Forging Bonds across Continents: Italian Merchants and Īl-Khānid Diplomacy

In: Crossroads
Riccardo Liberati University of Oxford Lady Margaret Hall Oxford UK

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This article analyses the Italian commercial presence in the Mongol Īl-Khānate in thirteenth-century Persia. Analysing source materials, the study focuses on the experiences of individuals and communities alike, showcasing a dual aspiration to economic gain and political status. The study examines mechanisms that facilitated merchants’ relationship with the Īl-Khānids, leading Italians to occupy significant positions at the Īl-Khānid court. It also explains how just a few individuals were instrumental in fostering diplomatic ties with Europe and enabling treaties that bolstered Genoese and Venetian communities in Tabriz and beyond. A subsequent phase marked a shift as Īl-Khānid rulers embraced Islam, causing relations with Europe to erode, thereby diminishing Italian influence. This intricate interplay between Italian merchants’ trade, diplomatic endeavours, and cultural exchanges highlights the multifaceted nature of historical interactions in this period.

Introduction: The Case of Pietro Viglioni

In 1264 Pietro Viglioni, a Venetian merchant, had his testament drafted in the city of Tabriz, the most important city in the Īl-Khānate at the time.1 The document provides a remarkably detailed inventory of Viglioni’s possessions during his stay in the city (Turiso apo mei), which were referred to by Viglioni as “my things and others’ things” (le cose mie et laltrui), suggesting co-ownership with fellow merchants and financing with shared capital from Venice.2

Viglioni’s inventory can be conveniently divided into two sections. The first section comprises a list of a variety of generic goods, where their values are not specified, except for pearls worth eighty Tabrizi bezants. The list includes two cases filled with sugar, twenty-one beaver hides, and a substantial quantity of European textiles, totalling approximately three kilometres in length. In the second section, the testament showcases an extensive catalogue of opulent luxury items, constituting a significant portion of the document’s content. Notably, Viglioni specified that in the unfortunate event of his demise, these possessions were to be sold in Tabriz, estimating their collective value to be approximately four thousand Tabrizi bezants, equivalent to roughly one thousand gold florins.3 The prevailing historiography has generally accepted the presumption that Viglioni’s items were intended for sale, drawing support from the document’s structural characteristics, the assignment of fixed values to specific items, and the involvement of other merchants in the enterprise.4

Among the remarkable items detailed, two double chessboards adorned with crystal, jasper, silver, precious stones, and pearls stand out. Additionally, a cameo intricately carved with the narrative of Moses using agate, chalcedony, and sardonyx, and a horse saddle embellished with crystal, jasper, silver, precious stones, pearls, and a pectoral breastplate enveloped in green silk interwoven with silver threads and gold embellishments, deserve special mention. The testament further enumerates various objects crafted from lead glass and rock crystal, including a glass vessel featuring a silver-spouted arrangement with crystal and silver edges, embellished with precious stones and pearls, as well as two crystal and silver candlesticks, a crystal cup with a silver lid, and two crystal cups adorned with silver, precious stones, and pearls.5

Most, if not all, of the items enumerated in Viglioni’s inventory were acquired from European manufacturers, as indicated by Viglioni’s mention that they belonged not only to himself but also to fellow citizens, implying a commercial arrangement. A cursory examination of the materials employed in these items further substantiates their European origin. According to Luca Molà, a significant portion of the inventory can be traced back to the Venetian glass industry, which had been organized into a guild in 1284.6 Additionally, Viglioni references materials such as jasper, sardonyx, agate, and heliotrope. These four mineral aggregates are derived from quartz, and during the Middle Ages the distinctions between different forms of non-crystalline quartz were rather unclear.7 In the Persian encyclopaedia Nuzhat al-Qulub (c.1340), quartz stones similar to those mentioned by Viglioni are referred to as “plasma” and “rock crystal”. The author, Hamdallah Mustawfī (c.1281–1339), notes their abundant presence in the “hills of the Frankish countries” and their renowned status in Īl-Khānid Persia.8

Gift Giving and Ortagh

The unique nature of the inventory list has, in my opinion, not received the attention it warrants. In fact, approaching the document from a different perspective could improve our understanding of the “commercial” endeavours undertaken by merchants like the Polos and Viglioni. This article contends that these individuals served as pioneers of a broader movement, comprising merchants and adventurers who not only sought personal wealth by winning the favour of the Īl-Khānids but also aimed to integrate themselves into the Mongol economic system, establishing personal political and economic ties with the Mongol aristocracy. Therefore, in seeking to comprehend the various possibilities inherent to the use of Viglioni’s assortment of items, it is important to consider that these goods were not primarily intended for exchange but rather as gifts to gain favour with the Mongol aristocracy.

