Capitalism in Motion – A Brief Talk with Dr. Carlo Taviani (GHI Rome)

The GiD Lab panel discussion “Capitalism in Motion. Imagining, Transforming, and Inventing Economic Forms over Time” will take place on 5 November 2020, from 4 to 6 pm as a livestream on YouTube. Dr. Carlo Taviani, Project Researcher at the German Historical Institute in Rome (GHI Rome), wrote the concept. We spoke with him about his research and the event.

You are currently working as a Project Researcher at the GHI Rome. Could you briefly outline your research topics?

My project moves in two directions. Firstly, I am currently focusing on a diaspora of merchants from the city of Genoa at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century. They traded people (enslaving them) and commodities between the Maghreb, West Africa, and the New World. The idea behind this project is to examine the unexplored papers of an archive folder by folder, looking at these businesses. It is usually said that this business was a product of the momentum of “explorations” and “discoverers”. My project studies how the celebrated European economies and finance industry affected the history of Africa and the Atlantic through trading people and exploiting resources.

A second part of the project looks at how these and other traders did business through contracts, partnerships, and organizations. This part is more focused on theory and methodology. It takes as its starting point a previous project which looked at an early form of public debt and corporation in the city of Genoa, the Bank of San Giorgio (1407-1805), and how it is connected to what we call “business corporations” today.     

The idea and concept for the “Capitalism in Motion” event came from you. How did you arrive at the idea and how relevant do you think historical perspectives on the topic are for current developments?

Economists in the recent decades have introduced in their field the concept of “institutions”, which we can briefly describe as norms, rules, and also complex organizations (business corporations, banks, etc.). The idea behind this concept is that it is important to use qualitative analyses in addition to quantitative studies within economics and economic history. “Institutions” help scholars to study those phenomena which are not directly—or not only—related to the measurement of numbers. Some scholars have also focused on the concept of institutional migration, that is how institutions have changed over time. We can define “change” in various ways, as hybridization, replication, imitation, innovation, etc., depending on what exactly happened to an institution.

Some scholars have looked at this process of change over time, assuming that institutions always change because of rational reasons and because of supposed economic growth. We have to consider, however, that institutions don’t change; people change them, and people are not always rational. Thus, it is important to consider the role of people over time. This is why history is important in the study of this subject.

My impression is that in recent decades economists have increasingly shifted their approach and considered institutions in their models, but now it is time to introduce the tools developed by other fields, such as the humanities. Within the humanities—and I am particularly thinking of philology, archaeology, art-history, and history—scholars are used to considering how the role of people affected the reality over time, looking at how techniques, traditions, styles, habits, etc. transformed and caused innovation in physical and artistic objects, texts, etc. They have developed refined methodologies which could now be borrowed in the study of economics.

At the event you will discuss the topic with Dr. Stefania Gialdroni, Research Fellow at the Roma Tre University Law Department and Prof. Ron Harris, Kalman Lubowsky Professor of Law and History and former Dean at the Faculty of Law in Tel-Aviv University. Can you already give us a little insight today into what perspectives can be expected on the topic?

Both Harris and Gialdroni are experts in the history of law and have an interest in the Early Modern Age and even the Middle Ages. This is a rare expertise for scholars interested in the history of economic organizations and institutions. My aim is to discuss with them the possibility of looking at institutional migration with new fresh eyes. There is also a second aspect to my interest in their participation. Economic organizations, such as banks or business corporations, are intangible objects, i.e. we cannot touch them. We can see their buildings, products, the people who work for them, but we never have a physical experience with them. They—these organizations—have nevertheless a great impact on human life. Experts of law are used to considering economic institutions as a product of human imagination. This is the fictio of law. They are usually among the best scholars to address this topic.

More information about the online panel discussion “Capitalism in Motion”:

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