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Monday, May 21, 2012

Fortune and the market 1

On November 17, 1400,a Florentine merchant named Ardingo de’ Ricci wrote a letter to some associates in Catalonia, assessing his current business activity, and concluding: “For these reasons we have not decided to traffic in these regions… and we have taken the part of navigating in the Levant, in order if possible not to diminish our resources until fortune finishes its course.” Christian Bec, from whose study I extract this long lost instance of the woes of a middleman, has ventured out from the usual pool of well known literary texts into the lesser known and ordinary texts of merchants to fix the significance and meaning of Fortuna and its courses in the early Renaissance; he found that merchants allude to fortune in a number of ways: to signify a storm at sea, an unexpected turn of events in a war, or, as with Ricci, a general commercial state.

What interests me in the latter is that clearly, a Ricci writing a letter to his investors today would use, without thinking, another word for fortune: market.

The referential range of “market” and “fortune” are, of course, not identical. In the current vogue for “markets in everything”, we still don’t see market used as a synonym for hurricane, or for the events of battle. Nor were the courses of fortune specified in terms of the supply and demand of commodities. The meeting of our terms is oblique, but not, I would claim,  insignificant. In Aby Warburg’s  seminal essay, the Last Will and Testament of Francesco Sassetti (1907), Warburg mentions that a commonality shared by lineage of writers on Fortuna in the ‘antique world’ of the Romans (from Cicero to Boethius) and the world of 14th and 15th century Italy (including Ficino) was the set of definitions of fortune in Latin and Italian, which included not only “”accident” and “property”, but also “windstorm”. For the see-venturing businessm, these three divided concepts designated much more only three divided properties of a Storm Fortuna, whose uncanny, unfathomable capacity for transformation from the demon of annihilation to the generously bountiful goddess of wealth evoked the elementary restitution of its originally unified mythic personality under the influence of an old, inherited anthropomorphic pattern of thought.” Americo Castro, in an essay on Don Quixote, spoke of the “unit of consciousness” in which coexist “the spritual and the physical, the abstract and the concrete” – and in this sense, Fortuna signals that kind of concept-in-practice, one that can be divided up for study among different ‘disciplines’ but that, in practice, brings together apparently discrete conceptual moments.

Understanding the overdetermined elements of fortune in the early modern period helps us get clearer about the Fortuna’s wheel – which provided as powerful an image by which to analyse the life of production and trade in the early modern era as the image of equilibrium has done to analyse the life of production and consumption in the modern era. The the wheel of fortune lost its poetic power at some point in the late 17th century, when the first prophets of a new order – William Petty, Pierre Le Pesant de Boisguilbert, and Bernard Mandeville, among others – devised different images, organized around circulation. But the history of units of consciousness is not a history of unilateral continuities and ruptures, any more than the history of a person is the history of his waking life. 

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