The Silk Trade Bursa and Florence
Merchantsy from all over the world came to buy silk, considered to extremel valuable item in Bursa’s trade. The merchants of Florence occupied a special place in this trade. The history of this city in the Italian Peninsula, which was the centre of the Renaissance, developed in a very exceptional way. Within an extremely short space of time the city was trading with the rest of the Mediterranean and before long with the Levant as well. This development in the history of the city of Florence has strong links with both Turkish and Islamic history. The very first of these links was born in the city of Pisa, a port also famous for its Leaning Tower; this city made its mark on a number of Mediterranean ports over a period of years. However it could not withstand the power of Florence, which became suddenly powerful in 1406, and was forced to accept the new conjuncture. However tradition continued and ambassadors sent to İstanbul signed new agreements with the Byzantine emperors. Until the end of the 15 th century ambassadors were also sent to Cairo, signing treaties of friendship with the Mameluke sultans which provided a framework for their trading activities. Silk and other fabrics occupied a leading place in all these relations. The Silk Guild (Arte della Seta) and Wool Guild (Arte della Lana) which had been founded in Florence did not hesitate to give financial support to the state to keep trade alive and, when necessary, would send their own representatives or, granting credit to the state, would keep political and diplomatic relationships alive.
As we have very few documents dating from the period before the Ottoman conquest of İstanbul it is diffıcult to establish when offıcial relations began between the Ottoman state and Florence. However shortly after İstanbul came under Turkish rule on 29 May 1453 political and trade relations were established and Florence was allowed to set up a representation in the Galata district of İstanbul. Silk was part and parcel of these relations. The abundance of goods in Bursa, the wealth that been created and even its place in international trade found its way into records of the period because it aroused the interest of everyone who visited Bursa and had already attracted the attention of Europe. The great Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1361), who was born in Florence, referred to the art of the Turks in a comparison he made in one of the verses of his great work “The Divine Comedy”:
!Con piu color sommesse e sopraposte non fer mai drappi Tartari ne Turchi” (Inferno, Canto XVII, lines 16-17)
“Neither Tartars nor Turks, in terms of colour and form have ever made such a variety of fabrics”
This information, which reflects one of the oldest conceptions of the Turks in Europe, together with the views of Marco Polo, who praised Turkish carpets, had a considerable effect in certain circles. The eastern art of fabrics became known in Europe and a flourishing trade was maintained in cities such as Venice and in those which acted as harbours for Florence. Information to support the view that Turkish fabrics were becoming known in Europe can be found in the works of the French traveller Bertrandon de la Broquier who had visited Bursa at the time, and of J. Schitberger who had been taken prisoner in the Battle of Nikopol and spent some time travelling in Anatolia: “Beautiful fabrics are made from silk in Bursa. The silk is brought to Venice and Lucca, where it is used to make fine velvet.” Although the prisoner’s statement is not be supported by official documents, more information is provided by the documentation of the l5th century about these activities in Bursa. The merchants of Florence, who were an extremely active group, did not neglect Bursa and traded in its many products. Due to the fact that they corresponded continuously with the organs of state, asking for protection of their rights, the range of goods became even wider. A study of accounts kept in Bursa for the years 1484 and 1488 reveals just how important the silk trade was. Florentine merchants or their representatives in Bursa were in constant contact with their Turkish counterparts and exports and imports that took place between the two states registered a steady increase. A gentleman called Bartolomeo di Piero di Simone, who belonged to one of the merchant families, came to Bursa on 30 June 1484 and sold his goods there for a period of four years. The accounts kept by this person document both the activities of the Florentine traders and silk sales in the city. He continued this work until 1497 and the silk fabrics he marketed or purchased were sold under a variety of different names. The Venetians kept a close eye on these relations and looked for ways of gaining the market share held by Florence. In the texts of agreements drawn up between Venice and the Ottoman state it was stated in particular that special permission had to be obtained for a trader to go to Bursa from the “Balyos”, who was their representative, otherwise they were liable to be detained by the “zabıta” (police).
