Dangerous Sea Trade. The Magistrato di Sanità of the Free Port of Livorno and the Great Plague of Marseilles (1720)

At the beginning of the eighteenth century the free port of Livorno was one of the most dynamic and prosperous commercial hubs in the Mediterranean and global routes. Nonetheless, its numerous transnational sea connections could turn into an element of biological, economic, and social danger each time the threat of contagious diseases spreading through maritime trade loomed. This was the case when the plague struck heavily the population of Marseilles in the summer of 1720. The main purpose of my contribution is to study the response from the authorities of Livorno and of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany to the challenges posed by this unforeseen emergency, which, due to the constant commercial exchanges between the two ports, had to be confronted in a timely manner and with the utmost care. In particular, I will rely on archival and printed sources to investigate the strategies pursued on the occasion by Livorno’s Magistrato di Sanità (Magistrate of Health), demonstrating that, in spite of the complaints from local merchants, this public actor managed to face the crisis by combining different resources and governmental techniques, from interinstitutional cooperation, exceptional measures, and jurisdictional power to efficient information gathering, networking skills, and interstate diplomacy. This poorly considered (but indeed significant) case study will therefore provide new insights into the institutional, economic, and social implications of the perils inherent to navigation in a thriving eighteenth-century Mediterranean free port.

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