This occurrence would not be unprecedented in European interactions with the Mongols. As Yihao Qiu has rightly pointed out, the practice of gift giving underwent a radical transformation during the Mongol expansion. Presenting gifts to a ruler or to a Mongol official not only meant adhering to the rituals of hospitality, but also acknowledging the superiority of the conqueror and entering under his protection: in short, the practice slowly transformed into a sort of tribute, becoming extremely important to those who wished to win the favour of nobles and princes.9 European merchants and missionaries had previously recognized the significance of gift-giving at their own expense. For instance, during his embassy, the Franciscan friar John of Plano Carpini (c.1182–1252) emphasized the indispensability of valuable gifts for any envoy dealing with the Mongols. The friar himself had to frequently justify the absence of gifts from his master, the pope.10

Italian merchants undoubtedly demonstrated a clear understanding of Mongol customs, as emphasized by Michael Balard and Nicola Di Cosmo in their analysis of the notarial acts of Lamberto di Sambuceto. In 1291, for instance, a Genoese merchant named Pietro de Braino enlisted the services of a falconer and embarked on a journey to the court of Arghūn Khan (r. 1284–1291), bringing with him several falcons as gifts. The falconer was promised a substantial sum of 800 aspres, a significant investment meant to secure favour with the Mongol khan upon successfully delivering the animals to the Īl-Khānid court.11 Marco Polo (1254–1324) also reported instances of gift exchange between the Polo brothers, Niccolò (ca. 1230–1294) and Maffeo (ca. 1230–1309), and Berke Khan (r. 1257–1266), the ruler of the Golden Horde, occurred the year preceding Viglioni’s testament. They presented Berke Khan with their entire collection of jewels and in return he bestowed upon them goods worth twice the value of the items received. Subsequently, they were dispatched to sell those goods in various parts, fetching excellent prices: “They gifted him with all the jewels they were carrying, the khan gave them goods that were worth twice as much the things he received; [the khan] then sent them to sell those goods in parts in which were sold at very good prices.”12 Much like the Polo brothers, Viglioni’s family had been active in the Pontic region for several decades, so the merchant was surely aware of these dynamics and intended to present his gifts as acts of deference and as a means to secure his position within Mongol elite circles.13

Persian texts provide several examples that highlight how gift giving could also be associated with personal, economic, or political alliances. Of particular interest is the well-documented practice of ortagh (from the Turkish ortaq, or partner), a form of commercial association that primarily developed between the Mongol aristocracy and Muslim merchants.

The nature of this commercial partnership has been a subject of significant debate. However, recent studies conducted by Thomas Allsen and Elizabeth Endicott-West have shed light on its intricacies. Arrangements linked to the ortagh are first mentioned in The Secret History of the Mongols, where Genghis Khan (r. 1206–1227) and his family provided gold and precious goods to their commercial partners before dispatching them for trade in the Khwārazmshāh.14 This capital presumably originated from the wealth amassed by Mongol aristocrats during military campaigns, acquired in the form of either booty or tribute.15 Such practices consolidated and expanded as the empire grew, with Mongol princes and aristocracy actively promoting and participated in Eurasian trade through their ortagh.

Studies on the partnership between Mongol aristocracy and Asian merchants, particularly Uighurs and Muslims known as Huihui 回回 in Chinese sources, reveal the widespread popularity of the ortagh among Mongol elites even after the division of the Mongol empire.16 Rashid al-Dīn (1247–1318) documents that women from the Mongol-Persian elite invested their revenues from tributes or plunder in their own ortagh. This practice became so prevalent that Persian locals would sell their sons to Mongol ladies and dignitaries, hoping they could eventually become ortagh.17

The ortagh was also a form of control over individuals: by associating with merchants, Mongol princes could reward loyalty by granting generous trade privileges and political roles, further enhancing their control over enterprises in the region.18 For Mongol aristocrats, sharing their capital with a merchant was never an agreement between equals; it inherently represented both “privilege” and submission.19 In general, merchants in the Mongol empire enjoyed privileged status due to their economic and administrative importance to the Mongol rulers. However, this privilege also implied service and cooperation in various other fields. Muslim merchants, particularly Uighurs, were highly esteemed by the Mongols, who employed their skills in diverse areas, including administration and tax collection, for the benefit of the entire empire.20

As pointed out by Allsen, an ortagh partnership often manifested through the exchange of gifts, which often concealed substantial business transactions.21 Merchants were expected to present gifts when received by their masters. They then received generous compensation that was presented in the form of gift (sauya or sauyat in Mongolian) but was actually a capital investment in their enterprises.22 Allsen has also emphasised how Mongolian princes often paid exorbitant prices for certain goods or compensated merchants more than the value of lost items as a display of their generosity. This indicates that the ortagh system was initially, at least, not necessarily economically advantageous for the princes, but rather served to attract merchants willing to cooperate with the new conquerors. One such occurrence is reported by the Persian historian Aṭā Malek Juwaynī (1226–1283) at Ögödei’s (r. 1229–1241) court: “Several merchants had come that day. They took the wares of each of them, and the khan gave them all a greater sum than the actual price.”23 It is significant that Viglioni’s items resemble gifts described in several Mongol and Persian chronicles, reflecting Mongol taste for jewels and finely decorated materials. For instance, some of the items received as gifts by Genghis Khan at the beginning of his conquests are described as follows in The Secret History of the Mongols:24 “Burqan came for an audience with Chinggis Khan. During the audience, Burqan [presented Chinggis Khan with a set of gifts]: first among them were golden images of the Buddha. They also included bowls and vessels of gold and silver, nine of each […] various [other things], also arranged in nines by kind or colour, [were presented] in the course of the audience.”25 Juwaynī also mentions gifts many times in his work, although he only occasionally described what was given or received: “Among the presents was a belt studded with stones, also called jaundice stones, made and devised by Korguz himself and altogether priceless. Upon seeing it, the khan, out of curiosity, fastened it around his waist.”26 In a later chronicle, Persian official Faḍlallah Sharaf al-Din Shīrāzī (1265–1328), also known as Vassaf, reports the list of gifts brought by the Īl-Khānid official Fakhr al-Dīn to China: “presents of cloths, jewels, costly garments, and hunting leopards […] were given to him, and [he] loaded them [ships and junks] with his own merchandise and immense jewels and pearls.”27

