Dangers and Rewards for Renaissance Merchants

David Kute

Honors 107 Collegium


Professor Ciavolella


          In fourteenth century Italy, international trade was a driving sector of the urban economy (JN, pg.126). At the center of this trade, and the Italian Renaissance economy, stood the figure of the merchant. Oftentimes, the merchant acted as the intermediary between his own country and foreign peoples. The merchant was a popular figure, and Italian literature reflected this. Three texts I will examine deal with the merchant and his journeys. In Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, Goro Dati’s Secret Book, and Amerigo Vespucci’s Letters from a New World, certain themes are prevalent when dealing with merchants and their travels. It is my contention that the travels of traders are depicted in these texts as being full of risk, yet also capable of yielding great rewards. However, despite the similarities, the writings of Boccaccio, Dati, and Vespucci are also entirely different in their nature and purpose.

            Boccaccio’s fictional character Andreuccio encounters difficulties when he travels outside of his own environment to do business. Andreuccio is a merchant from Perugia who goes to Naples to buy horses. In Naples, he displays youth and inexperience (GB, pg.97) and reveals his cache of five hundred gold florins to locals, including a Sicilian woman. The woman, upon seeing his money, plots to deceive him by pretending to be his long lost sister. Andreuccio falls for her trap, and upon staying at her house for the night, he is led into an outside alleyway, where he cannot re-enter the house. Thereupon, Andreuccio discovers that he has lost his clothes and money, and is warned to leave the woman and her household for good, or he may also lose his life. In this part of the story, Boccaccio alludes to the difficulties the merchant class encountered in traveling to foreign lands. Once Andreuccio leaves his own city, Perugia, he becomes vulnerable and the target of thieves. He is a stranger in another land. Locals, including the Sicilian woman’s neighbors(GB, pg.105), do not know him. No one can vouch for him(GB, pg.105), outside of his friends at the inn, and he has no protection of the law. He is also unaware that the district the Sicilian woman lives in is called The Fleshpots (GB, pg.99). Therefore, the merchant, in traveling outside of his own environment, faced many career hazards, largely due to being unfamiliar with the places he visited. Through a turn of fortune, all turns out well for Andreuccio in the end. Yet, Boccaccio’s tale hints at the dangers merchants faced, in traveling outside their own home.

            Italian merchant Goro Dati’s personal accounts in his Secret Book also detail the realities merchants faced abroad. Dati mentions two different incidences of financial trouble for his company, both related to conducting business in Spain. He writes in 1412: “And I remember that eight years ago I underwent many adversities on account of my business in Catalonia, and that last year I had to take care not to be arrested for debt by the Commune of Florence.”(GD, pg. 128) Dati also mentions troubles in trading with Spain in the 1390’s (GD, pg 125). In the earlier case, he mentions that his company would “have had to make good part of the debts amounting to about 950 florins that were owed to the company in Catalonia and elsewhere, which were not recoverable at that time.” (GD, pg.125) It seems that in Spain and elsewhere, it was hard for the company to collect payments that were owed. Dati’s company also dealt with internal problems, as mention is made of a certain Antonio di Segna, who was responsible for “treachery.” It is not clear what di Segna’s role was, but it seems it was possibly related to stealing company finances. Both the referred treachery and the inability to collect payments were examples of hazards in doing business in foreign lands. Dati also mentions losing 250 florins when traveling on the Riviera, an obvious case of theft that parallels Boccaccio’s account of Andreuccio (GD, pg. 126). In the later incidences of company troubles, the principal actor is Simone, whom Dati mentions in his earlier account as being sent to Spain to take care of matters. Troubles arise in Spain, and Dati is faced with lawsuits at home and bad credit. Simone, meanwhile, has to renege on his offer of silk and gold cloth to the King of Spain, and “things went from bad to worse.”(GD, pg.130) Dati then mentions unfair legal proceedings against him and his partner in Spanish courts, and travels through toilsome winter weather to help Simone. But “it didn’t turn out well for us, on account of the falsity of the Spaniards,” (GD, pg.131) he writes. Dati concludes that he had only acquired “toil and sorrow” on his trip (GD, pg.131). Again, as Dati’s account clearly explains, the merchant class encountered great difficulty in conducting business abroad. Dati’s company has persistent problems in Spain, due to inability to collect debts, inside treachery compounded by the distance from the company headquarters, and failure to deliver on promises to powerful local officials. Dati is also robbed when traveling abroad, and believes his company is treated unfairly by the Spanish courts. Overall, the experience of trading abroad is disastrous for Dati and his companions. Again, like Boccaccio’s merchant Andreuccio, his experience is a testament to the realities traders encountered while traveling, and just how much it was possible affairs could turn for the worse. Doing business in foreign lands was a difficult proposition.

            Italian seafarer and merchant Amerigo Vespucci also describes difficulties when traveling around the world. Vespucci left accounts of four voyages he led to the New World at the end of the fifteenth century. Traveling in new lands, there was much that was unfamiliar to Vespucci. The lands he encountered were far stranger than those visited by the trader in Boccaccio’s fictional tale and Dati’s business recordings. The animals, plant species, and people were unprecedented and unknown to the European imagination. Difficulties were also present: bad weather (AV, pg.91, 93), traveling long distances without relief (AV, pg.77), attacks by cannibals (AV, pg.79, 88), and natives (AV, pg. 72, 81). At the “Isle of Giants,” Vespucci and his companions met resistance from the locals: “We fired two shots of mortar at them, more to scare them than to harm them, and at the report they all fled into the woods; and so we left them, and it seemed to us that we had survived a most dangerous day.”(AV, pg. 84) Such encounters were actually commonplace on Vespucci’s voyages, and illustrated the dangers traveling posed to the merchant. In many cases, bodily harm and mortality were at risk by interacting with the inhabitants of the new lands. He also tells of enduring “many dangers and labors with the Christians themselves who were on that island with Columbus….” (AV, pg. 85) Even in a Spanish colony, Vespucci’s expedition dealt with rough treatment from fellow Europeans. On his voyages to the New World, Vespucci met with dangers and tribulations. As a merchant, this came with the territory.

