Aris Della Fontana

Aris Della Fontana studies the emulative and creative reception of Vaudois reform discourses in Italy, as part of a dissertation on Venetian and Italian reform projects, which he is completing at the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa and the University of Lausanne. Eighteenth-century Venice presents the case of a commercial hegemon in advanced decline, a militarily vulnerable state which was forced to contend with the competition and economic expansion of Europe’s territorial monarchies. Seeking to understand how their state could adapt to an international order which was itself rapidly changing, Venetian reformers increasingly reflected on the effectiveness of the balance of trade paradigm; on commercial treaties as an instrument for channeling and governing ‘jealousy of trade’; and also on the possibilities and limits involved in conceptualizing international trade as a system of complementarity, interdependence and shared prosperity. This in turn shaped their efforts to study available models and theories of economic development from across Europe, which could be reformulated and tailored to the specific circumstances and exigencies of Venice and Italy.

The French économistes, or Physiocrats, were leading advocates of the idea that the regeneration of agriculture must precede other forms of manufacturing industry and commerce. Other broadly pro-agriculture political economists, such as the Swiss thinkers associated with the Economic Society of Bern, are often categorized simply as national variants of Physiocracy, even though they also engaged with various other reform discourses. A wide range of disagreements can be detected amidst the general consonance of these schools of thought, ranging from debates about the viability of large- vs. small-scale agriculture to more fundamental questioning of the nature of the relationship between agriculture and manufacturing. These contrasts and tensions were particularly evident to Venetian and other Italian reformers who were acutely aware not only of their unusual economic, social and political situation – the presence of influential guilds, as well as the desolation of the Veneto countryside, were primary concerns in the debate – but also of the need to adjudicate among conflicting theoretical claims. In this sense, thinking about the hierarchy and logical integration between agriculture and manufacturing also meant conceiving a specific theory of wealth generation – for example, taking a position within the debate on whether or not manufacturing is able to increase the value of processed raw materials.  

In addition to treaties, pamphlets and administrative writings, these issues were also explored through the peculiar vehicle of histories of trade. As they grappled with the legacy of Venice’s own failing commercial hegemony, Venetian reformers committed themselves to understanding the underlying causes of the periodic reshuffling of the economic power relations among nations. Rather than interpreting the flourishing of histories of trade as an expression of nostalgia for lost glory, Della Fontana – using a general approach that aims  to intertwine theoretical reflection with political planning – investigates how this genre conveyed reformist perspectives which formulated an outlook for the future.