) link

So, at this point, I have specific questions I want answered in this book:

  • What is the nature of the 'structure' he talks about? (Is it really purely 'just' the progress of capitalism, with 'greatness' its periodic high-water marks?
  • How will he deploy his dialectic?
  • What the hell does Braudel think he's up to?

Fizzles, Monday, 3 August 2020 20:05 (six months ago) link

if there is anyone who can do this mystical task braudel has set himself, it's braudel.

Fizzles, Monday, 3 August 2020 20:06 (six months ago) link

incidentally, part of the great appeal of Braudel is his underpraised capacity for vivid historical imagination, which doesn't stray from the documentary:

How determinedly the two republics protected and patrolled these remote colonies! From Venice, the Arsenal sent the posts, scaling irons, nails, arrows, longbows, and crossbows needed to defend Tana, [Tana, on the Sea of Azov, for Venice's Black Sea trade] [i]for the little town huddled by the marshes was on perpetual alert against constant attacks by the Tartars, a people forever on the move with their herds of horses, sheep, and oxen and their covered and open wagons. The inhabitants of Tana watched the enemy from their ramparts from days on end, fascinated by this tumultuous spectacle of men, women, children and beasts, and wagons on the move. "La sera," writes one eyewitness, "eravamo stracchi di guardar" ("By nightfall we were exhausted with watching").

Fizzles, Monday, 3 August 2020 20:14 (six months ago) link

Very much like this quote describing the Fourth Crusade:

The decisive blow against Byzantium was struck in 1204, with the diversion of the Fourth Crusade, during that "orgy of capitalism," which led to the fall of Constantinople, and was even more pronounced after its fall.

(of the source of the 'orgy of capitalism' quote, Braudel merely says in a footnote 'the expression is Lujo BRENTANO's').

Fizzles, Tuesday, 4 August 2020 07:07 (six months ago) link

Important point, which Braudel makes briefly:

I need hardly say that the "Italian" of my title is also a convenient fiction for the purposes of exposition, and indeed an anachronism. Fifteenth-century Italians did indeed feel different from other peoples in Christendom, but they were divided among a series of tiny states, little Italies, lively, jealous, and sometimes violent units, not unlike the nation-states of Europe in the recent past, whose 'greatness' lay only in the eyes of shortsighted beholders. For the divisions of Italy, in that age at once so far from the present and so near to it, offer an image of the recent history through which we Europeans have all lived and indeed continue to live. So to say 'Italy' or 'an Italian' is to use a misleading singular. An obvious remark, but one so easily overlooked that it has to be made once.

The question of local identity in a dynastic, city-state or proto-national age always seems to me an interesting one. To what extent did people who lived in England during the period of Burgundian alliance and substantial French holdings feel English, as distinct from the French, for instance?

What was the effect of the '100 years war'? Of Henry VIII's efforts towards creating national identity or Geoffrey of Monmouth's myth-forming? To what extent did other nations see someone from any of the city states of the Italian peninsula as an "Italiano"? Language must play a significant part - Braudel points out that the widespread enjoyment of the commedia dell'arte must have involved some limited understanding of Latin (it was not until 1668 that the first French scenes began to be inserted).

To what extent was this perception shared by the main city state actors?

Fizzles, Tuesday, 4 August 2020 07:24 (six months ago) link

two weeks pass...

right, back. just had to pop out. (Actually, got absolutely *slammed* by work and realised that I wanted to finish another book first).

taking notes on the section on dialectical oppositions, and in fact there are three that can be identified.

  • Detail and Overall Picture
  • Internal and External Factors
  • Periphery and Core
There is a question to what extent these overlap. As he writes them down, it's evident that they overlap to a considerable degree. ("One has constantly to be aware of both the detail and the overall picture – or more precisely to challenge the dialectic of internal and external factors, and seek a singly unify truth. Indeed, that wider stage on to which Italian life was projected makes sense only if it is constantly related to and set alongside what was happening inside Italy on home ground, at the heart of the system.")

