Anyone interested in grasping the origins and foundations of business economics or management science must contend with the fifteenth-century entrepreneur and humanist Benedetto Cotrugli and his work, The Book of the Art of Trade.
Composed in 1458, the work remained in manuscript form for more than 100 years. It has come down to us by means of three rather discordant copies: the first one is preserved at the Central National Library in Florence; a second, incomplete one is in the Marucelliana Library, also in Florence; and a third, transcribed by Marino Raffaelli in 1475, is at the National Library of Malta in Valletta.
Cotrugli was born in Ragusa (present-day Dubrovnik) around the year 1416 to Giacomo and Nicoletta Illich, a prominent merchant family. He was the third of eight children and was set on a life of study, which, however, he had to interrupt to take care of the family business after his father’s illness. The entrepreneur Cotrugli’s dealings extended to Venice, his native Ragusa, Africa, Spain, and indeed the entire western Mediterranean area. In 1451, he began a political-diplomatic career, entering the court of King Alfonso of Aragon and moving to Naples. As a result of a financial scandal that has never been fully clarified, Cotrugli was exiled from Ragusa and remained in Naples, where he increased his diplomatic activity and assumed the directorship of the Mint of Naples and L’Aquila, where he died in 1469.
Scholars generally agree that Cotrugli’s work represents a milestone in the disciplines of economics and business. Luc Marco and Robert Noumen of the Sorbonne in Paris have called him the founder of the science of management. Niall Ferguson devoted a chapter of his book The Square and the Tower to him, in addition to contributing an essay to the English edition of The Book of the Art of Trade, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017.
We owe thanks above all to the twentieth-century Italian historian Oscar Nuccio for our ability to trace common historical and theoretical threads from the medieval jurist Albertanus of Brescia to the American Benjamin Franklin, passing through the Italian Renaissance humanists Coluccio Salutati, Poggio Bracciolini, and Cotrugli. Their writings highlight the value of work, industriousness, the pursuit of profit through innovation, and the ability to respond to the needs emerging from cities, in which “good government” emerges from a network of the many kinds of “good governments” present within the civitas, without any one of these being able to dominate the others. It’s a tradition that marries humanist republicanism with the culture of enterprise and bolsters the idea that freedom and responsibility are two sides of a coin that enriches all of civic life: political, economic, and cultural.
In this sense, we should recall the definition of enterprise left to us by Cotrugli: “mercatura,” he writes, is “an art, or rather a discipline practiced among persons legitimized to practice it, ordered according to justice and relating to commercial things, for the preservation of mankind, but also with hope of gain.” This clear definition allows us to understand Cotrugli’s two main goals: to describe entrepreneurial activity not simply as lawful and respectable, but as indispensable; and to show that business is properly oriented to the pursuit of the common good. We can deduce three principles from Cotrugli’s definition: that enterprise must take place among lawful persons (the principle of legality); that it must be orderly (the principle of neminem laedere, or, in English, the “duty of care”); and that it must tend to a profit (the principle of preservation of the human species). Cotrugli’s definition thus seems to anticipate that of Peter Drucker, according to whom businesses are organs of society that perform functions that transcend them.
Cotrugli considers enterprise as a node of social cooperation whose ends go beyond the interests of the parties, in which individual actors, pursuing different ends, coordinate their activities and carry out productive work. Its function must be to create multidimensional value—in the political, economic, and cultural arenas. According to this philosophy, the notion of enterprise meets the concepts of both fiduciary management and the common good.