Much like the Polos, Italian merchants, upon entering the Mongol empire, were already familiar with these sorts of arrangements: the term ortagh is present in the Codex Cumanicus, a religious guide compiled for the purpose of evangelization, which was completed by missionaries with the help of merchants. The Latin term socius, which in this context denotes a partner in commercial contracts, is equated with ortagh in the Codex Cumanicus.28 This suggests that Italian merchants sought to establish partnerships or engage in the Mongol system of wealth and prestige distribution, in ways that resembled the role of, or perhaps simply were, ortagh. To this end, Italian merchants might have consciously adopted Mongol customs and gift-giving practices to navigate the complexities of Mongol society. The evidence suggests that they were for some decades very successful in achieving this in Persia, building a remarkable degree of cooperation with the Īl-Khānid aristocracy and on occasion with the īl-khāns themselves. It is this evidence to which we now turn.

More Than Just Merchants

During the decades immediately following Viglioni’s testament, there appears to be a relative dearth of surviving sources documenting Italian activities in Persia for a period of approximately two decades. This can be attributed, at least in part, to political upheavals in the Byzantine empire and the conflicts between Genoa and Venice, which likely disrupted trade routes in the Black Sea and Mediterranean, discouraging merchants from venturing further inland. From the beginning of the 1280s, however, commercial documents are rather abundant: the earliest example reported by Balard is the settlement of a debt to Luchetto di Recco of 180 pounds of silver by deed of the notary Giovanni Amico di Soziglia. The contract was drawn up in Sivas in 1280, in the house of a fellow Genoese, Lamba Doria. In a previous contract, Luchetto had chosen to be reimbursed in Tabriz: the payment did not happen, so the merchant was again claiming the sum in the presence of Giacomo Embriaco, Percivalle Castagno, and Niccolò Zaccaria.29 Balard also reports a sale of rubies from the region of Badakhshān recorded in Genoa in 1283. The gemstones belonged to a certain Ospinello: a merchant stationed in the city of Tabriz.30

The volume of Genoese trade seems to increase as we move closer to the end of the century. Several contracts of sales are registered for the years 1291 and 1292, like the already mentioned hiring of a falconer on the Trebizond – Tabriz route and the sale of French textiles.31 Bautier edited a contract referring to the formation of a societas by the Maloncello brothers in the year 1293, with the objective to venture further inland and perhaps reach the island of Kish and the Indian Ocean.32 Marco Polo transited in Tabriz in 1273 on his way to China, then again in 1294 during his trip back to Europe. During this second stop Polo describes the city as teeming with Genoese merchants, attracted by the availability of precious goods.33

From the evidence it seems that Arghūn Khan was particularly keen on developing a relationship with the Genoese, something that eventually led to the establishment of a permanent colony.34 In 1304, Genoa already had a well-established presence in the city, with a consul, a notary and perhaps even a “fonduk” or “fondaco”.35 According to William Adam (d. 1241), who wrote his De modo Sarracenos Extirpandi around 1317 while residing in Persia as the bishop of Soltanieh, the Genoese undertook several commercial enterprises with the approval of Arghūn Khan. Among these were a project to arm galleys to safeguard the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea coasts, and the preparation of an expedition in Baghdad along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers with the intention of disrupting Mamlūk trade with India.36

It is not until later that a substantial Venetian presence can be detected, as the first official documents concerning the relations between the Republic of Venice and the Īl-Khānate date to the first decade of the fourteenth century.37 It also seems that prior to the 1290s Italian activity in the Īl-Khānate was largely a consequence of individual initiatives of merchants and adventurers. Like Viglioni, these individuals knew the region very well, and were previously active either in Anatolia or in the Crusader ports along the Levantine coast. It is quite evident that the objective of these expeditions was not only to trade with the Īl-Khānate, but to associate with the Mongols. In fact, during the reigns of Hülegü (r. 1258–1265), Abaqa (r. 1265–1282), Arghūn, and Gaykhatu (r. 1291–1295), and only with a brief interruption during the reign of Ahmed Tekuder (r. 1282–1284), Christianism had been favoured by the īl-khāns. Hülegü’s first wife was in fact Christian, and many of the Īl-Khānid generals and governors had embraced Nestorian Christianism. On the Latin side, travel to Persia might also therefore have been encouraged by rumours of an Īl-Khānid conversion to Christianity, for during the 1270s and the 1280s these expeditions brought a considerable number of Latins to the borders of the Īl-Khānate.