The fact that they are different aspects of the same thing, or more precise definitions, or operating at different levels of the same structure means that the 'by no means simple' relations between 'Italy and the countries and coastlines of Islam and Byzantium' are relevant to that question of overall picture and detail. In this it's possible to see the considerable complexity of the task he's given himself, and the clarity with which he sees that complexity.

Although the subject matter of two centuries of Italian city state cultural and economic supremacy is clearly of interest, one of the chief pleasures of reading Braudel in this book is of an exceptional intelligence grappling on the page with deep conceptual problems of historiography, and the marshalling of history.

Fizzles, Thursday, 20 August 2020 11:28 (six months ago) link

it's full of interesting, gristly conceptions, such as his analysis of the nature of the new development of political sophistication, via Machiavelli:

What this disturbing Florentine was providing for all of them was a tool kit, a vade mecum of political manœuvre, a certain "virtù," that strength which leads to power of all kinds. The Spaniard Ginés de Sepúlveda defined virtù as "the force or faculty enabling one to achieve any goal one has set oneself." We would call this way of behaving, as if nothing else mattered but the interests of the Prince, raison d'état. This expression, which had such a successful career, was in fact invented not by Machiavelli but by another Italian, Giovanni della Casa, in an address to the Emperor Charles V in 1547.

So presented, this is a technocratic innovation or even invention in politics, which Braudel has dissected to analyse its constituent parts. I find this sort of thing, in all honesty, intellectually thrilling. We have here, I think, the core of a concept that would lead to the transition from dynastic rule to the relation of the Prince, Monarch, or Emperor to the State.

Fizzles, Thursday, 20 August 2020 11:45 (six months ago) link

as already noted, he has a knack for painting a picture with a few brushstrokes, which makes it all feel immediate and intriguing. How can you resist the description of the 'restless and disquieting Elisabeth Farnese'? The wikipedia entry is definitely worth a read through:

Elisabeth enjoyed hunting and wore male riding attire while doing so. She was described as an excellent shot and rider, and often hunted with the king. Early on, she became overweight because of her great appetite. She spent extravagantly, on both herself and her confidants

Fizzles, Thursday, 20 August 2020 11:53 (six months ago) link

For fans of Wolf Hall, I think it's worth pointing out that one of the important aspects of Thomas More is his Italian learning – essentially a set of technocratic skills that others did not have, and which gave him considerable power by giving him more insight than others around him. This observation occasioned by Braudel's note that:

If one were to undertake a systematic search for the Italian merchant abroad (a most worthwhile project) one would have to mobilise all the scholars and historians in the world to do it properly. For in one's reading or in the archives, one is always coming across this remarkable, determined, and intelligent character, often hated, always suspect, but indispensable. After all, his shop had the finest goods the world had to offer. And he had mysterious means at his disposal. With just a pen and a sheet of paper, he could dispatch money abroad, and equally miraculously could receive it back himself...

for more on this area, it's well worth reading these two books:
Double Entry: How the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world – and how their invention could make or break the planet by Jane Gleeson-White
Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk by Peter L Bernstein

Fizzles, Thursday, 20 August 2020 11:59 (six months ago) link

Interesting stuff Fizzles. Must admit to being lost pretty much from the get-go; if Braudel discards the glory of wealth for the glory of intelligence, why a focus on greatness as "influence and supremacy in relation to others"? Surely that is usually acheived through wealth? You could then argue said wealth derives from intelligence, but in that case, why set up the opposition in the first place?

Daniel_Rf, Thursday, 20 August 2020 12:09 (six months ago) link

more historiographical and conceptual showmanship:

How is one to set down a coherent account of all these thousands of details, of all these sound waves bouncing back and forth, jostling and interfering with each other? Above all, how is one to hazard an overall diagnosis on such a foundation? How is one to extract a meaningful history from this succession of short-lived pictures, some of them mere mirror images?'

and his proposed solution of sorts:

Possibly the best way to try to grasp the extent, the nature, the force, and the duration of Italian influence abroad is to proceed by taking a series of cross sections over time, at different dates between 1450 and 1650. When juxtaposed, these successive maps of Italy's foreign presence should combine to create a history of Italy outside Italy, covering an area far greater than the peninsula itself

so far, sounds reasonable, even mundane...