        Another aspect common in the writing of Boccaccio, Dati, and Vespucci was the potential returns the merchant could gain. Trade was a highly profitable endeavor, and if conducted successfully, the pay off could be huge. Vespucci’s travels, which were highly successful, attested to this. At the end of the first voyage, he returned to Spain with many slaves, whom he sold. On the second voyage, upon meeting some natives, Vespucci discovered “that they had great quantities of oriental pearls, and quite fine ones.” (AV, pg. 84) Upon return to Spain, the expedition was once again “well received, with honor and profit.”(AV, pg. 85) The third and fourth voyages, on behalf of Portugal and heading in a more southern direction, were not as materially successful. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s trips showed that merchants could indeed benefit from travel to new lands.

       Boccaccio’s story of Andreuccio also illustrates the large profit a merchant was capable of accumulating. Andreuccio first sets out from Perugia for Naples to get involved in the horse trade, in which he hopes to make a decent profit (GB, pg.97). Later, through a set of lucky circumstances, Andreuccio survives being buried alive, and returns to Perugia with a dead Bishop’s ring, equal to the value of his stolen money. Through both Andreuccio’s motive in going to Naples in the first place, and the fortunate twist of events which returns his money to him through the newfound ring, Boccaccio illustrates the merchant’s ability to obtain wealth. Of all the professional classes, wealth was most accessible to the merchant. For the merchant, the possibility of obtaining wealth was a viable reality.

       Dati also experiences success in business, and achieves moderate wealth. Dati writes in the mid 1390’s, “I did better than I had anticipated, because the business in Valencia turned out well for me.”(GD, pg.126) This was one instance of success. There are other examples found in Dati’s writing. During the year 1393, Dati made three hundred and twenty five florins in profit (GD, pg. 126). It is true that Dati eventually went bankrupt and his company had to close due to the troubles that came with doing business in Spain. However, there were times that Dati’s business was moderately successful. It can also be speculated that if events in Spain had worked out for Dati, he would have gained huge profits. Thus, Dati’s account, like those of Vespucci and Boccaccio, illustrates how traders could make sizeable profits through traveling to foreign lands.

      While Boccaccio, Dati, and Vespucci are similar in describing aspects of merchant’s traveling, each of the three works is different because it has a certain purpose. Boccaccio’s tale is entirely fictional, and is likely meant solely for entertainment. There never was an Andreuccio, although Boccaccio likely modeled his character and his adventures after contemporary aspects of mercantile life. Parts of Andreuccio’s tale are humorous, such as when Andreuccio smells really bad; ironic, as when Andreuccio returns to Perugia with a dead Bishop’s valuable ring; and a little far fetched, such as in the case of the Sicilian woman deceiving Andreuccio and his joining a band of thieves. Dati, too has a certain purpose in writing his book. Dati leaves precise accounts of his transactions and his business dealings, and often refers to ledgers which give fuller accounts of his trade. His book really just records his autobiographical information, his religious leanings, and his companies rising and falling fortunes. All of his account is true, and is meant to be a record of what has transpired. Boccaccio has general readers and audiences in mind when he writes his tales in the Decameron. Dati, on the other hand, is really writing for himself and a small audience. Vespucci also writes for a certain audience. His work is dedicated to Piero Soderini, a high level official of Vespucci’s native Florence. The patron of his voyages, the Kings of Spain and Portugal, are not the intended audience, although Vespucci mentions that he gave the Kings details of all his discoveries. As his trips are very special and extraordinary, the accounts in his book allude to Dante, classical Epicureanism, and other learned subjects and works that catered to a small audience well versed in the classics. The purpose behind Vespucci’s work is to make clear to Soderini the incredible marvels he encountered when traveling to the New World. While Dati’s trips and Boccaccio’s tales were nothing out of the ordinary, Vespucci’s adventures were outside of the European imagination. Unknown lands were the destination, and Vespucci meant to reveal all of this groundbreaking experience. Therefore, each piece of literature was written by different authors, for certain audiences, and with certain purposes in mind.

      The merchant faced both negative and positive aspects in conducting his trade. The career hazards associated with the merchant profession were many. At the same time, the rewards and possibility of financial gain were more accessible to the merchant class. These negative and positive realities associated with the merchant class can be found in the three contemporary writings I examined. As I have argued, the writings of Dati, Vespucci, and Boccaccio are similar in recognizing that the merchant faced great difficulties when traveling abroad and if successful could receive substantial financial gain, and different in that they are entirely different pieces of writing with certain purposes.



Works Cited


  1. Najemy, John M. Italy in the Age of Renaissance, 1300-1500. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.


  1. Bocaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron.


  1. Dati, Goro, Datini, Francesco, di Giovanni Niccolini de’ Sirigatti, Lapo. and Machiavelli, Bernardo in Vittore Branca, ed. Merchant Writers of the Italian Renaissance.


  1. Vespucci, Amerigo. Letter VI: “To Piero Soderini” in The First Voyage Around the World.