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Introduction: Antonio Serra

and the Economics of Good

Rosario Patalano and Sophus A. Reinert

In the great Harvard economist Joseph A. Schumpeter’s posthumously

published masterwork History of Economic Analysis, he “credited” the
Southern Italian lawyer and economic writer Antonio Serra (f. 1613) with
being “the first to compose a scientific treatise ... on Economic Principles
and Policy”.1 What follows is the first ever anthology of essays dedicated
to Serra, who, though long having been eulogized in the historiography
of economics as a thinker of precocious sophistication, has seldom
received sustained attention from scholars, especially outside of Italy. In
fact, no monograph-length study has ever been dedicated to him in any
language, and he remains a dark horse in the historiography of political
economy – often quoted, but seldom understood or appreciated in his
historical context. Partly, this might be because of the many mysteries
surrounding the man and his work.
Little is known of Serra, except that he wrote his extraordinary 1613
Breve trattato delle cause che possono far abbondare li regni d’oro e d’argento
dove non sono miniere, or Short Treatise on the Causes that Make Kingdoms
Abound in Gold and Silver Even in the Absence of Mines, in the Neapolitan
jail of the Vicaria, and that he died there soon afterwards.2 We have few
details beyond these, but the Breve trattato reveals that he was a doctor
(probably in law) and that he intended to write a book on the Forza
dell’ignoranza, or The Power of Ignorance. The text of the book itself makes
it clear that he furthermore both had a humanist education and was well
versed in legal arguments and, strikingly, the languages and methods
of contemporary trade and international finance.3 A contemporary
Neapolitan chronicler furthermore mentions a meeting between Serra,
“incarcerated in the Vicaria for a long time”, and the Duke of Osuna,
Viceroy of Naples from 1616 to 1620, which occurred on Wednesday 6
September 1617, when the former wished to present a plan for reforms

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”of great use to the court” but, ultimately, was thrown back in his
cell.4 Two royal dispatches discovered in the late-19th century by the
Neapolitan historian and politician Luigi Amabile during his work on
the mystic friar Tommaso Campanella, dated 11 November 1612 and 27
May 1614, describe the arrest of one “doctor Antonio Serra” on a charge
of counterfeiting, but nothing proves that this was the same Serra.5
Around the mid-20th century, the economic historian Luigi De Rosa
in turn discovered a notarial contract, dating from 1591 and plausibly
relating to the author of the Breve trattato, that mentions one “doctor
Serra” as the owner of a sizeable estate.6 Finally, in recent work in the
Neapolitan State Archives, Rosario Patalano has discovered two further
Viceregal dispatches that mention the name of Antonio Serra. The
first, dated 18 June 1613, is particularly interesting because it reveals a
connection between Serra and Miguel Vaaz, Count of Mola, a converted
Jewish Portuguese merchant very close to the Count of Lemos, Viceroy
of Naples in the period from 1610 to 1616. The dispatch says “Antonio
Serra ... see the Viceroy; bring him this afternoon when the Count of
Mola arrives”. The second one, dated 28 June 1613, mentions a Serra
facing legal charges for debt.7
Plausibly, then, and though we may never be certain, Serra was a
well-educated doctor of law, formerly of some means and with practical
experience in trade and finance, perhaps in connection to Portuguese
merchant circles, who might have been jailed either for counterfeiting
or for the lesser crime of indebtedness. Whatever his life story and the
reasons for his incarceration, however, the Breve trattato was, much like
the plan for reforms that he presented the viceroy, an attempt at ingra-
tiating himself with the authorities to be let out of jail.8 Yet, the wider
context of his work’s publication, and indeed the focus of his writings,
was a deep financial crisis in the Kingdom of Naples and an ensuing
debate over its nature, causes, and possible remedy.
The Breve trattato itself is so rare that only a handful of copies are
extant, and for a long time it was believed that only a single volume had
survived the ravages of time, passing, in the words of the great philoso-
pher Benedetto Croce, like a “lamp of life” through the hands of Italy’s
greatest economists, from the Neapolitan Ferdinando Galiani in the
18th century to the Piedmontese Luigi Einaudi in the 20th.9 The “legen-
dary rarity” of the Breve trattato, not to mention its unique content,
in effect made it something of a Holy Grail among bibliophiles over
the course of the four centuries since its first publication.10 A veritable
mythology has come to surround Serra – about whom popular accounts
have been penned, poems have been recited, and imaginary portraits
Introduction 3

