Holiday reprint #4 – Nicolo de’ Conti, China and maritime trade in the Mongol period

Near the end of November From about October 2011 until this post was published, I was intrigued by the thought that most of the eastern material in MS Beinecke 408 might have been brought west by Nicolo de’ Conti. At present I think some of it might have been brought to Avignon by the Genoese who served as representatives of the Mongol Khan.

[Formatting errors corrected Nov.3rd., 2016]


from ‘Findings’ (blog) published Wednesday, November 9, 2011. The original title was: Nicolo de’ Conti & the Vms: an interlinear – Pt.1

“Beginning from about 1419, Niccolò de’ Conti, son of a Venetian trading family which had earlier been involved in the trade through Egypt, decided to go east…”]He first went to Damascus, and learned Arabic, then travelled through Mesopotamia to Baghdad. From there he continued to the near east, India, the Indian Ocean and as far as south east Asia, where he worked to establish and to build a trading network. He married a woman of India, and reared a family there. Twenty-five years later he returned to the west. Accounts of his journeys by sea and overland are presented in most works as continuous narrative, but they occurred over those decades, during which time his acquired languages included Arabic and Farsi, certainly, but in all probability other linguae francae of the eastern trade. (Imagine here a sketch, taken from the Zibaldone da Canal of 1312, showing towers topped by swallowtail merlons).

de Conti 2 container cork Minoan Crete smallde Conti 1 containers Voynich 100v detail1419.. a Venetian trading family… Egypt:In the early fifteenth century, Venice and Genoa still dominated the Mediterranean sea-routes. Venetian trade had a particular interest in Alexandria, Cyprus and Crete. That trade-route between Egypt and Crete had been established from as early the 3rd millennium bc, and provides us with the origins for some items in the Vms, most notably the cork-stopped containers pictured in fol.100v. Corked containers in the VMS (?!) Cork-stoppered containers are scarcely attested in medieval Europe , but had been employed and carried by the older in the Mediterranean and Aegean. Excavations in the Athenian agora (5thC BC) turned up a cork-stoppered jar, and a sheet of pure zinc. A find of cork-stopped vessels in the Sado river of Portugal was dated to the 2ndC BC. References occur in Greek and Roman literature for the period 1stC BC -1stC AD and from the end of that period, some cork-stopped wine-bottles were preserved in Pompeii. Thereafter, cork seems not to have been used in this way in Europe almost till the 16thC.

As you see from the map here, Venice and Genoa had distinct routes and entrepots, though both initially traded unhindered far into the Black Sea, meeting there with the eastern caravans whose goods included ones which had come (ultimately) from China.The northern to western section of the map on fol.86v covers, pretty well, the extent of Venetian trade at that time. The whole is not drawn in European style, but contains additional – and chiefly architectural – details which are.Among these details are merlons drawn in the same style as that ‘Ghibelline’ type whose use spread through northern Italy from the twelfth century. Most merchant-groups opposed the Ghibelline cause, but Venice remained nominally neutral, and in the Zibaldone da Canal we see the same motif used in a general way in the commonplace book of an earlier Venetian merchant. It is also relevant that the device is used in the smaller map which forms the northern quadrant of fol. 86v. This [northern] “rosette” draws on itinerary-maps of classical Roman type, and has the overland routes of Anatolia and Asia Minor as its focus. The routes from the north and east also brought the Mongols, and plague. The last is thought to have been brought by a Genoese merchant fleeing  the Mongol seige of  Caffa, in 1347.  He sailed first to Sicily, and then to Marseilles.


Coin, Tax and Silver: shortages in medieval Europe.
The region of the Balkans, between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, held a particular interest for Venice at this time: as a source for silver and copper. The mint and coins of Venice serving as a widely-accepted ‘sterling’ standard. It is notable that a number of motifs in the Vms find their nearest echo on coins designed for loci along the grain-line from Egypt to the Black Sea, most of these motifs deriving from the Hellenistic – pre-Christian Roman eras.
Given the Venetians’ hunt for new sources of silver, and the activities of contemporary coiners and engravers in the Balkans (now under Venetian governance), the echo of classical sources is particularly interesting. This online page from the University of California, Davis gives a longer discussion.