Once in Persia, merchants and adventurers alike entered the service of the Īl-Khānid as envoys or mercenaries. The presence of “Frankish” (probably Genoese) mercenaries is recorded on several occasions: apart from the already mentioned galley patrolling the shores of the Black Sea on behalf of Arghūn, we know of crossbowmen following the Mongol army in its Syrian campaigns and as far as modern-day Afghanistan.38 William Adam’s account of Genoese cooperation in the Indian Ocean is corroborated by Bar Hebraeus’s (1226–1286) Chronicon Syriacum when it hints at the commercial/military Genoese expedition along the Euphrates organised by Arghūn Khan to curtail Mamlūk trade. Adam uses the expression “favente eodem imperatore, imo poc[t]ius faciente”, meaning that the emperor not only favoured the enterprise, but took an active part in it, by covering providing trade goods or arming the galleys for the expedition.39

Latins were not the only Christians tasked with important missions, as the Mongol court was a place where the lines between the roles of merchant, courtesan, diplomat, and administrator were quite blurred. Italian merchants, however, often from affluent and prestigious families, possessed exceptional skills in reading, writing, and multilingual communication. Their extensive experience in long-distance travel made them perfect messengers and intermediaries. During the reigns of Arghūn and Ghāzān, Italians were the preferred agents to convey information and messages to the west. While during the reigns of the first three īl-khāns (1256–1284), Mongol envoys to the west were mainly monks, friars, or simply people who were employed in Īl-Khānid bureaucracy; the shift towards merchants began around the second half of the 1280s. After this period, Īl-Khānid diplomatic missions to Europe seem to have been overwhelmingly handled by Italians. This trend lasts at least until the reign of Öljaitü (r. 1304–1316), with the last missions to the pope in 1305.40

Italians also conducted their own business interests while on official missions: the Genoese Buscarello de Ghisolfi, while accompanying the English ambassador, invested 600 silver pounds in Genoa. Michele Dolfin, the Venetian envoy who signed a treaty between Venice and the īl-khāns in 1320, collected some sort of credit in Trebizond during his trip to Persia.41 Outside of personal business, we have no concrete proof that these merchants also acted as economic agents on behalf of the īl-khāns in Europe. We know, however, that such practices were very common among Muslim merchants. One of the most famous cases refers to the already cited Fakhr al-Dīn, dispatched to China by Ghāzān Khan with a diplomatic mission but also to collect some investments for his master: the merchant, however, after supplying ships as part of his commitment to the contract, concomitantly pursued business opportunities on his own.42

A Selected Few

As illustrated before, pursuing independent business opportunity was not the only prerogative of ortagh in the Mongol world. Cooperation in matters concerning statecraft and diplomacy was also required, and the role of some Italian merchants at the Īl-Khānid court, once again, perfectly fits this picture. There are, in fact, several examples of Italian merchants not only acting as envoys of the īl-khāns, but even claiming to be permanently in their service. The first, and probably the most important one, is that of Pericciolo or Isol De Anastasio Bofeti, a Pisan. Often mentioned as Iolus, or Tchol, Isol is perhaps the most interesting figure at the service of the khans. His period at the Mongol court was the longest among the Italian merchants to serve there, as his name is attested to for at least two decades.

Both Paul Pelliot and Jean Richard reference two letters from Pope Nicolas IV (r. 1281–1292) addressed to Isolo, thanking him for the service provided and for the help he could grant to missionaries in Persia thanks to his powerful position at the Īl-Khānid court.43 They both overlook, however, another letter that can presumably be dated to 1289. The document is a relation from ten Franciscan friars coming back to Rome after having resided for ten years in Persia. In the report they wrote that Isol, “Having spent a long time in these lands, had won for himself the greatest wealth and authority among the Tartars, and had helped them in their plans and enterprises.”44 The relation would suggest that the Pisan was active at the Īl-Khānid court perhaps even before Arghūn’s accession to Īl-Khānid throne in the early 1280s, contrary to what it is commonly believed. This makes Isol the earliest example of Īl-Khānid political cooperation with a Latin merchant. Isol is also mentioned in a variety of other sources: the Georgian historian Orbelian (c.1250–1304), referring to events of 1288, designates him as a “Frankish prince” under the name of sire Tchol.45

It is debatable whether Isol was a merchant who became familiar with the court of the īl-khāns of Persia; none of our documents reveal him in the exercise of commercial functions. According to Jean Richard he had an extensive knowledge of commercial routes and shipping as it was thanks to him that several merchants engaging in illegal trade with Egypt were excommunicated by Boniface VIII (r. 1294–1303) in 1300.46 In 1301 Isol appears twice in the registers of the Genoese notary Lamberto di Sambuceto in which he is named nobilis vir Ciolus Bofeti and Zolus de Anastasio.47 His position at the Persian court is quite unclear, but he is most probably the only Latin mentioned by a Persian literary source. Specifically, Rashīd al-Dīn refers to him as Ğōl Bahādur, specifying that he was the “souverain of Pisa”: “And next to the Maghrebi Sea, near the city of Genoa, there is a very famous city called Pisa. It has a great army both on land and on the sea. Gol Bahadur is king there, and he was in friendship and agreement with the Chinggisid kings of the Mongols and the Turks.”48