have been painted – the intensity of which can only be compared to the
likes of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Thorstein Veblen in the history of
With recent translations of Serra’s Breve trattato into Portuguese and
English, Serra’s text has finally been made available to a wider scholarly
and lay audience, and the time is therefore right to present a defini-
tive volume on the state of scholarship regarding Serra’s context, life,
work, and foundational role in the history of economics.12 After all,
his Breve trattato truly represents a watershed not only in the discipline
of economics and in the longer history of financial crises and debates
but in the history of social science and intellectual history more gener-
ally, explicitly and self-consciously formalizing a distinct sphere of
economic knowledge in early modern Europe. The ancients, he argued
in a humanist vein, were unsurpassable in all areas that had interested
them, and there was little value in adding to the vast corpus of clas-
sical commentary. Yet, the dynamics of the modern world and the rise
to prominence of economic forces had unveiled new areas of political
life that the authorities of antiquity had not addressed. Hence, Serra
did not want to discuss politics or the “art of government in general”,
because whether one preferred monarchies or republics, one could not
deal with such issues better than “Plato and Aristotle” had, nor would he
struggle with jurisprudence and how to “distinguish just from unjust”,
because in that one could not supersede the Emperor Justinian’s corpus
of Roman Law. What Serra did want to turn the attention of the reader
towards was a third, hitherto neglected, aspect of statecraft – an aspect,
however, which was of painful relevance for contemporary Naples:

My aim is to discover the causes that can make a kingdom abound in

money even if it possesses no gold or silver mines, a subject on which
not a single word has been written by any of the ancient or modern
writers on the ideal disposition of the political state.13

Where later “codifications” of economic knowledge as a “science” in

early modern Europe, especially in England, tended to emerge from an
explicit refutation of more erudite currents of contemporary humanism
and a concomitant embrace of technical expertise and merchant custom,
Serra approached the nascent discipline very differently. Though clearly
well versed in the minutiae of contemporary banking and the practice
of international trade – to the extent that he formulated one of the
very earliest analyses of a balance of payments – he resolutely quoted
his Petrarch and preceded with “scholarly rigour” to uncover the true
4 Rosario Patalano and Sophus A. Reinert

sources of the comparative, significantly competitive, wealth and

poverty of nations in the real economy.14
Serra’s key insight, studying the economies of Venice and Naples, was
that wealth was not the result of climate or providence but of policy.
While Venice, built on rotting poles in a malarial swamp, through sound
policy had risen to the very pinnacle of the world economy, Naples,
gifted by nature in every way, languished in poverty, destitution, and
dependence. Through a very systematic taxonomy of economic life,
Serra then went on from this insight to theorize about the causes of the
wealth of nations and the measures through which a weak, dependent
economy could achieve worldly melioration. Most importantly, Serra
realized, was that where a polity was located in the architecture of
the international economy, and which economic activities it pursued,
was of genuinely existential importance. Where Venice imported raw
materials from all over the world to produce and export some of the
most technologically sophisticated finished goods in Europe, Naples
did the opposite, exporting its raw materials in exchange for foreign
manufactures. Structures of international trade, which Serra theorized,
in a revolutionary manner in light of the difference between increasing
and diminishing returns to scale, could have deeply debilitating conse-
quences for a nation’s economic, cultural, and social life that could only
be reversed through policy.
The following essays situate Serra and his work in their historical
contexts – economic, cultural, and intellectual – and explore the
enduring appeal of his Breve trattato across a number of fields. Not only
does the present volume uncover new, hitherto unknown and unpub-
lished materials relating to Serra’s life and succinctly present the state
of the art of Serra scholarship, whether exploring the finer details of
his theory regarding international financial interactions or his indebted-
ness to Renaissance legal traditions, but it further highlights its contin-
uing relevance for facing some of the cardinal problems of the present.
We again find ourselves at a turning point not only for the interna-
tional economy but also for its ostensible “science”. Past certainties are
dissolving in light of the ongoing crisis and the return – both good and
bad – of state capitalism to international political economy. In the wake
of the Asian Tigers and China’s spectacular reappearance on the world
stage, scholars and laymen alike are being forced to rethink some of
the fundamentals of economics as it has developed since World War II.
And historians have an important role to play in this process, grounding
theoretical debates and providing venerable yet crucial perspectives on
current events.
Introduction 5