The Vms refers to plants and products gained from regions under Yemeni control during most of the post-classical period.  The most obvious example is perhaps Dracaena cinnabari which then grew nowhere but Socotra. The island was already under Yemeni control when the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea was written, late in the first century AD. de Conti notes it as filled with Christians of the Nestorian rite, whose patriarch lived in Nisibis, or in Baghdad.Yemen on the one side, and Ethiopia (Barbaria) on the other controlled the narrow straits which had to be passed between the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

In the map earlier linked, an associated article makes the point that the maritime routes of the Indian Ocean, in 1419, were dominated by Omani and Yemeni seamen.  Affected by the  disasporas following a series of disasters in the Yemen between the 3rd-6thC AD, these descendants of  the classical  ‘Homeritae’ ~ Yemenite ‘Sabaeans’ ~ were obliged to migrate. They re-settled elsewhere along the maritime routes.  A short history of that region and its navigation is offered here.dracaena-and-f-25vIn de Conti’s day, the strait was dominated by contemporary rulers and seamen of the Yemen, who showed little regard for any of the major powers. (see text ref below).Piracy was rife and in most foreign ships unwelcome. So when we read in the late sixteenth century of Portuguese Jesuits hijacked near Oman and taken to near the dam of Marib we are seeing what is probably a long-established custom.Other motifs in the Vms are associated with nations of pre-Islamic south Arabia, though similar motifs are found disseminated across a considerable area, and over millennia. Too few extant examples remain, however, to say with certainty if they appear in the Vms because the compiler had an antiquarian bent, or whether they represent a direct copying of some ancient or classical source, or whether a tradition still living in the east was maintaining these ancient images to as late as the fifteenth century.Among them we might mention (i) the Himyarite ‘lilytail’ akin to that which adorns the ‘pisces’ figures in the ‘astrological’ section; (ii) depiction of the sun as female – seen throughout the ‘astronomical’ section, (iii) depiction of the sun as female and wall-eyed and/or bearded. All these are devices once quite widely used, and were present in the Mediterranean from pre-classical times.


Egypt in the early fifteenth century.

Despite difficulties with the sea-route, in 1419 Egypt remained a chief point for the cross-over between eastern goods and Mediterranean silver or cloth. Alexandria and old Cairo [Fustat] was where the great trading houses, or rather clans were based who dealt in eastern cloth, ceramics, spices and medicines but whose knowledge of these goods, their sources, markets and routes was jealously guarded.

Obtaining information about them, as about related technical matters, still sent people of Latin Europe scouring libraries for the pronouncements of classical authors, or compendia such as Isidore’s Etymologies – written in the sixth century.

By the early fifteenth, Egypt’s older Jewish traders were in decline. The Karimi dominated the Egyptian scene, and soon after Niccolo de Conti returned to Europe, Constantinople would be taken by the Turks (1453).

(Thousands of volumes passed in advance from Constantinople to western Europe, in the hope of preserving the knowledge of earlier times).

Venice then sought from the Ottomans – and believed it got – a continuation of its right to continue trading in Egypt. But almost immediately the Ottomans closed off Venetian access to the Black Sea (1479), and by 1517  terminated most of the Venetians’ Egyptian trade in spices.

When Nicco de Conti left for the east, Venice may have been experiencing difficulties over stocks of silver, and access to specie, but to all appearances, the trade was thriving.  This short article by Heilebrunn  offers a useful overview.  By the time he returned, Venice was in serious difficulty.

Nicolo’s decision:  to make an alternative trade-network along the Mesopotamian route, was perhaps inspired by the model of the Karimi in Egypt, and was extremely clear-sighted as a possible solution to contemporary problems in Venetian trade. Indeed, had he made the journey with a larger number of fellow traders, and with greater financial resources, he may have succeeded.

From Damascus, now having studied Arabic, he crossed the desert probably taking the old Palmyra route, and followed the Tigris to Baghdad.

