Antonio Serra. A Short Treatise on the Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1613)

By McLure, Michael | History of Economics Review, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Antonio Serra. A Short Treatise on the Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1613)


McLure, Michael, History of Economics Review


Antonio Serra. A Short Treatise on the Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1613), edited and introduced by Sophus A. Reinert and translated by Jonathan Hunt. London and New York: Anthem Press. 2011. Pp. viii + 260. ISBN 13:978 0 85728 973 5. UK 60.00[pounds sterling].

Relatively little is known about Antonio Serra, the author of the 1613 study Breve trattato delle cause, che possono far abbondare li regni d'oro, e argento, dove non sono miniere, which may be translated into English as A Short Treatise on the Causes that can make Kingdoms abound in Gold, and Silver, even in the absence of Mines. Beyond the fact that he was born in Cosenza, Calabria, and was well educated, all that is known with certainty about Serra is that he wrote his Short Treatise while imprisoned in a Neapolitan goal; that he was subsequently granted audience with the Spanish Viceroy for the Kingdom of Naples; and that that meeting did not secure his release. As the editor of this book notes, Serra's fate has been lost to history, partly because there was more than one 'Antonio Serra' imprisoned in the Viearia at the time. But, unlike its author, the fate of the Short Treatise is somewhat better known. While it was certainly a rare publication, a handful of copies were preserved over the centuries and fell into good hands (such as Antonio Genovesi, Giuseppe Palmieri, and Ferdinando Galiani, and, in comparatively modern times, Benedetto Croce and Luigi Einaudi). As a consequence, the Short Treatise is now recognised as an important part of Italy's intellectual history, especially the economic and political dimensions to that history.

The work under review is edited and introduced by Sophus A. Reinert and is the first complete English translation of Serra's Short Treatise. The translator is Jonathan Hunt. The purpose of this review is to provide a very general overview of the main elements of Serra's study; a succinct discussion of Hunt's approach to translation; and a brief critical comment on an aspect of Reinert's introduction.

Serra presented his study in three parts. The first part deals with the general economic development of kingdoms and how such development leads to an abundance of gold and silver. Even though Serra considers wealth with regard to the stock of gold and silver, he also pays particular attention to factors associated with the economic flows that add or subtract from the stock of bullion. This is clearly evident from his discussion of the Kingdoms of Naples and Venice when illustrating his most important points. The second part is largely devoted to a refutation of the ideas and reasoning of Marc'Antonio De Santis, the merchant author of Discorso intorno agli effetti che fa il eambio in Regno (Discourse on the Effects of the Exchange on the Kingdom), who had reasoned that the shortage of gold and silver in the Kingdom of Naples was a result of the rate of exchange being set at too high a level. Serra questioned the direction of causation implied in De Santis's Discorso because it did not account for the Kingdom's failure to produce what other kingdoms wished to purchase. The third part adds complexity to Serra's analysis by extending his analysis to cover the more subtle issues, such as cases where purchases by foreigners do not result in gold and silver flowing into the kingdom because that inflow is offset by an outflow of income that foreigners earn from their investments within the regime.

The mercantile character of the study is readily evident from Serra's framing of problems and in his discussion of remedies. But his analysis often subtly related to economic flows, some of which anticipated subsequent developments in economics. To appreciate that aspect of Serra's work it is helpful first to consider key taxonomies associated with his interpretive framework. Serra associates economic flows that add to the stock of gold and silver with natural and accidental phenomena. The natural class of activities relates to the direct exploitation of mines. …

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