L’entreprise florentine et la place de Lyon : l’activité de la banque Salviati au milieu du XVIe siècle
Résumé de thèse, Nadia Matringe
Texte publié le 1er février 2014
According to a long historiographical tradition, which culminating in R. Gascon’s monumental 1971 study on Lyons, Italian businessmen completely dominated Lyons’ economic life in the 16th century. Paradoxically, this perspective holds the field despite a lack of adequate extensive research into the archives of Italian firms: the precise modalities of their intervention in the marketplace remain largely unknown. Certain crucial aspects in particular have been neglected, such as their banking practices — which are difficult to extract from notarial, juridical or fiscal sources. Their analysis through the bankers’ private records require a technical and tedious scrutiny, which can often deter many an academic historian. The adaptation of Italian firms to the pre-existing local economic structures, which was a sine qua non of the durability of their presence in the marketplace, also failed to arouse the attention it deserved. Nevertheless, these issues are essential to understand the functioning of the firms and the marketplace − which is why I have found it necessary to re-examine the role played by Italian firms in Lyons, using the archives of one of the most important of them in the 16th century: the Salviati Bank.
The Archivio Salviati, maintained in the Scuola Normale of Pisa, is the largest such archival collection after that of Datini, a merchant of Prato. It contains several thousands of business records from banking, trade and production houses, covering several (15th to 19th) centuries. This archive is an essential component of the history of international trade, thanks to the preservation of continuous series of books from the opening to the closing of various companies. The Lionese Bank of the Salviati provides one of the richest collections. Far from being a mere testimony of the activity of a single enterprise, the Salviati archives also document the activity of many other Italian, German and Spanish firms, established all across Europe. Furthermore, they shed light on the functioning of several European marketplaces. Thus, the purpose of my work was not merely the production of a monograph. Placing myself within the actor’s perspective, I have tried to expose what the various types of transactions and the way they are recorded reveal about the strategies of Italian firms and about the position of Lyon in international trade. Targeted incursions into the records of other Florentine companies (Martelli, Capponi) helped me to test some general hypotheses about the functioning of Florentine business. The notarial records of Paris and Tours proved to be a valuable source of information on the French mercantile environment — of which Italian documents offer only a very restricted vision.
The extensiveness of documentation compelled me to impose a chronological stricture on my research. I decided to focus on the 1540’s, a mostly unknown period of Lionese economic life, which is still considered to be the time of the fairs’ apogee and of the triumph of Tuscan businessmen on the international scene. I tried to understand the reasons for Italian success and the grounds of the Lionese economic prosperity. My thesis, titled “Florentine enterprise and Lyons marketplace: the activity of the Salviati bank in the middle of the sixteenth century”, is divided in two main parts. The first part focuses on the structures and the operating modes of Florentine firms: it explains how the implantation on Lyons’ marketplace influenced the forms of organization adopted by the Italians. The second part is dedicated to the study of the commercial and banking activity of Italian firms in Lyons: it shows what entrepreneurial strategies reveal of the functioning of Lyons’ marketplace, its position in the French Kingdom and in the European system of exchange. This thesis led to different results concerning three main themes: the development of commission trading, the functioning of Lyons’ exchange market, and the supposed technical interstices between different categories of economic operators.
I approached commission trading first from a formal perspective, through an analysis of the constitution and the maintaining of business relations; and then from a functional perspective, by focusing on the flexibility it provides to Italian firms. My work underlines that the success of commission trading depended not only on the maintaining of good relations with commercial partners, but also on the economic structures of the marketplace. Italian firms established in Lyons were often solicited to execute international funds transfers. This intense demand ensured the profitability of their commission business, which relied on the perception of a small percentage of each transaction executed for the principals. The efficiency of the information system determined the capacity of the principals to take advantage of market fluctuations when placing their orders. In this respect, the importance of commission trading in the great commercial centres, such as Antwerp and Lyons, reflects their modernity. From the point of view of Italian firms, the development of commission trading can contribute to explain the diminution of their staff (in particular, the reduction of branches created abroad) in the early modern age.
The study of Lyons’ exchange market occupies a central position in this thesis. Credit practices stand in the foreground of such analysis. As it appears in the Salvati records, Lyons’ exchange market relied on the credit mobilized through time deposit: most depositories were exchange operators who sought to settle their accounts with the Salviati. The capital lent to them came from a variety of sources. Specialized in commission trading, the Salviati, like many of their counterparts, negotiated almost exclusively with other people’s money. Their main sleeping partners were neither members of the firm nor Florentine commercial partners, but great bankers and financiers of Jewish origin (the Mendes in particular). This source of funding indicates that the cosmopolitanism of the marketplace allowed Florentine companies to preserve a margin of autonomy regarding their mother houses and their city of origin. Finally, the study of the Salviati exchange operations attested the great flexibility offered by the bill of exchange as a credit instrument. Not only do the Salviati provide long term loans through special exchange operations known as ricorsa. They also had recourse to an exchange contract whose existence has never before been brought into light: multiple rates bills of exchange. Such bills allowed them to grant short term loans at a tenfold interest rate of return.
Abundance of credit available in the fairs encouraged the development of compensation mechanisms, often noticed by the historiography, without ever being reconstructed. Analysis of such mechanisms revealed the functional relations between marketplaces and the process of market integration at different levels. I have attempted to show how the capital generated by international trade often ended up paying off debts in the local trade. The role played by Lyons in the clearance of regional and international payments was thus made explicit. The reconstruction of some series of arbitrages yet led me to question the idea that the marketplace occupied a central position in the European compensatory flux. It indeed highlighted the role of intermediation played by the Castilian fairs in the relations between Lyons and the South of Italy, and that played by Antwerp in the relations between Lyons and the Iberian Peninsula.
The supposed technical interstices between different merchant groups through time and space, span the study of the different sectors of activity of the company. This study revealed the involvement of French businessmen in international trade, and their familiarity with the art of exchange. Far from being the foreign businessmen factors they are often presented as being in the historiography, the French merchant constituted an autonomous group the Italians had to deal with. My research also led me to question the hypothesis of a Genoese, then Flemish advance in the field of financial techniques. The very speculative and intangible orientation of the Salviati Bank’s activity invalidates the hypothesis of a subordination of Florentine exchange business to merchandise trade, as opposed to the great liberty of the lucrative exchange performed by the Genoese and the Lucquese active in Lyons and Bizensone at the end of the century. Finally, the Salviati records contain evidence of the early development in the French Realm and inside Italian networks active in the Mediterranean, of techniques which are traditionally described as typically north European, such as commercial discount and the transfer of commercial titles.
This thesis thus proposes a new conception of the firms and of the marketplace, by focusing on the interdependency of participants of varied origins, on the complementary links between marketplaces in the European system of exchange and the integration of markets at different levels (local, regional and international).