Interview with Francesca Trivellato


Francesca Trivellato is Barton M. Biggs Professor of History at Yale University, and a specialist in the social and economic history of early modern Italy, Europe, and the Mediterranean. Her work focuses on the culture and organization of trade and labor markets in the pre-industrial period. Recent interests include global history and the history of credit and minorities – all topics that she explored in The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period, a book that became an instant classic and in 2010 won a AHA Leo Gershoy Award and was co-winner of the Jordan Schnitzer Book Award. She is also the author of the forthcoming The Promise and Peril of Credit: What a Forgotten Legend About Jews and Finance Tells us about the Making of Europe’s Commercial Society. (Princeton University Press), and was co-editor of several volumes, among the others: Religion and Trade: Cross-Cultural Exchanges in World History, 1000-1900 (with Leor Halevi and Cátia Antunes) and Trans-regional and Transnational Families in Europe and Beyond: Experiences since the Middle Ages (with Christopher H. Johnsson, David Warren Sabean and Simon Teuscher).

Earlier in her career, Professor Trivellato wrote extensively on a subject directly connected to one of the themes of this project, that is, Venetian glass. In her first book Fondamenta dei vetrai. Lavoro, tecnologia e mercato a Venezia tra Sei e Settecento (which draws from a rich set of examples and datasets from archival sources), she analyses the labor markets and technological developments of Venice’s glass manufacturing during a period of nearly two hundred years (c. 1630-1797), a period characterized by a profound restructuring of foreign demand and the accompanying restructuring of the entire economic sector. Her analysis of the evolution of the main guild in Murano and the so-called “arti figlie” (daughter guilds) in Venice (e.g. glassbeads and mirror makers) pays particular reference to the role of women and immigrants in these industries. Her command of the technical aspects pertaining to glassmaking in pre-industrial Venice also provides a fundamental contribution to the study of material culture.

I therefore asked her some questions, to benefit from her perspective on the past and future of material culture studies with regard to the adoption of a socio-economic approach, an emphasis on global connection, and the importance of gender.

Rachele Scuro: When and why did you become interested in the intersection of material culture and social history?

Francesca Trivellato: I do not recall the first time I heard the expression “material culture” spoken in an academic context, but it was certainly after I had begun working on topics that can be subsumed under that rubric. In the 1990s, I was studying Venice’s glass manufacturing. My interest in the subject stemmed from questions about pre-industrial technology, the role of craft guilds in regulating competition, and the geographical and political determinants of innovation. In order to understand why glass makers in Murano produced some types of glass and not others, I had to reconstruct their chemical know-how, changes in European fashion, and colonial market demands. In other works, the study of material culture and economic history were not separable. But you asked about social history more specifically. In Murano, the dowries of reputed glassmakers’ daughters sometimes included a glass recipe. To keep a secret in a small place like Murano was difficult. But this example suggests something important: the glassmakers’ guild was not a collective owner of prized craft “secrets,” as is often assumed; rather, guild members competed with each other and protected their highly specialized know-how. Small differences, as always, could make a big difference in the pre-industrial world of incremental change.

What do you regard as the most fascinating result produced during the last years by the increased attention to material culture in historical studies?

Art historians, anthropologists, and folklorists have done this for a long time, but historians have only recently begun to exploit the potential of material artifacts to investigate cross-cultural exchanges. This is one of the areas where the study of material culture has gone mainstream and has yielded rewarding results. I was inspired by this trend when examining how manufactured goods such as Venetian glass beads or a natural product like Mediterranean coral acquired higher economic value and different symbolic meanings once transported to distant locations (the Western coasts of Africa or the Northern American continent in the case of beads and South Asia in the case of coral). I could cite many other examples. Indian cotton textiles are perhaps the best known. The historical study of material culture is an important way of addressing bigger questions about the pre-history of globalization, questions about exploitation and inequality and about cultural convergence and incommensurability.

Social and economic history are rarely seen in connection with the history of emotions. How do you think a consideration of material culture could foster new research in the history of emotions?

Already in the 1980s, some scholars used material culture (toys, to be more specific) to challenge Philippe Ariès’ well-known thesis according to which childhood did not constitute a separate age in European culture before the seventeenth century and that parents used to be less attached to children when infant mortality was very high. That is the earliest example I can think of a productive encounter between the historical study of material culture and emotions. But I also have to admit that this is not an area where I have great expertise. Germany and Australia come to mind as places where there are gigantic research programs and academic centers devoted to the history of emotions. I only follow their work from a distance.

How did the field of material culture studies influence your research in recent years?

The examples I gave above should give you a sense of my take on this question. I never planned to study material culture as such. Nor did I decide to work on the export of Venetian glass beads or the inter-continental trade of Mediterranean coral and Indian diamonds because they were good case-studies for the history of material culture. Rather, I was drawn to these topics by a set of historical and methodological questions, including one that traverses both my first and second books: How did economic actors operating in what Immanuel Wallerstein called the semi-periphery of the early modern world system devise their production and retail strategies? Think about it: Neither the glassmakers of Murano nor the Jewish merchants of Livorno had any family members in the port-cities of Africa, America, and Asia where the items they produced and sold ended up. Sending letters across the oceans took months and months. Before the internet, it was impossible to transmit images instantaneously. How did one choose whether to send yellow or blue beads to Senegal? Or in what shape to polish the coral fished in Tunisia that was being shipped to Madras? Did European producers adapt to local demand? Did they shape it? Did they learn by doing or did someone provide them with insider-knowledge from the start? A meticulous reconstruction of the artifacts that were consumed far away from their production sites sheds light on these important questions.

Did material culture studies shape your inter- and/or trans-disciplinary scholarship?

I strive to incorporate insights from a number of historiographical fields and disciplines in all of my work. Material culture studies are just one of them. Other colleagues in North America, notably Pamela Smith at Columbia, are pushing the cross-disciplinary boundaries of the history of material culture to new frontiers. The Making and Knowing Project she founded is an exciting initiative.

Do you think that material culture studies can help us reach a broader audience interested in historical writing?

Absolutely! A few years ago, the British Museum and BBC Radio 4 collaborated on a project called A History of the World in 100 Objects. It was fascinating and quite successful. I have seen glass beads on display in several museums of American Indian culture and history across the United States. But the accompanying explanations are generally vague. It would be interesting to dig deeper into the provenance and usage of those items and write more extensive descriptions for museum goers.

How do expect material culture studies to evolve in the future, especially in connection with global history?

Ideally, the study of material culture is already –to some extent– a collaborative effort but I suspect that it will become even more so in the near future. If our goal is to use material artefacts to study global and connected history, I suspect that historians will continue to join forces with experts from across and beyond academia to decipher both obscure and well-known items.

And what do you envision the trajectory of material culture studies to be in relation to gender and minorities’ history?

One of the fundamental contributions of gender analysis and the history of minorities is to debunk commonly-held assumptions about so-called “general history.” There is no a priori limit to the objects to which those approaches can and should be applied fruitfully.

Murano as depicted in Jacopo de’ Barberi’s famous aerial view of Venice in 1500 (public domain).

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