Capitalism in Motion – A Review

The GiD Lab online panel discussion “Capitalism in Motion. Imagining, Transforming, and Inventing Economic Forms over Time” demonstrated how the views of historians and scholars might contribute to the discussion on the development of capitalism over several centuries and into the modern era. Topics of discussion addressed in particular were the rise of business corporations in the medieval Mediterranean world and beyond, the invention and replication of economic tools – such as money, contracts and joint stock companies – and how the transformation and migration of key components of capitalism occurred across geographies, between cultures and over time. The event took place on 5 November 2020 at the Berlin Science Week and was organized by the German Historical Institute in Rome (GHI Rome) and the Central Office of the Max Weber Foundation in Bonn (MWS). In case you missed it, you can find a short event report by Madeleine Winkler and the recording here. 

Ingrid Greenfield (moderator)

Our panellists Stefania Gialdroni (RomaTre University), specialist for commercial law, Ron Harris (Faculty of Law, Tel-Aviv University), expert on business corporations and Carlo Taviani (GHI Rome), researcher on Genoese merchant networks of the Early Modern Age, as well as moderator and Art Historian Ingrid Greenfield (I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies) connected their research fields, exploring the overall context for the development of capitalism and the challenges the historical research fields are facing. The aim of the discussion was the role of human imagination in creating capitalism, the way people shared ideas and norms through speech acts and the way replication and innovation have interacted across geographical and cultural boundaries to forge institutions. In the examination of capitalism as a continuously developing construct, it became clear that the different projects of our panellists are connected to each other.

Stefania Gialdroni

Stefania Gialdroni introduced us to the “Superstar” of contracts in the era of the commercial revolution of the Middle Ages: the commenda (a contract between two parties: the travelling merchant and a capital investor). The origins of this contract are mysterious because it didn’t exist in Roman law but there had been an Islamic version in the 6th century, and it was geographically known in the Hanseatic region and Mediterranean Sea area from the 10th century onwards. Her research focuses on the origin and different influences that formed the commenda. The role of Pisa as a maritime republic was particularly significant, because it earned its commercial customs due to the dialogue with people from different parts of the world. What Gialdroni introduces in her work are the keywords of origin and influence. How much did the encounter of Pisan merchants with the Islamic world influence law, especially commercial law? Trying to visualize this influence, Greenfield and Gialdroni introduced us to examples from art history, such as “Afro-Portuguese art”, which you can find in the image-list below.

Ron Harris

Ron Harris is an expert on the very first business corporations and joint stock business corporations, known as the Dutch and the English East India Company. In this context, Harris explained the importance of the new oceanic trades that came with exploration and the need for England and the Netherlands to be able to compete with other countries. This introduced another important concept of innovation and competition. The organization innovation had on one hand a legal component and on the other hand a financial component. With the business corporation, England and the Netherlands became central economic players. A question from the audience, mentioning that the Roman ad Greek Empires had already traded with India, showed that the different circumstances formed different kinds of trading and that the innovation of business corporations in the 17th century was probably forced by concurrence. In response to a question about failure in the history of capitalism, it became clear that it depends on the point of view someone takes.

Carlo Taviani

Carlo Taviani studies the Genoese merchant networks and the migration of economic institutions in the Early Modern Age throughout the Mediterranean and Atlantic world to reconstruct the ancient network, biographies of Genoese merchants and their connection to Africa. The ancient Institutions Taviani is studying, such as the Banco di San Giorgio, show similarities to the first business corporations Harris is studying. It seems that 17th century England and the Netherlands looked back to history while founding their innovative business corporations. As our panellists discussed about influences and innovations, it became clear that it is methodologically highly challenging to deal with the migration of organizations, because there is no physical object to study. It could be useful to look at other disciplines and parallels in their studies, such as art history. Taviani asked how disciplines like economic or law history could enter into dialogue with the humanities as a kind of comparison – without just borrowing their methods.

During our panel discussion we offered the possibility of a chat wall where the audience was able to share thoughts, comments and questions that became part of the discussion. In addition, we posted the images that our panellists were talking about. You can find them in the list below:

Ron Harris

Ingrid Greenfield

Stefania Gialdroni

Carlo Taviani


This report was written by Madeleine Winkler. She is an art historian and is currently doing an internship in the public relations department of the Max Weber Foundation in Bonn.


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