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Disciplining Empire: The Visita under the Spanish Hapsburgs, 1516-1700


Since the 1960s, the historiography of state-building in early modern Europe has been founded on theories emphasizing the coalescence of institutions around warfare, the commercial revolution, or the nexus of socio-religious identity and centralization described by the notion of “social discipline.” Within that framework, early modern Spain and its empire have long been perceived as exceptional, characterized by a fragmented legal and institutional order, declining power, and without the religious conflict or intellectual traditions of northern Europe that brought about either social discipline or a Foucaldian disciplinary state. In turn, the historiography of colonial Latin America, the Atlantic world, and Spain itself has offered the alternative suggestion that the centralizing state and its institutions were either non-essential as empires were diffusive, negotiated entities or did not exist in early modernity. Authority and the practice of administration, which protected elites, was founded on an economy of favor manifested in court politics or understood semiotically through symbols and rituals. Corruption and bureaucracy, in their modern, legal-rational connotations, ostensibly did not exist as categories because the public sphere of office holding was inseparable from elite interests, social relationships in the private sphere, and the patrimonial order.

This dissertation, which explores the emergence and development from 1516 to 1700 of the institution and practice of the visita, a term that described a vast range of inspections but most prominently the periodic audits of the conduct of royal officials in Spain’s empire, proposes an alternate view of the state-building process, centering it on the construction of the norms of bureaucracy and the regulation of the sinews of power that provided the framework for modern institutions. In particular, it examines the emergence of a tangible category of corruption through the state’s discipline of the nexus of official service and private interests.

That process is first described chronologically, focusing on the visitas to Naples, Sicily, and Milan. In the early to the mid-sixteenth century, the challenges of consolidating a vast, heterogeneous empire led the Hapsburgs to attempt a sweeping reform of the imperial administrative apparatus, which while not entirely realized, drove the process of constructing institutional norms and practices, a project for which the visita was deemed particularly apt. But this process of institutionalization was not coterminous with centralization or absolutism. Instead, local interests, with the ideological interest of the Crown, guided the visita to surveil and prosecute local officials, with its discipline undermining elite cohesion and patronage networks. Consequently, the cycle of discipline transformed a range of conduct that that was formerly illegible and acceptable to the state and society into legible and unacceptable corruption. By the seventeenth century, resistance to the state’s intervention in the visita turned from defenses founded on the language and symbols of the economy of favor to the logic of raison d’état. The visita itself, despite the weakness of the institutional environment, remained a potent and dynamic instrument of discipline, extending its attentions beyond administrative centers towards rural territories formerly beyond the imperial state’s view and even being envisioned as a means of entirely overturning oligarchic dominance and curtailing the privileges and quasi-autonomy of rural nobles.

In the final chapter, the visita is re-evaluated through the lens of space, encompassing the literal territorial space of empire beyond Italy and its figurative institutional spaces. Against the fragmentation of empire, the visita, which itself was a counterpoint to that fragmentation, produced normative coherence and institutional regularity in a global empire through the broader development of the disciplinary state. At the same time, it emerged as a potent tool for regulating territories, resources, and peoples that laid the foundations for the Bourbons’ reform projects in the eighteenth century and the modern regulatory state.

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