The Silk Road - evoking a link between Chinese mulberry trees to European castle decor - is back on the radar. It refers to fascinating places and times – and also, inevitably, to Italy.

To be sure, the very name “Silk Road” is of German origin, coined as Die Seidenstrasse by Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen – the uncle of the legendary pilot Red Baron – only 140 years ago. And today’s revival is led by China, where President Xi is trying to muster interest in his Belt and Road Initiative that would link his country to Europe and maybe even usher in a Eurasia where maritime powers such as Britain and the U.S. are sidelined.

Yet in fact, the first European to go to China was almost certainly an Italian. True, a Chinese envoy tried to make it to Rome in the first century, but he stopped in Mesopotamia after canny Parthians in charge of intermediating the silk trade told him it would take forever and entail great danger to go further west. But it was a Roman expedition in the second century, ordered by Marcus Aurelius, that actually made the journey. And they traveled by sea – as the Romans knew a few things about trade, including that ships are cheaper and allowed for skipping around local wars and frontier taxes.

That wisdom is rather pertinent today as the BRI project currently envisions spanning 65 countries, not all of them on friendly terms, almost as many currencies and quite a few different railway gauges. Any prospective infrastructure investor looking to participate in the more than $1 trillion in planned projects there will have to be nimble.

And that’s where Marco Polo comes in. Doubts about whether he’d ever been in China – the tales of which he dictated while in prison in Italy – have been pretty much put to rest. Indeed, it seems he first went there because his father already had prospering merchant activities in Asia. The younger Polo struck up good relations with Kublai Kahn, greatly facilitating his movement.

That said, things happen in geopolitics. Marco Polo himself had great difficulty returning home, and claims he was robbed somewhere in what today is Turkey. Kahn passed away and his empire loosened, returning Central Asia to the crossroads and cultural mosaic that the Silk Road really refers to.
Today, more things have happened. For one, China is on the rise, and the West is not. In fact, while the BRI offers both sides a chance to improve their prospects, there are a vast set of cultural and institutional flash points.

Italy has often showed that it is an agile “frontier” player, able to achieve deals in countries others deem risky. Oil player ENI blazed trails into many borderland places. Atlantia has expanded into North and South America and also Asia. And many have forgotten, but the JPEG digital format you use on your smartphone was made in Italy too.

As for the Silk Road, it’s worth pondering observations made by the historian Valerie Hansen, who in her study Trading Cultures Along the Silk Road found that trade volumes in the region were actually rather slight. Silk, being lightweight, was shipped to soldiers patrolling China’s always-delicate eastern frontier, and then became a form of local currency. Public spending was a big part of what was happening – not unlike the BRI projects today.

Another point is that the region where Europe and Asia really meet hardly carries the signs of pervasive Chinese influence. In terms of religion, its pluralism is legendary, although primacy passed from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism and eventually Islam. The spread of Islamic power in the region paved the way for Moroccan-born Ibn Battuta to travel to China and back only a few decades after Marco Polo’s time.

The salient thing about Marco Polo – especially as we know of at least two European clerics who arrived in China before him in hopes of proselytizing – is that he was not on any sanctioned mission but a trader, there on his own account. On top of that, he was born in Venice at a time when the city was rising to become perhaps the most powerful Mediterranean center since Rome.

Historians attribute Venice’s gradual decline to naval power dynamics changing with the rise of the Atlantic trade – ushered in by Christopher Colombus from rival Genoa –and to its decision to seek an enlarged inland power base. In short, it got involved in Italian politics.

But Polo’s Venice was another state of mind, based on the savvy creation of shifting webs of alliances and influence around the Eastern Mediterranean. It was a crucible for a just-do-it attitude that probably made an intriguing fit to a Mongol establishing a new dynasty in famously bureaucratic China.

This essay has been written in a loose style so far. But remember, Marco Polo’s own autobiographical Adventures were written in French by a Tuscan poet very much in the troubadour tradition and the first Italian to write an Arthurian romance. We may never know exactly what happened – after all the book tells us more about fantastically strange animals than it does of what appear to be no less than three years spent in places like Kashgar and at the foot of the Pamir Mountains, an area known for trading in coveted lapis lazuli stones from Afghanistan. But he did it.

Today, the BRI appears even more audacious. It stretches from Shanghai all the way to Rotterdam, and loops down to Sri Lanka and East Africa and then up the Adriatic to Venice. A quarter of the countries it spans don’t have credit ratings, often at their own request. Some of the BRI projects are huge, and only if completed will trigger the knock-on projects that are part of the vision. The New Silk Roads are definitely plural, perhaps even more a process than a noun.

Many of its components, however, do connect directly to services, notably in the transportation and energy sectors, that will presumably be valued by users regardless of potential political instability of defaults. Innovative financing is going to be needed and will almost surely be found. This is where nimble investors, able to comply with bureaucracy but not slave to its shadows, can make a difference and perhaps collect a load of precious jewels along the way.

Both Marco Polo and later Christopher Columbus travelled Italo Calvino-style, with maps in their heads rather than their hands. They were not managers - or not only - but entrepreneurs of the world. 

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