According to the Gestes des Chiprois, in 1299 Isol was sent by Ghāzān to coordinate the joint campaign of 1300 in Syria, and he embarked on the fleet of the king of Jerusalem, Henry II.49 An unknown Florentine chronicle reported by Domenico Manni (1690–1788) mentions, in 1295 (with a margin of error of at least four years), that the embassy was led by “Dominus Guisciardus de Bastaribus de Florentia” and had contained one hundred Mongol dignitaries: “Ambaxiator Magni Tartari cum centum sociis omnibus tartarice indutis” (The ambassador of the great khan, with one hundred men, all brought from the land of the Tartars).50 This Guiscard was probably a subordinate of Isolo of Pisa, as a document attests his presence in Italy as an emissary of Isolo to Charles of Anjou asking for the release of a prisoner “who had fought alongside Ghāzān against the Saracens”.51 A chronicle from Giovanni Villani (c.1280–1348) mentions that Guiscard was born and raised in the Īl-Khānate, with his parents presumably in Persia as early as the 1270s.52

In 1301, Guiscard was received by the pope, where he delivered Isol’s letter qualifying the Pisan as Ghāzān’s “vicarius” of the newly conquered Syria after the victory at Homs in 1299.53 Richard’s hypothesis that Isol was tasked by Ghāzān of returning the lost territories to the crusader in case of victory is quite reasonable, as in the previous missives an agreement on the matter had been reached since the reign of Arghūn.54 We do not possess any source that testifies to the presence of Isol in Persia after 1301. The material analysed, however, opens some interesting considerations: His role as Īl-Khānid “vicar” was probably more centred around the Levant. Furthermore, Isol seems to be a stable presence at the Īl-Khānid court, acting more as a sort of coordinator than a normal envoy. If the hypothesis that refers to him as a possible godfather for Öljaitü’s baptism could be confirmed, one can easily see how such a powerful individual could have been instrumental in the Īl-Khānid open-door policy towards Europe for almost two decades, convincing the Franks to take part in the only joint military action after almost fifty years of diplomatic correspondence.55 Furthermore, almost all the merchants employed as Īl-Khānid envoys seem to have been operating in a timespan corresponding with Isol’s period at the Persian court, almost as if the Pisan himself had a role in presenting them to the khan.

This was probably the case for Tommaso de Anfusiis, a Genoese merchant or banker, who did not seem to bear an honorific title; nonetheless he was chosen by the īl-khāns as escort to the Nestorian monk Rabban Ṣawma (1220–1294) and his embassy to Europe of 1287.56 The ambassador, who stayed for a long time in Genoa during the summer of 1287 and the winter of 1287–1288, went to the courts of Philip the Fair of France (r. 1285–1314) and Edward of England (r. 1272–1305), then returned to the East, bringing with him letters from Pope Nicholas IV.

At the beginning of 1289 the pope sent John of Montecorvino to the East, bearing letters for Arghūn.57 Another embassy departed the same year in the opposite direction, led by another Italian, Buscarello De’ Ghisolfi, bringing proposals for a concrete action against the Mamlūks. The aim of the latter was probably to secure a quick response from the pope, the king of France and the king of England. In the letter the merchant is referred to as Muskeril and given the title of qurči (quiver carrier), or one of the members of the khan’s royal guards.58 Buscarello obtained from the pope a letter of recommendation for the king of England, arriving in London the same year with an escort. After less than a month he was in France at the court of Philip the Fair, delivering the khan’s letter and a summary written in French by himself. Another embassy from the īl-khāns arrived at the end of 1290, prompting feedback from Europe.

In 1291, Edward responded by sending the English nobleman Godfrey of Langley, escorted again by Buscarello. The group departed from Genoa and arrived in Persia at the beginning of 1292. By then, Arghūn was dead and his successor Gaykhatu was not interested in negotiations with the Latins. After the embassy of 1292, for almost a decade Buscarello seems to disappear from the sources: at the apex of Mongol–European cooperation his place seems to be taken by Isol and his envoy Guiscard. In 1302, Ghāzān Khan sent the latter to Europe together with two Mongol notables with the response to a papal embassy, presumably in turn received in response to Guiscard’s expedition in 1301. The embassy again departed Italy to meet Edward in England. Again, European idleness dashed any hope of cooperation.

On 20 June 1303, Buscarello left Genoa again, presumably to come back to the Īl-Khānate. His name does not appear among the members of the last embassy sent by Öljaitü to Boniface VIII in 1305, as the merchant probably died during the first decade of the fourteenth century. Paviot cites a notarial act mentioning Argone De’ Ghisolfi, Buscarello’s son in 1317: the choice of the name of Arghūn Khan for his son is probably the best expression of the merchant’s devotion and gratitude towards his first master.59

Tommaso Ugi from Siena seems to take Buscarello’s place in the latest Mongol–Europe exchange of missives, probably from 1303 to 1307. Öljaitü addresses him as “sword bearer” or “ilduchi”.60 In 1305, while on a diplomatic mission to the pope, Ugi also acted as testimony in an economic dispute between a Persian and a Venetian merchant and had an important role in the mediation of the first treaty between Venice and the Īl-Khānate.61