A special clause was inserted in the agreement which had been drawn up by both sides to protect the rights of the silk merchants of Florence. “The moment their traders buy silk yarn in Bursa they pay a broker tax according to the law after which it may happen that the merchant comes to İstanbul and wishes to send his goods by land; at this point the brokers in İstanbul molest him, insisting on payment of yet another tax: In this connection I decree that they should not exact any further payment and should not demand such.”
This text is Article 12 of the agreement drawn up in the reign of Süleyman the Magnifıcent. The corresponding article in an Italian text in the State Archives of Florence reads as follows:
“Che comprando seta in Bursia et pagando il comerchio o vero resima, venendo poi qua non sia tenuto a pogarlo di nuovo et etiam mandando via fuora delle Castella che nessuno lo molesti.”
This may be translated into modern Turkish as follows: “A Florentine merchant buying silk in Florence will pay customs taxes of all kinds here (in Bursa). A second tax is not payable when the goods are brought to İstanbul.”
The word “Castella” (Castles) occurs in the quotation I have given in Italian. The Ottoman customs offıcials always demanded payment of a tax by ships wishing to pass through the Dardanelles or the İstanbul Strait. The merchants of Florence had this clause inserted in the agreement to prevent double taxation. The castles guarding the Dardanelles and the İstanbul Strait were also the places where taxes were paid. There is also a reference to goods being sent by land in the Turkish text.
The discussion of the originals and copies of these agreements would be the subject of another investigation and because there have been no academic publications of the texts dating from the period between 1455 and 1530 it is not possible to date them with certainty. On the other hand, we possess a number of documents concerning the enterprises of these merchants and traders. The names of Florentine traders are mentioned in the original documents relating to Bursa that were examined by Prof. Dr. Halil İnalcık and these persons, who were referred to as “Firontin” or “Firontini” have been introduced to the academic world thanks to Prof İnalcık’s valuable publication.
Florence became extremely wealthy as a result of these enterprises and the artists and craftsmen it produced adorned the city with their works. The fact that these intellectuals were able to bring about the Renaissance, which still preserved its values at that time, is due in part to the volume of work created by this flourishing trade. It this point the Medici family, who ruled Venice, should be mentioned because after they had gained control of the state they established authoritarian rule and imposed their policies on science, art, religion and philosophy. Lucca, a city near Florence, was also affected by these events. A ferman (decree) issued in the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent allowed them to trade as well and in a list of items dating from the 17 th century we see a reference to “luka” cloth.
The trade route used for the transportation of these goods extended from Bursa to İstanbul, whence the goods were transported by ship or land to their destination. Another route was from Çeşme harbour to the island of Kios, and from there to Pisa or Livorno. The port of Ancona, also on the Adriatic coast, proved useful for Turkish mechants trading with Florence but because of the authoritarian measures taken by the Republic of Venice it was not really economically viable.
Relations between the Ottoman state and the Grand Duchy of Florence never ceased. Even when Florentine sailors invaded the island of Kios in 1599 and went on to inflict damage to Antalya harbour and the surrounding area, the friendship continued uninterrupted. The representative of Florence, who was resident in İstanbul and was referred to in Ottoman documents as “Balyos” made great efforts to keep these relations on a friendly footing. A collation of documents fıled under different classifıcations would doubtless cast light on many aspects of history that have remained in obscurity. The lack of systematic documentation relating to the silk trade prevents one from arriving at any definite conclusions about the continuation of trades similar to the flourishing one of the 15 th century. The political environment that was developing in Europe should also be borne in mind. The Grand Duchy of Tuscany sometimes endured major crises and lived quite a considerable part of its life under Austrian rule. The Ottoman state, which established new diplomatic relations with various European states at the beginning of the 19 th century signed an agreement with Tuscany in the reign of Mahmud II. Like other similar agreements signed in this century, there was also a “customs list”. Bursa silk was by then not a major product and it occupied a minor position in the first customs agreement with Italy signed in 1861 .