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Marks and the Medici

Merchants and tradesmen in medieval and Renaissance Italy inhabited a world dominated by visual signs, from the arms of elite families to those of governments, magistracies, and institutions; from the simple marks of stone masons and the stamps of metal smiths to the elaborate marks of notaries.

Marks and the Medici: Branding and Trademarks in Renaissance Global Business focused on a particular kind of mark: the mark, commonly called a signum in Latin and a segno in the Tuscan vernacular, used by medieval and Renaissance companies and firms to mark their account books, their business correspondence, and their merchandise. The very origins of modern brands and trademarks may be found in these marks, in the way merchants and their customers used and imbued them with value, and in the way they were interpreted by jurists and merchant courts and protected by governments.

The findings of Marks and the Medici are based, first, on extensive, archival investigations into the mercantile marks used by a succession of Medici family firms that produced woolen textiles for sale in Europe and in the Levant; and, second, on a wholesale reimaging of the prehistory of trademark law.

Trade mark of the firm called Francesco di Giuliano de’ Medici & co., painted on a ledger (Harvard Business School, Boston, USA)

The Medici Family

Although the main branch of the Medici family achieved global prominence as bankers, popes, and princes, Marks and the Medici followed the fortunes of a collateral branch of the family, which persisted in the Mediterranean woolen cloth trade throughout the sixteenth century.

This branch consisted of the descendents of Giovenco d’Averardo de’ Medici (d. 1322), the great-uncle of Giovanni di Bicci (d. 1429), who founded the famed Medici Bank. Its most prominent member was the merchant Francesco de’ Medici (1450-1528). Family and business records belonging to Francesco’s line are today found at Harvard Business School, the John Rylands Library in Manchester, and the British Library, as well as in the archives of Italy. Marks and the Medici relied on these rarely-studied yet abundant manuscript business and family records.

 

Medici family tree showing the father and descendants of Francesco di Giuliano de’ Medici (British Library, London)

 

 

Trademarks

The modern trademark is associated with the liberal jurisprudence of the nineteenth century, a pan-European law of commercial marks had already developed in the sixteenth century, amidst the first era of globalization. This law was based on the doctrines and opinions of earlier jurists, like Bartolus of Sassoferrato (d. 1357) and his student Baldus of Perugia (d. 1400), who had been tasked with accommodating the jurisprudence of ancient Rome to the commercial realities of late-medieval Italian urban life.

Historiated initial Q showing the fourteenth-century jurist Bartolus of Sassoferrato (National Library, Florence)

The marks of companies and firms were not, in these parallel traditions of practice and doctrine, simply a means of communicating information about manufactured goods. They were multifaceted signifiers of a firm’s reputation, explicitly capable of providing a competitive advantage in domestic and foreign markets. They were immaterial things of real value, serving public and private functions, in need of state protection.

Fourteenth-century register of the marks of metal smiths (State Archive, Florence)

Fourteenth-century register of the marks of metal smiths (State Archive, Florence)

Robert Fredona

Robert Fredona is a research associate at Harvard Business School and affiliated member of CEGBI. In 2019-2020, he was Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow at the York Management School, where he undertook research for a project entitled “Marks and the Medici: Branding and Trademarks in Renaissance Global Business” (sponsor: Professor Teresa da Silva Lopes).

Trademarks and branding in Renaissance Florence

After receiving his Ph.D. from Cornell University, he held earlier postdoctoral positions at the University of Californa-Berkeley law school, Stanford University, and Harvard University, where he was Medici Fellow at Baker Library. He is broadly interested in the intersection of law, politics, and commerce in the premodern world. Recently, he has devoted his research to the early history of intellectual property and brands, focusing on the manufacturing and trade of woolen cloth in the Renaissance Mediterranean and on the European jurisprudence of the era. He is co-editor of New Perspectives on the History of Political Economy (Palgrave, 2018), co-guest editor of “Italy and the Origins of Capitalism”, a theme issue of Business History Review (2020); and author or co-author of numerous articles on business history and the history of law. 

Email address: rfredona [@] hbs.edu

Robert Fredona’s research was supported by a grant from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 793583.