Another matter which might have persuaded Nicolo to take the journey was the prevalence of Nepotism. We hear that his family’s connection with trade through Egypt had ended, and in 1419 another family, the Morosini, had one member as the city’s chronicler and another, his nephew, as the Venetian consul in Alexandria.

(On Morosini see my ‘to-read’ list below. Antonio does not appear in the wiki history of the Venetian Morsosini family, which comes from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, where Andrea Morosini seems to have been mistaken for the chronicler, who today is named as Antonio).

– end of part 1 –

Additional Notes:

de Conti 13 motif Granary ivory coast
Granary ‘seal’. Niger. Ivory coast.

Routes: Egypt to the Niger. From Egypt to the Niger – and far as the Atlantic – the routes were operational in 1419, as this nice map shows. I regret not having a bibliog. reference for it, but one Venetian trader is recorded in the fifteenth century as in business selling cloth in Timbuktu. (Slaving was another activity of the Venetians, and one of considerable value to them. A majority of their slaves had been taken from the northern Slav lands, but some too were taken from Africa even before da Gama’s voyage).





Red Sea and Yemen.

de Conti 15 Yemeni calabashes
The ubiquitous Yemeni calabash.
de conti 17 fol 83v windbags close detail
(detail) MS Beinecke 408 fol.83v. ‘The outpourings’ (possibly an explanation of the monsoonal rains)

European travellers were not the only ones troubled by the Yemeni rulers.

“The merchant Ibn Bikash traveled to India in AD 1294 to work in the service of its princes. In AD 1329, the ruler of India sent a magnificent gift to [the] Sultan, with a Karimi merchant… Said to have had a value of 1 million dinars, this gift was confiscated by the ruler of Yemen. After sending donations to the holy shrines of the Hijaz and Jerusalem, the ruler of India then sent another gift to Sultan Al-Nasir Mohammad [but this time sent it] via Baghdad to avoid it going through Yemen.In AD 1471, Ghiyath al-Din, contemporary ruler of India, sent gifts- again with the Karimi merchants- to the Caliph Al-Mustanjid Billah and to Sultan Qaitbay. The merchant Ahmad ‘Ali al-Kawwaz was also employed as the ambassador to the city of Gulbarga in India”.Souakin, shown on that last map [linked], is near Aydhab (also: ‘Aidhab) to and through which Asian ceramics were imported to Egypt from about the 9th-10th centuries to the 15th – and where they were possibly even manufactured.One suspects Nicolo had a particular interest in such ceramics,since the majority of places that he travelled to in southeast Asia were centres of the trade-ceramic manufacture, directly imitating the Chinese styles. Chinese-style ceramics are also recorded in the Yemen, where a large and long-lived site for ceramics and glass existed.

Yuan pair for Florence
Chinese Yuan ceramics (late 13th-14thC). Typical motifs
Florentine caddy jars early 15thC
Florence. tin-glazed ware imitating Chinese ceramics of the Yuan period. ‘Caddy’ style jar. Early 15thC
beast ceramic Qilin 13thC China 15thC Florence

In an important article, Lane and Serjeant described the regions of Yemen and the Red Sea where glass and pottery was evidently imported, ‘confiscated’ and even manufactured. In particular, the article mentions the area about Abyan, a manufacturing site of considerable antiquity,and the same region where the captured Jesuits passed during the sixteenth century, and where they met the Burmese woman who had been heading for Hormuz.

de Conti 20 characcter Mani Buddha ChaoAn
image of Mani as the Buddha. ChaoAn

Overland routes vs Egyptian routes:

Ibn Battuta … tells us whence some of  this medieval ware came, for he says, “Sin-kalan (Canton) is a city of the first rank, in regard to size and the quality of its bazaars.  One of the largest of these is the porcelain bazaar, from which  porcelain is exported to all parts of China, to India, and to the Yemen.” In view of the existence of provincial wares amongst the fragments examined from Aidhab and Abyan [in the article], it should be noted that Arabic authors from Ibu Khurdadbih (c.870AD) to Ibu Iyas (15th century), mention Lukin (Lung-pien) near Hanoi, as a centre for the manufacture and export of Chinese porcelain. Moreover, some pieces of porcelain now in Constantinople, but believed to have been brought from the Yemen, seem to have been manufactured in Annam.

