George V. Reilly

Review: The Merchant of Prato

The Merchant of Prato
Title: The Merchant of Prato
Author: Iris Origo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½
Publisher: Penguin
Copyright: 1957
Pages: 389
Keywords: history
Reading period: 1-7 September, 2007

Francesco di Marco Datini was born in Prato in 1335 and died there without an heir in 1410. Prato is a small town in Tuscany, about 10 miles from Florence. Then, as now, Prato was in Florence’s shadow. At the age of fifteen with only a few florins to his name, Francesco ap­pren­ticed himself to a merchant in Avignon, then home of the Papal court. Thirty-three years later, he returned to Prato, a wealthy man.

Throughout his career, he was an inveterate letter writer, spending hours a day writing to his partners and sub­or­di­nates throughout the Mediter­ranean. He left behind 150,000 documents – letters and other records – which were re­dis­cov­ered in 1870 and now comprise the Datini Archives: a treasure trove of doc­u­men­ta­tion for social historians and economists. He also wrote a great deal to his wife, Margherita, and his best friend, Ser Lapo Mazzei. The archives have not only many of the letters written by Francesco himself, but also the responses from his cor­re­spon­dents, as well as ledgers and other business materials.

The archives provide a wealth of raw material on the life and times of a successful merchant of the late Middle Ages. The book brings the per­son­al­i­ty of Francesco to life, setting him in the context of his times, showing the kind of life he led and the work he did.

Francesco is not a terribly likeable man. He nagged everyone in­ces­sant­ly and worried constantly. For decades, he obsessed about making money. In his old age, he finally took a care for his soul, after decades of entreaties from Ser Lapo, and became religious.

His marriage was rocky, in part because Margherita never gave him any children, though she raised his il­le­git­i­mate daughter as her own. They married in Avignon when he was forty and she about sixteen. They spent much of their marriage living apart: he working in Florence, while she lived in Prato, a few hours’ travel away. He was prickly and over­bear­ing. She was feisty and not inclined to accept his edicts meekly.

All in all, a well-written portrait of daily life in a medieval Italian city.

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