Networks of commerce, culture and information: free-ports in the 18th and 19th centuries

Research project at the University of Venice

By Giulia Delogu

During the eighteenth-century, the analysis of the intertwinement between power and ethics and of its public communication underlines how during early modern age the image of commerce as driving force (not only of economic growth but also moral, political and scientific advancement) is strengthened.

  Such image is not a mere stereotype. It is materialized by the parallelism between the circulation routes of people and goods and those of immaterial objects such as ideas and news. Therefore, the correlation of communication and commerce emerges as ideal standpoint to rethink information process during early modern age.

In particular, that the study of communication in the specific dimension of the free-port can be particularly meaningful. The free-port is situated at the border between land and water. It has a liminal and liquid character. It is a place where imperium is suspended, where the power’s grasp over information is continuously challenged in the name of commercial needs. It is the place where early modern processes such as territorialization of power and nationalization of language and culture are reversed. It is also the place where fading mercantilism and rising liberalism meet.

The free-port allows to reconsider the development of information and communication during early modern age according to a new and more complex outlook. Such development can be recodified not as an intellectual product generated by thinkers and philosophers, but as the result of exchanges between different agents and of the mutual influences between political, cultural and commercial environments. The commercial needs within the free-port favored communicative process directed to swift, efficient and wide-spread circulation and creation of news.

A closer look to the communication and information strategies envisaged in specific cases study (e. g. Trieste, Venice, Rijeka and their relationship with the center, of power Vienna) could be the starting point to illuminate the creation of new process of information and communication during the early-modern age within the free-port (underlining also the specificity of such entity). Namely, the comparative analysis can explain information and communication in the peculiar environment of the free-port and thus from a slightly different perspective. It is a double bottom-up and top-down point of view, according to which new media characterized by concise forms and language were developed in a close dialogue between emerging classes, intellectuals and political power.

The communication within free-ports can be examined from at least three points of view:

  • How new forms of communication are created within the free-port
  • How the image of the free-port is construed and the spread
  • How definitions and images of free-port are influenced by institutions / how institutions themselves are conditioned by the definitory struggles around the concept of free-port