The greatness of Italy was one of the dimensions of the world, as it is important to point out – and to keep pointing out

In one sense, this is a truism - he is pointing out that the greatness of Italy was not confined to Italy, but was part of and helped define, much of the European 'world'. But in two other sense, again, it feels somewhat strange:
1) Again, greatness as a thing - you find yourself asking (and Braudel himself asks), of what is it composed?
2) The notion of the world having dimnensions. Presumably only some things graduate to or exist at a level where they can be called 'dimensions' in this way. What is this conception of history? What might a 'dimension of the world' be today? It's hard to say that US-Chinese relations aren't an axis of this sort, or that networked connectivity is a dimension in itself as well.

Braudel expands on 1, without answering it:

We shall then have to analyse and dissect these successive stages of greatness. Did they obey some inner destiny? Do they form a logical sequence? We shall see that power and culture do not always mingle in equal proportions, nor necessarily go hand in hand, and that Italy's foreign influence is not from start to finish a simple matter of the diffusion of precious goods. And this finding bears witness both to the singular destiny of Italy during these centuries of the early modern period, and to other examples where greatness of a similar order can be recognised.

Again, the question - why would you want to do this? In one answer lies also a definition: that 'greatness' in Braudel's terms, defines the world, gives it a dimension, and future shape. (But is this the sole preserve of 'greatness'? It's hard for our age... or a cynical person... to feel greatness has much to recommend itself as a term. We may choose 'influence', 'power', but maybe these don't actually quite do the job that is needed. Hegemony does some of the work these days, I guess, though in a wider sense than the purely Gramscian.

Fizzles, Thursday, 20 August 2020 12:20 (six months ago) link

Daniel - these are good questions. I don't have the answers, but I do think what you're highlighting there is a central tension in the book.

I think also that excerpt wasn't entirely fair or was confusing, as it was a rhetorical manner of speaking by Braudel - he himself does not dismiss wealth (which, yes, derives from intelligence), but suggests some of his readers may prefer an emphasis on the cultural. as a significant historian of capitalism tho, the manner of wealth and what it entails is certainly one of his main areas of interest.

This argument becomes particularly relevant in the (later) section I'm on at the moment, which is to do with the relation between humanism and the renaissance, at which he does a fair bit of picking.

Fizzles, Thursday, 20 August 2020 12:23 (six months ago) link

i'm actually finding this thread the perfect place to record thoughts in an informal way - not quite 'learning', or formal analysis, but a way of sifting and throat-clearing as I read through. which is one way of saying it won't always make sense.

Fizzles, Thursday, 20 August 2020 12:25 (six months ago) link

excellent stuff Fizzles. Are you reading an English translation?

Neil S, Thursday, 20 August 2020 13:40 (six months ago) link

lol no. tho the translation v much has the cadences of a french translation in not a good way. terrible misprints too. not a good imprint. good book tho.

Fizzles, Thursday, 20 August 2020 17:20 (six months ago) link

sorry that should be “lol yes i am reading an english translation”.

Fizzles, Thursday, 20 August 2020 17:55 (six months ago) link

Braudel covers the relationship of Italian city states (predominantly Genoa and Venice at this stage), prior to the two centuries he's covering, to Byzantium, Islam and Western Europe. Why? At the beginning of a long section titled The Subjugation of Three Civilisations, Braudel states (supporting his view that although he's going to take 'cross-sections', one must look forward and back 'enlist the passage of time as an accomplice'):

The whole* can be seen as an immense echo chamber, a zone of diaspora and influence, spatial evidence of domination (or perhaps we should call it 'imbalance'), of a very special kind – and all this had been achieved well before 1450 [the start of his intended 'period'], in the course of a long history of effort, renewed endeavour, patience, and strategic victories. A few words must be said on this score, otherwise the "present" – 1450 – cannot be explained. How did Italy, or rather a handful of Italian cities, a few men in all, succeed one day in acquiring and holding on to a position of domination vis-à-vis Byzantium, Islam, and western Europe? The last had been a slow developer, but the first two had long been worlds of splendour and superiority.