The importance of studying Serra and rediscovering the origins of

economic knowledge is testified to by the fact that the very issues with
which his contemporaries were concerned are currently at the forefront
of our political and scholarly consciousness, from the role of policy in
economic development to the challenges and possibilities of interna-
tional competition, the balance between finance and the real economy,
and the vexing nature of economic dependence and interdependence.
Though history may not supply immediate answers to our most pertinent
questions, a deeper, more nuanced, and less triumphalist understanding
of the history of economics – in short a more historical understanding
of political economy – can certainly inform our thoughts and policies.
And in few cases is this resonance deeper than with Serra and his Breve
The first chapter, by Gabriel Paquette, sets the stage for appreciating
Serra’s context through an analysis of “The Spanish Empire and their
Viceroyalties: Structures, Policies, and Historiography”. It situates Serra’s
Neapolitan milieu in the global context of the Spanish Empire, its
contemporary policies for political and economic reform in Viceroyalties
such as Naples, and how the ongoing re-appreciation of Serra must be
understood in light of recent historiographical developments in the
study of the reforms, political economy, and intellectual and cultural
history of the Spanish Empire.
This is followed by Francesca De Rosa’s short essay “The Vicaria
Prison of Naples in the time of Antonio Serra”, which contextualizes the
origins of the Breve trattato through an exploration of the little-known
conditions of incarceration in early 17th-century Naples. This facilitates
De Rosa’s historiographical discussion of the various theories that have
been proposed for Serra’s incarceration and helps set the stage to better
analyse the physical and legal world that Serra inhabited at the time of
his writing and how someone jailed at the time was able to write a work
like the Breve trattato to begin with.
Building on this background, Giovanni Zanalda’s chapter on “The
Cost of Empires: Antonio Serra and the Debate on the Causes and
Solutions of Economic Crises in the Kingdom of Naples in the Early 17th
Century” connects the structural problems that Serra’s Naples faced to
the intellectual life of the time and adumbrates the larger echoes of both
in the history of economic development. Tripartite in nature, it opens
by exploring a number of macroeconomic factors to shed light on the
crisis facing Neapolitans of Serra’s generation, including demographic
changes, the balance of payments, and institutional structures. It then
charts Serra’s reaction to these problems in terms of his emphasis on
6 Rosario Patalano and Sophus A. Reinert

the “real” rather than “financial” economy, before concluding with

an analysis of the extent to which Serra can be seen to have foreshad-
owed subsequent views about wealth and the role of institutions which
emerged in later debates about the political economy of the Dutch and
English commercial empires, not to mention in recent and contempo-
rary discussions regarding economic growth and development.
The fourth chapter, by Rosario Patalano, entitled “Serra’s Breve trattato
in a World-System Perspective: The Dutch Miracle and Italian Decline
in the Early 17th Century”, considers the dynamics of Serra’s larger
European economic context at the time. It employs a framework of
world-systems analysis to revisit Serra’s Breve trattato, and the contem-
porary debate in which he partook regarding economic reforms trig-
gered by the so-called “twelve years’ truce” between the great powers
of the period, in light of contemporary developments in the European
economy at large. Largely retrograde and agricultural, Southern Italy’s
integration into a larger European and increasingly global economic
architecture offered new possibilities as well as challenges, and Serra’s
“industrial” model, which looked back to the experiences of the Italian
city-states of earlier centuries, was from this perspective in the process
of being overcome by the rise of territorial powers such as England and
the Low Countries.
Following these different macroeconomic contexts for Serra’s work,
Gaetano Sabatini turns in Chapter 5 to the local milieu with which
Serra might have engaged in “The Influences of Portuguese Economic
Thought on the Breve trattato: Antonio Serra and Miguel Vaaz in Spanish
Naples”. Exploring the Breve trattato’s indebtedness to the Portuguese
tradition of political economy known as arbitrismo, this chapter breaks
new ground in Serra scholarship by charting the existence of newly
converted Portuguese Jews in Naples known as cristãos novos, or “new
Christians”, who soon occupied positions of privilege and served as a
conduit for Portuguese political and economic thought to the Spanish
Viceroyalty of Naples. On the basis of suggestive evidence, not only from
Lisbon and Naples but also from Serra’s hometown of Cosenza – and
corroborated also by Patalano’s recent archival discoveries – it further
suggests that Serra might have been close to this circle of Portuguese
thinkers and politicians and that his mysterious imprisonment can be
explained by virtue of his theoretical opposition to many of the main
tenets of the Neapolitan arbitristas.
Setting aside the question of Serra’s contexts, the sixth chapter, Sophus
A. Reinert’s “Authority and Expertise at the Origins of Macroeconomics”,
revisits the epistemological origins of thinking about macroeconomic
Introduction 7

