Cosmography and sources

Born in Florence around 1300, Francesco di Balduccio Pegolotti (ca. 1301-1350) worked for the mercantile company of the powerful Bardi family, where he demonstrated impressive diplomatic skills as well as mastery of the complex practices concerning equivalencies between currency exchange rates, weights, and measures from the Black Sea to Flanders. He rapidly ascended the company hierarchy into a position of leadership, operating in the major Flemish, English, and Northern European marketplaces. He was then invited to Cyprus, where he managed hundreds of thousands of florins in trade and obtained exclusive financial privileges for the elite Florentine companies. When the Bardi company collapsed, he returned to Florence, serving as a public official in various roles.

Between 1335 and 1343 he composed the Book of Descriptions of Countries and Measures Employed in Business (or Practice of Commerce) in which he described in minute detail the Mediterranean world’s most important commercial centers from the Black Sea to Flanders. For each marketplace he described the currency, the exchange rate with the florin, the system of weights and measures, taxes, and major products. He provides readers with a list of 286 different spices, offering advice on which are best to buy and sell, and traces out a complete cartography of late Medieval commerce.

His narration proceeds geographically. Significantly, he opens with his voyage from Tanais, on the Black Sea, to Khān Bālīq in Cathay. Next, from the Black Sea he describes a trade voyage to the west that includes the Italian peninsula and both northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean, from Morocco to Flanders. The lengthy cartouches in the world map by Fra Mauro (active ca. 1430-ca. 1459/1464) that discuss trade—in spices, porcelain, silk, metals, and precious stones—reveal affinities with merchant ledgers and books, of which Francesco di Balducci Pegolotti’s is the most complete example.