– Lane and Serjeant, ‘Pottery and glass…’



Northern Italy … one might also mention:

Serra de’Conti  – a hilltop village in the central Le Marche province of Ancona. It .. has fortified walls and ten towers. There is also the fortified gate of Porta della Croce, still used as one of the main entrances to the village, and recently restored. In the middle ages, it became established as a leading trade and agricultural centre for the area and because of its relative wealth, many large and grand buildings were added within the town walls. Serra de’Conti is 216 metres above sea level .. 30 minutes by car from the coast [it would probably have been closer in medieval times]. This website [no longer – Jan 2015] describes numerous centres in the Marche, and includes one pic showing swallowtail merlons in Macerata.


My reading/to-read list:

1. Benjamin Arbel, Cyprus, the Franks and Venice, Thirteenth-Sixteenth centuries (Variorum 2000)

2. Michele Pietro Ghezzo, The Morosini Codex I: to the Death of Andrea Dandolo (1354).

  1. Chronique D’Antonio Morosini; Extraits Relatifs L’Histoire de France, Pub. Pour La Societe de L’Histoire de France.
  2. Georg Christ, “A Newsletter in 1419? Antonio Morosini’s Chronicle in the Light of Commercial Correspondence between Venice and Alexandria”, Mediterranean Historical Review, Volume 20, Issue 1, 2005 pp.35-66
  3. [to be published in 2012]  Georg Christ, Venetian Merchants and Mamluk Officials in Late Medieval Alexandria: Brill6. Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European hegemony: the world system A.D. 1250-1350, OUP, 1991.
  4. Arthur Lane and R. B. Serjeant, “Pottery and Glass Fragments from Littoral, with Historical Notes”, The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 2 (Oct., 1948), pp. 108-133
    8. Sally McKee, Uncommon Dominion: Venetian Crete and the Myth of Ethnic Purity (2000)

A brief, but intriguing sketch of how a zibaldone might be annotated (or over-annotated) is in this pdf.


Michael of Rhodes and the ‘Zibaldone’ genre:

  1. Pamela O. Long, David McGee, and Alan M. Stahl (eds.), Michael of Rhodes, The Book of Michael of Rhodes, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009).

The three-volume edition includes a facsimile (volume 1);

a transcription and translation of the text (volume 2);

and a volume of studies on the contents of the text (volume 3).

  1. Michael’s manuscript includes a wealth of information about saints, the moon, stars, astrology, and the date of Easter. At first these subjects seem disconnected. In fact, they all pertain to time as it was reckoned in the Middle Ages.  Michael has two sections of time-reckoning material in his manuscript. The first is a lengthy section containing an elaborate calendar, astrological material, and several tables relating to the moon and the date of Easter. The second is a shorter section near the end of the manuscript containing information about the use of the hands to reckon time
  1. Michael wrote a second manuscript which is published as Pietro di Versi, Raxion de’ marineri. Taccuino nautico del XV secolo, ed. A. Conterio (Venice 1991).
  2. An earlier Venetian compilation is available in English as John Dotson, ed., Merchant Culture in Fourteenth Century Venice: the Zibaldone da Canal (Binghamton, N.Y. 1994).
  1. For the history of the writing down of practical texts, see Pamela O. Long, Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture Of Knowledge From Antiquity to the Renaissance (Baltimore, 2001).

Mercantile calculations in the fifteenth century

  1. Frank Swetz, Capitalism & Arithmetic: The New Math of the 15th Century (LaSalle, IL., 1987)
  2. Raffaella Franci, Introduzione all’aritmetica mercantile del medioevo e del Rinascimento (Siena,1982).
  1. A listing of other medieval mathematical manuscripts

Warren Van Egmond, Practical Mathematics in the Italian Renaissance: A Catalog of Italian Abbacus Manuscripts and Printed Books to 1600 (Florence, 1980).

  1. Adam Stahl, Zecca: the Mint of Venice in the Middle Ages, (John Hopkins Uni Press, 2000)



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