phenomena in early modern Europe. Examining the longer history

of “economic expertise”, it focuses on key debates over the relation-
ship between theory and practice and the appropriate sources of trust
in arguments about economic matters in two “founding” moments
of the discipline: the Naples of Serra and the Williamite Settlement in
England. In both cases, the question of what sort of expertise could
confer “authority” to economic ideas was brought to the forefront, and,
though through very different channels in vastly different cultures of
learning, both cases ultimately saw influential theories emerge from the
codification and generalization of successful historical practices, both
micro and macro.
Linking the debate surrounding the Breve trattato more explicitly to
questions of political philosophy, Luca Addante’s “Wealth and Freedom
in the Republic: The Politics of Antonio Serra” turns to Serra’s faith in the
primacy of politics over the economy. Drawing on a current of political
realism that emerged from Niccolò Machiavelli and a Southern Italian
tradition of naturalism represented by Scipione Capece, Bernardino
Telesio, and Tommaso Campanella, Addante unveils Serra’s argument
for the importance of republican institutions in explaining Venice’s rise
to economic greatness. Though forced to embrace a certain discursive
opacity by the censorial context in which he wrote, the Breve trattato
nonetheless made powerful claims regarding the stability of republics
and their unique ability to direct elite behaviour towards the patriotic
aim of the common good. The rise to prominence of economic forces in
international affairs had profound political consequences for Serra, and
he considered the Italian republican paradigm uniquely able to harness
the commercial revolution.
A similar comparison informs Lilia Costabile’s “External Imbalances
and the Money Supply: Two Controversies in the English ‘Realme’ and
in the Kingdom of Naples”. Turning more strictly to the Breve tratta-
to’s economic theories, she returns to Serra’s debate with his contem-
poraries to shed new light on the theoretical origins of balance of
payments analysis. Comparing and contrasting the debate between
Serra, Marc’Antonio de Santis, and later the Neapolitan economic writer
Giovanni Donato Turbolo to a contemporary debate in London between
Gerard de Malynes and Edward Misselden, Costabile considers how they
created sophisticated frameworks for analysing the relationship between
financial markets, the real economy, and the international system. On
the foundation of this deeper understanding of the origins of balance
of payments analysis, she reassesses the school of economic thinking
known as “mercantilism”.
8 Rosario Patalano and Sophus A. Reinert

