How to Succeed in Business (According to a 15th Century Trade Merchant)

In 1458 a trade merchant Benedetto Cotrugli from Venice (where else?) wrote this book: The Book of the Art of Trade. It has now been translated in English and not surprisingly most of the lessons apply even today.

Julia Hanna in HBSWK writes:

In what could be considered the first business how-to book, an Italian merchant from the 1400s advises leaders to be charitable, ethical, and treat people fairly; be modest; look for the right qualities in a wife; be selective in deals; and retire at 50, when “natural fervor abates, his blood calms down, his intelligence dims and his memory becomes less quick, so that he risks committing many errors in his business.”

“In a sense, these are very early concepts of corporate social responsibility,” says Harvard Business School professor of management practice Dante Roscini, “He’s addressing the issue of responsibility to the community and who you are as a person.”

Written in 1458 in Venice by trade merchant Benedetto Cotrugli, The Book of the Art of Trade has just received its first English translation. Baker Library at HBS and the HBS Business History Initiative (BHI) recently hosted a reception celebrating the new release. The library’s late medieval and early Renaissance Italian business records housed in HBS’s Historical Collections in Baker Library are among the largest and most important collections in the world outside of Italy.


“You can think of Cotrugli’s book as an early manual for business,” Roscini says. “As Niall Ferguson notes in his introduction, it’s the beginning of the ‘how to’ tradition, in a sense. The book is a direct consequence of his everyday business practices and happens to contain some seminal concepts that are still here today.”

Much has changed in the centuries since The Book of the Art of Trade was published, perhaps most notably the role of women in society. But many of Cotrugli’s observations have continued relevance, despite the obvious differences in how we buy and sell today. And the differences that do exist are instructive.

“What we’re doing isn’t so new,” comments research associate Fredona. “We’re the children of these fathers, as it were.”

Hypothetically, if Cortugli was alive today he would obviously be surprised his book being read in HBS and perhaps more so on how basic lessons of business ethics and integrity need to be rediscovered by humanity…

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