Fizzles, Wednesday, 26 August 2020 15:33 (five months ago) link

Byzantium first, whose decline he tracks from the Fourth Crusade of 1204 (that 'orgy of capitalism' - the phrase from Lujo Brentano I mentioned earlier - makes me want to find out more) to its fall to the Turks in 1453. He covers the importance of the Black Sea route to Persia, via Genoese and Venetian held ports such as Kaffa (Theodosia) and La Tana (at the mouth of the Don, today ruins 30 miles outside Rostov), and how that pepper and spice route was closed by Tamerlane's ravages. In a poetic phrase: "The Black Sea now had only its own produce to offer: timber, grain, Caucasian slaves, dried fish, and caviar."

With the loss of the gold mines of Macedonia, Byzantium could no longer mint pure currency, the Italian coinage was more sought after - with the Byzantine currency in a constant state of depreciation. Italian merchants also 'appropriated public revenue' (how?) and controlled the grain and gold markets (again, how? - this was clearly a skill of the Italian merchants and merchant cities, as we'll see wrt the French fairs, but how did they do it? Does this relate to their technocratic skill in accounting and shifting of money? Presumably yes, but I'd still like to know the mechanics of it.)

FASHION NOTE: Braudel notes that an early symbol of changing power balance is that the 'still-gilded youth' of Byzantium, started wearing Latin headdress with Persian and Turkish costume. Note by me: Interesting that it's often headdresses - because they are a comparatively low-cost and obvious way to dandify (rather than having to change all your wardrobe for example?

Braudel notes of Constantinople's severely weakened state, that Italian merchants should have been more aware of the dangers of needing to support and hold an intrinsically weak Constantinople, but suggests that this is never a merchant's view:

To the merchant, the potential two birds in the bush mattered less than the one in the hand (what is the French original of this translation i wonder): business, markets, control of key routes – whatever the political and economic disarray of the Black Sea, the Balkan peninsula, Asia Minor, or the Greek islands).

to which i say lol capitalism. HOWEVER wd also note that Braudel ends on the point that once Constantinople had fallen to the Turks, the Venetians rapidly set about creating a pragmatic and peaceful relationship with the Sultan. As will often be suggested, mercantile interests often enable stable transactional relationships between conflicting empires, dynasties and states.

Additional questions:

  • Why an 'orgy of capitalism'?
  • How did Italian merchants gain control of key Byzantine trades and currency?

Fizzles, Wednesday, 26 August 2020 15:49 (five months ago) link

full list of my main questions so far:

*- What is the nature of the 'structure' he talks about? (Is it really purely 'just' the progress of capitalism, with 'greatness' its periodic high-water marks?)
*- How will he deploy his dialectic?
*- What the hell does Braudel think he's up to?
*- Why an 'orgy of capitalism'?
*- How did Italian merchants gain control of key Byzantine trades and currency?

Think I'm making some progress on 2 & 3 fwiw lads.

Fizzles, Wednesday, 26 August 2020 15:51 (five months ago) link

oh and noted from up above that it only required a few 'men' for Italian supremacy, I would be interested in the role of women relating to renaissance humanism and the mercantile/capitalist revolution.

I can't help but believe it must be more significant than a lot of the standard language of older histories will allow.

Fizzles, Wednesday, 26 August 2020 15:53 (five months ago) link

i have not read this book and i don't know anything about it

but "memory and the mediterranean" is one of my favorite books of all time

the late great, Wednesday, 26 August 2020 17:14 (five months ago) link

thanks tlg. i’ve read large chunks of his capitalism and civilisation trilogy, but there he’s processed and is presenting a lot of information and it’s less quixotic than this (unless you deem that astonishing annals project to turn raw data into accurate pictorial history capable of representing the previously indivisible as quixotic, which it may be reasonable to do). that one you’ve recommended looks like it will have a similar manner to Out of Italy.