The ninth chapter, André Tiran’s “Real and Monetary Factors in the
de Santis–Serra Controversy”, similarly argues for Serra’s extraordinary
role in the history of economic analysis by virtue of his pathbreaking
attempt to formulate a comprehensive theory of economic develop-
ment. Not only did the Breve trattato analyse the problems of a country’s
trade balance and balance of payments in a precocious manner, but in
it Serra more generally theorized the relationship between economic
development, the real economy, and physical space. Serra highlighted
the fact that the balance of trade is a result of economic conditions in the
country in relations to others and that monetary phenomena are conse-
quences rather than causes of changes in the real economy. Economic
growth thus resulted from a plurality of economic and non-economic
factors in the real economy for Serra, who refused to allow money as
such to have a decisive role in the story.
Cosimo Perrotta then turns to “Serra and Underdevelopment”,
considering the Breve trattato in the context of mercantilism and
exploring its similarities to, and divergences from, iconic works
published elsewhere in Europe. In this larger debate, Serra’s position
was unique in that he wrote in a context of political and economic
dependence (to Spain as well as to Northern merchants). Naples was
unable to adopt an effective development policy of its own, because
it was a colony in terms of its international politics, dominated by
foreign merchants and domestically oppressed by feudal landlords.
So though Serra’s analysis of the causes of economic development
was extraordinary in a European context, the focus of his work was
on backwardness and dependence. In examining the Kingdom of
Naples, in short, Serra insightfully revealed the other face of the coin
of comparative growth in an international system: underdevelop-
ment, the mirror image of development.
Turning to Serra’s rich reception, Koen Stapelbroek’s “‘To Console
and Alleviate the Human Mind’: Ferdinando Galiani’s Attempted
Republication of Serra in the 1750s” opens the long history of Serra’s
historical influence, beginning with Ferdinando Galiani’s rediscovery –
and attempted republication – of the Breve trattato in the 1750s and his
public praise of it in 1780. Serra’s work became an inspirational text for
the first great generation of political economists in Enlightenment Italy,
including not only Galiani, a thinker whom Friedrich Nietzsche consid-
ered among the greatest of his century, but also Antonio Genovesi, Italy’s
first professor of political economy. On the basis of unpublished manu-
script evidence as well as in-depth analysis of Galiani’s work, Stapelbroek
shows how the Breve trattato served as a model for economic reforms in
Introduction 9

a Naples that, though formally a sovereign polity in the 18th century,

continued to struggle with different yet similar problems of decline and
dependence as it had during the time of Serra.
The twelfth chapter, Antonio Trampus’s “Francesco Saverio Salfi and
the Eulogy of Antonio Serra: Politics, Freemasonry, and the Consumption
of Culture in Early Nineteenth-Century Italy” subsequently maps the
real beginning of Serra’s rise to Italian and international fame in the
context of the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799 and the political programs
of Masonic networks throughout the peninsula. In particular, he focuses
on Francesco Saverio Salfi’s 1802 Elogio di Antonio Serra, or Eulogy of
Antonio Serra, and Serra’s subsequent 1803 inclusion in Baron Pietro
Custodi’s 50-volume collection of Italian economics, the vehicle for the
Breve trattato’s eventual fame in 19th-century Europe.
Salfi’s importance for the historiography on Antonio Serra is also
highlighted in Francesco Di Battista’s essay on “Serra’s Discovery and
Ill Fate in the Liberal Nineteenth Century”, which places the Breve trat-
tato in a longer tradition of Italian “civil” political economy rendered
famous by Antonio Genovesi, the peninsula’s first professor of the
subject. Considering the text’s mixed fortunes in the 19th century, Di
Battista focuses particularly on the debate that raged across Europe over
the “primacy” in economics and Serra’s eventual fall from grace as a
mere “mercantilist” and later more “social” writer in light of the rising
influence of economic liberalism.
Building on this, Alessandro Roncaglia’s “The Heritage of Antonio
Serra” adopts a bird’s-eye view of Serra’s Breve trattato and its legacy. Partly
theoretical, partly historiographical, Roncaglia analyses the main themes
of Serra’s work and engages critically with many of the main currents of
interpretation that dominated scholarship on the Breve trattato over the
past four centuries, from libertarians to fascists, even including those
that suggest that Serra was a nationalist, a chrysohedonist who confused
specie with the wealth of a nation, and a proto-Meridionalist – that is,
a champion of Southern Italian interests in opposition to an abusive
North. Roncaglia, in short, highlights both some of Serra’s main contri-
butions to economics and their polyvalent reception in the history of
the discipline.
Adopting an explicitly presentist stance, Jan Kregel then turns to
“Serra’s Breve trattato and the Theory of Economic Development”.
Considering the debate between Serra and his opponent de Santis in
light of the longer history of financial crises, he asks what one still
might learn from the treatise after four centuries, how the “political
economy” of the Breve trattato differs from more recent traditions
10 Rosario Patalano and Sophus A. Reinert