This summary reconstruction of Italian cooperation with the īl-khāns allows us to determine that most of the cooperation occurred during the reign of Arghūn and Ghāzān, in a period ranging roughly from 1285 to 1304, with a relatively small break during the reign of Gaykhatu (r. 1291–1295). Making a comparison between the diplomatic sources and the commercial data, it becomes quite evident how the growth of a Genoese presence (and perhaps even an Italian presence in general) coincides with this period. In fact, if for the years 1280–1290 we have very little commercial data, at the beginning of the fourteenth century we can be certain of the presence of well-structured communities and even witness the first commercial treaties. If my hypothesis is correct and the two phenomena are strictly related, on the Īl-Khānid side we can interpret the encouragement of Italian presence in Tabriz as a signal of diplomatic overture to Europe, a sign of a favourable predisposition towards the Latins. At the same time, this increase probably also came as a consequence of the influential position assumed by some Italians (i.e., Isol) at the Īl-Khānid court, who sometimes also acted as intermediary to broker favourable commercial treaties, as in the case of Tommaso Ugi.

The True Nature of a Mutually Beneficial Relation

What can we make of all this? The rise of powerful individuals like Isol, Buscarello, and Tommaso Ugi at the Īl-Khānid court raises the question of why Italian merchants gradually became this significant in Īl-Khānid diplomatic correspondence with Europe. The answer lies in the Īl-Khānids’ attempts to establish meaningful diplomatic and military cooperation with European powers, which had thus far proven unsuccessful. During the last two decades of the thirteenth century, the Īl-Khānate faced internal turmoil and increased pressure from neighbouring powers. These conditions created a pressing need for allies, particularly among European kings and the pope. In their attempts to overcome diplomatic isolation and relieve the mounting pressure, the Īl-Khānids pursued alliances with European powers more vigorously.

Īl-Khānid willingness to use merchants as their preferred messengers could be attributed to different factors: First, as discussed, the Mongols had long-standing associations with merchants, recognizing their significance as political actors. Īl-Khānid rulers had a history of cooperation with merchants and understood the mutual benefits derived from such partnerships. Their familiarity with merchant networks facilitated the Īl-Khānids’ engagement with Italian merchants and established a foundation of mutual trust and understanding. Conversely, the motivations of Italian merchants within the Īl-Khānid court can be understood from a sociological perspective, as they were driven by self-interest rather than a larger allegiance to Christendom or the Italian republics. This approach mirrored the behaviour of Italian merchants and communities in the eastern Mediterranean and aligned with the dynamics within the Īl-Khānid court, where individuals competed for power, resources, and favourable positions. This may have contributed to their versatility as actors in the region, and made them plausible intermediaries between the īl-khāns and the Latin rulers.

Second, and no less important, most of the diplomatic efforts towards Europe until 1289 had been coordinated by clergymen, both from Europe and from within the Īl-Khānate. The pope’s and the Nestorians’ concerns for Mongol conversion often seriously undermined cooperation, as testified by the correspondence between Arghūn and pope Nicholas IV.62 It is therefore possible that Īl-Khānid rulers sought a more pragmatic group to work with, as these clergymen’s “double allegiance” hindered military cooperation. By having esteemed Christians, often of aristocratic status, vouching for them, the Īl-Khānids could promote a favourable reputation in Europe as protectors of Christians, an image they actively cultivated and propagandised in their correspondence. Italian merchants, driven by their pursuit of personal gain, proved to be more reliable intermediaries compared to clergymen, requiring no compromise on religious matters. This reasoning of course, did not apply to all merchants, but to a select few. However, by granting prestigious political positions within the Īl-Khānid court to select individuals, the rulers recognized the strategic importance of establishing connections with the whole community. These influential merchants, in turn, sought to leverage their positions to secure advantages for their respective communities, leading to a mutually beneficial settlement.

Furthermore, although trade with Europe was not a crucial resource for the Īl-Khānate, the rulers understood the economic significance of Mediterranean trade for their adversaries, particularly the Mamlūk sultanate. European merchants, with their economic and political influence, provided the Īl-Khānids with monetary revenues while simultaneously undermining the Mamlūks’ access to certain resources. By capitalizing on the merchants’ pursuit of wealth, the Īl-Khānids established expedited diplomatic channels and weakened the Mamlūks’ commercial interests in the Mediterranean. However, despite their efforts, the Īl-Khānids encountered difficulties in attaining consistent and substantial support from European powers. Their diplomatic success varied due to the complex political landscape and priorities of European nations. While they were able to establish connections and occasionally secure support from Levantine Latin rulers and the pope, the Īl-Khānids struggled to gain consistent backing in European courts or, as far as we can tell, even to fully understand European power dynamics.

An Inevitable Decline?

After 1303, another failed Īl-Khānid offensive in Syria and the waning interest in territorial expansion in the Levant during the fourteenth century coincided with significant changes in the relations between the Īl-Khānate and Italian merchants. European sources from this period provide valuable insights into these evolving dynamics. Venice and Genoa, for instance, began implementing regulations on their merchants’ presence in Tabriz, marking a shift in their approach. The Officium Gazarie, a Genoese institution responsible for Black Sea trade, extended its jurisdiction to Tabriz, delegating administrative affairs to the consul and a council of wise merchants.63 Venice also established an institutional presence through treaties signed in 1306 and 1320, and the appointment of a consul by 1324.64 These regulations, particularly those related to conducting business with locals, suggest that the Italian republics sought to exert stricter control over their activities in the region due to the changing internal situation within the Īl-Khānate.

