In the fifth circle of Dante's Paradiso, the poet and his guide Beatrice encounter the spirit of his Florentine Crusading ancestor Cacciaguida. Together they discourse on the contrasts between Florence as it is now and as Cacciaguida knew it, in the mid-12th century. The city then was only a fifth of its present compass, Cacciaguida tells them. Its population has since been swelled by a host of immigrants; the grandfather of one who now prospers changing coin (cambio) and doing commerce (merca), was, he says, a countryman begging his way about Semifonte. The citizens lived soberly and simply; Sardanapalus (the type of luxurious living) had not yet entered to teach them new, ostentatious and wasteful manners. There is a familiar ring to this denunciation of consumerism, with its nostalgia for a past of simpler, thriftier ways of living. What Dante could not see, but that those two key words, cambio and merca, betray, was that what he identified as moral degeneration was in reality the social consequence of a commercial revolution which, between his ancestor's time and his own, had for Florentines irreversibly shifted the scale of the structures of mercantile exchange and the perceptions of the use of money. This commercial revolution, and the changes in the fabric of European commerce that it generated over the three centuries from 1200 to 1500, provide the themes for Peter Spufford's splendid book.
LRB 20 February 2003 | PDF Download