Fizzles, Wednesday, 26 August 2020 17:53 (five months ago) link

Next up in the Subjugation of Three Civilisations – Islam.

The story Braudel tells is effectively one of transactional engagement and respect. He points out that although, 'the West' having lost the Crusades, they lost a significant positional footprint on the 'Asiatic mainland', Christians retained control of the Mediterranean sea.

This creates one of those boundary areas of complexity and engagement, which are generally so fascinating I think. But the story here, as with the loss of Constantinople in 1453 is one of engagement by merchants on both sides, with Italians 'coming and going as they pleased' in the main Levantine ports of Syria and Egypt, and north African ports on the Barbary coast in latter day Libya, Tunisia and Morocco.

There's a fascinating picture of the Sahara trade (compare with the Black Sea goods): of dates, black slaves, elephant tusks, ostrich feathers, and gold dust from Sudan (as with the Caucasus slaves in the Black Sea, it's clear that slavery was of intrinsic value to the building of what I'll call for shorthand, complying with Braudel's translator, 'Italian greatness.'

It was interesting reading at the same time two current day pieces about Sudan:

This from the Foreign Policy Institute. It is, as you might expect, the standard 'western' geopolitical view, on the possibility of Sudan as a country 'in transition', examining the possibility becoming more widely integrated into 'the global community' by reducing its reputation for illicit activities.

A major part of Sudan’s problem today is geography. Sudan abuts seven countries and shares a vast shoreline with the Red Sea, positioning the state at the heart of some of the most endemic areas of militant activity in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

With Khartoum as a major staging post on the channel for sub-Saharan and wider Middle Eastern 'irregular' migrants into Europe. This necessarily means that it's also seen as a conduit for terrorism, though it seems the evidence is quite vague on that, with quite a lot of 'could's and 'is likely to's' with 'open-source evidence [..] currently not robust enough to conclude that this is the case'.

Still, that whole Sahel strip is awash with instability at the moment, and it's not unreasonable to see Sudan at the moment as central to geopolitical considerations.

This excellent piece shows what it's like to be on the other side of that geopolitical viewpoint - the viewpoint of a Sudanese woman who likes global travel.

Travelling the world as an Arab-African, as a Muslim female, as a solo traveler is certainly difficult and complicated. But will I stop travelling? Absolutely not. I am just more selective as to where I go – the countries that are open and won’t put me through an inquisition just because I want to visit.

Testimony of this sort is vital to understand the nature of global movement in a world where population flows and migrant movement of all sorts is going to become far more fluid. (I read the other day that Lake Chad, which feeds the Sahel, that narrow fertile strip, in which most of the capital cities of African countries east to west are based, is drying up – just one specific example of how climate change will drive global migration in a way which western countries are not set up for).

Why am I diverting from Braudel? Because one of the enticing things about reading history is the flattening of time into a space - the telescopic perspective that brings everything into one changing place.

That gold dust from Sudan led to a number of Italian merchants to try and enter the North African hinterland and Sahara, although Braudel says no testimonies survive apart from that of a Genoese, Antonio Malfante, who made it as far as Tuat in 1417.

While Italian merchants were trying overland, Portuguese caravels were racing via the African western seaboard to open up a route to the valuable pepper and spice trade. Apparently the first attempt at this was in 1291, launched by the Vivaldi brothers out of Portugal, which nevertheless ended 'with obscure loss of life and possession' somewhere on the Guinea coast.

Vasca de Game managed it eventually, which results in an amusing anecdote, which ends the chapter

on May 21, 1498, as Vasco de Gama's ships were at anchor in Calicut Bay, there arrived to meet his emissaries two Moors of Tunis, who spoke Catalan and Genoese. "How the devil did you come here?" they exclaimed. The Portuguese reply is revealing: "Vimos busker cristãos e especiaria" ("We have come in search of Christians and spices"), they said.

Fizzles, Thursday, 27 August 2020 10:21 (five months ago) link

one month passes...