A progressive decline in the development of relations can be observed starting during the reign of Ghāzān (r. 1295–1304). His conversion to Islam, though marked by turmoil and religious conflict, was partly favoured by the widespread adoption of the religion by Mongol and Persian elites. It is, however, during the reign of his successor, Öljaitü, that Christian sources provide accounts of mounting intolerance and religious persecutions.65 Moreover, after the Īl-Khānid campaign against the Mamlūks proved unsuccessful in 1313, Öljaitü shifted military efforts towards the northern and eastern borders, thereby reducing the significance of the “Frankish alliance” with the Christian states in the Levant. Ultimately, the alliance dissolved when Abū Saʿīd (r. 1316–1335), Öljaitü’s successor, signed a treaty with the Mamlūks in 1322. Under his rule, hostility towards Christians escalated, resulting in the near eradication of the Roman Church within the Īl-Khānate by 1330.66 It was during Abū Saʿīd’s reign that animosity towards Christian merchants, including Italians, started to emerge within the Īl-Khānate. This shift can be attributed to several factors, including the absence of immediate economic benefits for Persia in engaging in trade with the Europe. Consequently, the Mongol-Persian aristocracy gradually perceived Italian merchants as less valuable and relevant to its diplomatic and strategic goals. This changing perception contributed to a decline in the Īl-Khānids’ willingness to continue to support and accommodate European merchants.

Despite the growing religious intolerance, Italian communities remained active in Persia during the first two decades of the fourteenth century, likely due to the policies implemented by the īl-khāns in the preceding decades. By 1305, Tabriz housed significant representatives from both the Genoese and Venetian communities. Recognizing the need to formalize these communities’ presence and their relations with the Īl-Khānate, Venice and Genoa initiated a series of treaties starting in 1305. Interpreting the clauses of these treaties is challenging due to the lack of contextual information. One common element is that they highlight concerns about harassment of merchants by Mongol authorities, as exemplified by a dispute in 1306 that led to the signing of a treaty between Venice and the Īl-Khānate.67 The treaty sought to safeguard Venetian merchants’ safety and economic independence, addressing issues such as compulsory sales of goods and the return of wares upon a merchant’s death.68 These provisions indicate the prevalence of predatory practices and the Mongol elites’ attempts to impose ortagh-like practices on Venetian merchants.69

Regarding Genoa, the interpretation of the regulations issued by the Officium Gazarie is more complex. Starting from the 1310s, the Genoese council implemented restrictions on conducting business in Tabriz. Merchants were required to obtain a license from the consul of Tabriz and were only allowed to trade for a maximum consecutive period of four months. They could only use cash and goods brought from Italy, and they had to keep track of their transactions. The patrimony of foreigners accompanying merchants was limited to a maximum of two thousand Tabrizi bezants to prevent fraud. The consul and three wise men (boni homines), chosen from the Genoese community, had to oversee negotiations involving pack animals. Additionally, all Genoese merchants were prohibited from forming partnerships or associating capitals with locals to purchase trade goods. Similar restrictions, although less systematic, were likely implemented by other merchant republics as well.70

These regulations signified a notable departure from the previously privileged relations that the Genoese had maintained with the Īl-Khānid court. This raises the question of whether these restrictions were voluntarily imposed by the Genoese themselves or if they were a direct outcome of an Īl-Khānid decree. It is quite striking, after all, that the first significant institutional interventions in the region coincide with the beginning of the decline of Italian trade.

Did the Italian republics actively originally seek to exploit the presence of influential Latin individuals to assert control over the merchants and safeguard their economic interests in the region? By leveraging the status and connections of Italian merchants, the republics might have aimed to expand their influence within the Īl-Khānate, securing advantageous trade agreements and protecting the rights of their merchants (or rather enforcing their own regulations). The republics perceived the merchants as valuable assets in maintaining their economic and political dominance and preserving their position in the Mediterranean trade networks. In this sense, Italian merchants acted as brokers, facilitating a gradual extension of the Republics’ political control. This behaviour might have ultimately contrasted with Īl-Khānid interests and strategies.

Unfortunately, Genoese sources do not provide clear insights into this matter. However, a Venetian document from 1324 sheds light on the changing Īl-Khānid attitude towards Italians. In a letter to the Doge, the Venetian consul Marco da Molin complains about the lack of discipline among the Venetian community in Tabriz and warns that conducting business there had become increasingly dangerous.71 The letter recounts an incident involving a Venetian merchant named Domenico Quirini who disregarded the consul’s prohibitions and traded with a “Saracen” merchant. Quirini was fined heavily after his compatriots reported him to the Venetian authorities. In retaliation, Quirini lodged a harsh complaint to the “Saracen” merchant, likely an ortagh of Abū Saʿīd’s mother (the Khatun), and was to report as follows: “My Lady, I came here to make your land rich. I wanted to buy expensive goods, and I would have paid very well for them. I was, however, beaten and overpowered by the Venetians. I, therefore, ask you to give me some of your guards so that I can beat them, capture them, and bring them here before you.”72 The Khatun responded harshly by arresting the individuals who reported the irregularity and setting their ransom at an exorbitant price. This violation of the 1320 treaty may have served as a punishment for Venetian interference in Īl-Khānid trade policies. While it is unclear if Venetian institutional interference or a broader change in attitude towards Europe led to this shift, contemporary Armenian and Nestorian chronicles suggest that increasing hostility towards Christians played a role. The Venetian letter seems to foreshadow the subsequent shift in Mongol aristocracy’s attitude towards Italian merchants, moving towards indifference or even intolerance, despite the merchants’ commercial success in the region. Cases like this help explain the stricter trade regulations issued by Venice and Genoa, likely aimed at avoiding conflicts with the local population.

