2022 IAS Dissertation Research Grant

Margo Weitzman (Ph.D. candidate, Rutgers University)

Mediated and Constructed Realities: India through the Eyes of Early Modern Italian Merchants

When the city of Florence, Italy held the funeral for merchant Filippo Sassetti in 1588, there was no body to be interred. After travelling to India with the Portuguese and acting as the merchant ambassador to the Medici Grand Dukes for six years, it is possible he was so charmed by his surroundings that he disappeared into the Indian landscape and never returned home. He was declared dead of jungle fever and mourned as a humanist intellectual who served as a bridge between the region of Tuscany and major Indian trading port cities. Prior to Sassetti’s travels, Italian perceptions of India had been informed primarily by Marco Polo’s Il Milione and its accompanying illustrations which interjected racial stereotypes, including Plinian humanoid imagery, exotic animals, naturalia, and depictions of merchant transactions highlighting the foraging of raw materials from Indian terrain. By the time of Sassetti’s supposed death, the India associated with precious materials from lands believed to be populated by monsters became a place of economic opportunity. The influence of the commercial intermediary as both interpreter and accumulator of cultural knowledge and art objects represents a significant crux of trade between Tuscany, Lisbon, and Goa that has yet to be fully explored.

My dissertation traces the ways in which Italian conceptions of India were transformed by Sassetti and his firm. It focuses on the mobility of objects and the role of the merchant in shaping knowledge, and it situates Tuscany within the intersecting and connected histories of global commerce. Immersing himself in the merchant culture of Cochin and Goa from 1582 to 1588, Sassetti served as a purchasing agent for the Medici and often coupled vivid empirical accounts of his experiences with diverse inventories in his letters which included, among many other objects, a coconut pulp, silks from China, Indian coins, and fabrics with hunting scenes made from embroidered pearls and gems. Eventually, Sassetti began to freely hand-select materials for the Grand Duke of Tuscany Francesco I de’ Medici, which put him in a position to influence the Italian reception of Indian art and culture. He provided new opportunities to associate a previously incomprehensible region with physical objects that could be touched, discussed, cataloged, and sometimes even consumed. I argue that it was the travelling merchant and his intermediaries who ultimately played a major role both in influencing early modern Italian taste and desire for Indian goods and in shaping the courtly intellectual conceptualization of India as a place.

Officers & Contacts