Completing Braudel's 'long external view' of the period preceding Italy's final long period of greatness, he looks at its relation to 'Western Europe.'

He's at pains to point out that Western Europe at this point should not be perceived as backward, but an up-and-coming economy, on which Italy could base profitable superiority. He speaks of the bipolarity of Europe at this point, with Flanders at the top and Italy at the bottom.

He then problematises this view, by pointing out that very far from being bipolar, you had significant items like the Flemish invention of oil painting, the invention of the modern footsoldier in the Swiss cantons, the Portuguese light trading caravel, and pre-eminent, France, with Gothic architecture, its Champagne fairs and universities.

I found his picture of power relations *confused* here - Italy emergent or exploiting, an aggregator of European technocratic skills, or an eventual dominator of them? I think this confusion is unlikely to be Braudel's, and is probably mine, or it did occur to me while reading how much the depiction of power relations in written history is based on prepositions, whose nuance may be peculiarly subject to translation. Even the internal dynamics of a metaphor may be prepositional and subject to the same translated distortion. The grammar of history may at times merge quite closely with the grammar of language.

Braudel makes a big thing of French encirclement... actually there's a good example of what I was just talking about when he starts talking about encirclement. Of Italian emergence from being 'only a face in the crowd in the newly diversified Europe':

It was not a question purely of of intellectual or eminence or cultural prowess. Underlying Italian predominance, there very soon stood revealed economic sources of superiority.

What do the dynamics of that sentence tell us about Braudel's perception of historical process. It's not... clear? 'Underlying but very soon revealed' is a complex mechanic.

Hennnnnnyway. Encirclement. Braudel makes a big thing about Italy being able to encircle France via its maritime routes, first Genoa, and then Venice, with long haul trade, the so-called 'di largo respiro' via Aigues-Mortes, Valencia, Seville, Cape Finisterre, then non-stop (ie at no French ports) to Southampton, London and Bruges, for cloth, tin and lead.

I was confused why this encirclement mattered, really, given that Braudel also makes a big thing of Italian mercantile dominance of the beating heart of Western Europe - the great Champagne and Geneva fairs. But I think it was because of the social, political and financial disruption of the 100 Years War, or 100 Years of dynastic spats and conflicts and general disruption.

Regardless, I do find something highly romantic about the italian establishment of the maritime trade routes: woollen cloth from Burgundy (ie Flanders and the Netherlands, tin and lead from England, transacting with spices, pepper, sugar, perfumes and silk from the Middle and Far East. The galleys connecting Levantine trade with Baltic shipping and goods via the Hanseatic ports.

Braudel decides to finish his view of the relation of Italy to these three superpowers, with an image rather than a commentary, of the galeres da mercato system of Venice.

These were state built galleys (though which only used their oars into and out of port, under sail the rest of the time) auctioned out to the highest bidder, who would then sell its space to other merchants who had cargo to move.

By 1450 the system was fully in operation:

  • Romanian galleys that went to La Tana and Trebizond
  • The Aigues-Mortes galleys heading to Flanders
  • The Syrian and Alexandrine galleys
  • The Barbary Galleys, plying the north African coast, and eventually including Egypt as they did so.
And i do think its a deft touch to conclude this section of how Italy 'subjugated' three civilisations with that image so-called, a perfect picture of not just Italian power, but the mercantile nature of it, at the start of the period Braudel is examining.

Fizzles, Tuesday, 29 September 2020 20:59 (four months ago) link

one interesting new definition of greatness to add to the complex and shifting notion at the heart of this book. Braudel considers Venice exemplary of Italy's greatness, as at its centre was 'prosperity built up to the detriment of others'.

Fizzles, Tuesday, 29 September 2020 21:00 (four months ago) link

I should tear myself away from this thread and read the books. But right now all I can do is say, Go Fizzles!

dow, Wednesday, 30 September 2020 06:40 (four months ago) link

(Also, I'll soon be back in the sea of W.E.B. Du Bois.)

dow, Wednesday, 30 September 2020 06:41 (four months ago) link

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