After the death of Abū Saʿīd in 1335, the Īl-Khānate began to disintegrate into multiple princedoms governed by prominent noble families. The fall of the Īl-Khānate marked the abandonment of any political alliances and cooperation with Europe. Local dynasties like the Chobānids and the Jalāyirids had little interest in the Levant and did not share the broad political goals of the early Īl-Khānid rulers. They resorted to violence to extract wealth from Latin merchants whenever possible, enticing them to Persia with false promises. In the decades leading up to 1348, several episodes of violence against merchants occurred in Tabriz, resulting in significant losses for Italian merchants. As a result, both Genoa and Venice ceased all trade with Persia.73 In a brief report from 1344, the Venetian representative in Constantinople sought instructions from the Doge after being approached by a Chobānid delegation. The Doge’s response recommended extreme caution: “In the way you think is the most appropriate, talk to them and try to make them disclose whether any reparation can be made [for the losses] of our merchants […] Not signing anything but rather reporting [any response] directly to us.”74

The fact that Italian trade in Persia did not outlive the Īl-Khānate is significative of its symbolic importance for Īl-Khānid rulers, rather than its economic significance both for Persia and Europe. After the fall of the Īl-Khānate, Italians merchants would seldom be able to reach Persia, and even less to establish permanent profitable enterprises in the region. The very nature of Italian presence in Persia cannot be, therefore, understood, without understanding Īl-Khānid politics, diplomatic strategy, and long-term economic plans.

What this article aimed to achieve is to bridge the historiographical gap between Persian and Latin sources, providing the reader with a more critical view of Italian trade and diplomacy in a region that has for long just been considered an extension of European Levantine trade. Moving forward, any further examination of Latin trade in Greater Persia during this period must consider the profound influence of the Mongol agenda on European economic fortunes in the region.


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In this article, I have strived to include living dates for all mentioned individuals whenever information was available. Notably, many Italian merchants’ names are often unaccompanied by living dates due to their infrequent appearance, sometimes limited to just one or two instances within the sources. Furthermore, even when such names recur, the challenge of tracing these individuals beyond the consulted sources can be considerable. It is important to note that terms like “Italian” or “Persian” primarily denote geographical rather than ethnic affiliation.


Such arrangements were quite common in Italian merchant republics and often involved members of the same family or kinship network. They could be formalised in a contract in which individuals participated in the risk of a commercial expedition by choosing to invest in the purchase of commodities destined to foreign markets. Such contracts were known as accommendacio, colleganza, or collegantia. The Venetian term colleganzia, known as commenda in the other Italian merchant republics, identifies one of the most popular forms of contract, signed by two counterparts, namely the debitor and creditor, or socii. Kohler et al. (2019), 158–59. Baskin and Miranti (1999), 48.


I calculated the amount using the data provided by Pegolotti. See La Pratica della Mercatura. The most detailed analysis of the items is the one provided by Molà (2012), 133.


Archivio Veneto, 161–165; Molà (2012), 139–140. Molà suggests that Viglioni was about to embark on an expedition to China, but there is no evidence to support this statement.


Archivio Veneto, 163–164.


Molà (2012), 139.


Holmes (1934), 198.


Nuzhat-al-Qulub, 13–14.


Qiu (2020b), 213–227.


“When we came to the orda we were questioned by […] Eldegai, as to what we wanted to make our obeisance with, that is to say, what gifts we desired to give him; we answered him […] the Lord Pope had sent no presents”; The Journey of William of Rubruck, 10.


A huge sum considering that di Cosmo says that that around the same period the price for a house in Tana was 400 aspres. Di Cosmo (2005), 400. Balard (1973), 192.


Il Milione, 2.


Archivio Veneto, 163.


Khwārazmshāh is the name used to designate the Turkic-Persianate empire of the Khwārazm, successors to Seljuk rule in Persia.


For comprehensive studies on the ortagh (also rendered as “ortoy”), see Allsen (1989), 114–115; Endicott-West (1989), 127–154.


Park (2012), 110.


Enkhbold (2019), 533.


Ibid., 543.


Allsen (1989), 119.


Ibid., 83–84, 121–124.


Ibid., 120.




The History of the World Conqueror, 24.


The Secret History of the Mongols was presumably written during the reign of Mong‑ ke Khan.


The Secret History of the Mongols, 260.


The History of the World Conqueror, 496.


Tārīkḣ-i Waṣṣāf, 45.


The earliest copy of the codex is dated c.1303. Codex Cumanicus, 114.