of economics, and what the consequences are, for large parts of the
world, of his warnings not having been heeded. Focusing on Serra’s
early analysis of a balance of payments, Kregel particularly empha-
sizes the continuing dangers of precocious liberalizations of capital
accounts for developing countries, one of several pressing contempo-
rary problems on which Serra can still shed light.
The Breve trattato’s continuing relevance for economics and
economic policy is also the topic of Erik S. Reinert’s “Antonio Serra
and the Problems of Today”. His chapter focuses on two dichoto-
mous aspects of Serra’s theories: first, the relationship between the
financial and the real economy; second, the role of increasing and
diminishing returns in economic development. Strikingly, both of
Serra’s dichotomies have frequently gone in and out of fashion in the
economics profession. They were strong in the period immediately
following WWII, but, because of the chosen tools of economics since
then, they were neglected with disastrous results. Engaging in wilful
yet informative anachronism, he asks what Serra still might teach us
regarding the problems of the EU, green growth, and the importance
of a large division of labour in a multitude of increasing return activi-
ties for economic development.
Apart from the continuing use of Antonio Serra’s Breve trattato by
modern economists and the historical curiosity that no similarly sophis-
ticated work of political economy would appear in Europe for well over
a century if not more, Serra’s treatise remains an invaluable source for
understanding a crucial period in Neapolitan, Italian, and European
history. It testifies to the changing nature of political liberty as the pres-
sures of international economic competition first became paramount; it
uniquely affected the cultural and political histories of economics and
nationalism in Italy for centuries; and it is a powerful, still fertile argu-
ment for the economics of good government – for political economy as
such. Taken together, the essays in this volume provide a wholly new
perspective on one of the most mysterious and striking figures in the
history of finance and of economics. But, drawing inspiration from
their subject, they also strikingly address the importance of history for
economics. The image that emerges of Serra and his book ultimately
reminds us that the kinds of ideas and policies that were actually
successful in history for promoting development may be more impor-
tant than the ideologies that emerged to explain that development. In
other words, Serra’s work can provide pertinent answers to some of the
most difficult questions of political economy, but it can also reveal to us
the questions we have for so long forgotten to ask.
Introduction 11

1. Schumpeter, J.A., History of Economic Analysis, ed. Schumpeter, E.B., Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1954, p. 195.
2. For what little we do know, and think we know, see Reinert, S.A. “Introduction”
to Antonio Serra, A Short Treatise on the Wealth and Poverty of Nations, trans-
lated by J. Hunt, ed. Reinert, S.A., London: Anthem, 2011, pp. 9–17.
3. Serra, 1613, pp. 225–226.
4. Zazzera, F., Giornali di Francesco Zazzera napolitano nel felice governo dell’Eccmo.
D. Pietro Girone, Duca d’Ossuna, Viceré del Regno di Napoli, dalli 7 di luglio 1616,
con il modo tenuto nel dare il possesso al Signore Cardinale Borgia suo succes-
sore, dalli signori eletti di questa fidelissima cittá, con intervento del Conseglio
Collaterale, 1667, p. 78.
5. Amabile, L., Fra Tommaso Campanella: la sua congiura, i suoi processi e la sua
pazzia, 3 vols, Naples: Morano, 1882, vol. III, pp. 646–648.
6. De Rosa, L., “Antonio Serra e i suoi critici”, Clio, vol. I, no. I, 1965,
pp. 115–137.
7. The readable text of the first dispatch states “Antonio Serra [ ... ] acuda al
V.rey; traerlo esta tarde cuando venga el conde de Mola”, both in Viglietti
originali, Segreterie del Viceré, N. 6 1613–1614, Archivio di Stato di Napoli,
Naples, Italy.
8. Reinert, “Introduction”, p. 11; Serra, 1613, p. 133.
9. Croce, B., Storia del regno di Napoli, Bari-Rome: Laterza, 1925, p. 160.
10. Famous Bologna bookdealer Gino Brighenti, pencil annotation on inside
front board of Antonio Serra, Breve trattato delle cause che possono far abbondare
li regni d’oro e d’argento dove non sono miniere, Naples: Lazzaro Scorrigio, 1613,
Reinert Collection, Hvasser, Norway.
11. Reinert, “Introduction”, p. 6 and passim.
12. Antonio Serra, Breve Tratado das causas que podem fazer os reinos desprovidos
de minas ter abundância de ouro e prata (1613), translated by M.T. Vicentini,
Curitiba, Brazil: Segesta Editora, 2002; Antonio Serra, A Short Treatise on the
Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1613), translated by J. Hunt, edited and with
an introduction by S.A. Reinert, London: Anthem, 2011.
13. Serra, 1613, p. 115.
14. Serra, 1613, p. 115.