The Merchant of Prato
The Folio Society (London), 1957, 1963, 351 PP
Most biographies are about famous political, military or artistic figures. There are some biographies of business people but these are mainly about industry giants. Biographies of average people are even rarer partly because they have little direct impact on events and partly because so little is known about them. But there are exceptions and one of these is Francesco di Marco Datini, a fourteenth century merchant in the Italian city of Prato. Datini rose to be a rich and prosperous merchant and is remembered as one of Prato's famous sons. He is especially remembered for having left his house and entire fortune of 70,000 gold florins to a charitable trust he set up for the poor of Prato. For this he is honored with a statue in the middle of the city. While of passing interest to tourists and locals in Prato, this hardly qualifies him as the subject of a biography written for an international audience. However, Datini left one other gift to posterity and that was a complete set of personal and business correspondence and other records.
Datini managed a far flung business empire with agents running offices in many major trading cities in Europe. He himself divided his time between his home base in Prato and Avignon, France. While traveling he maintained constant correspondence with his wife (mostly instructions on how to run the house rather than love or intimacy) and his friend Lapo Mazzei a notary in Prato. The correspondence with Mazzei is especially interesting as Datini and Mazzei represent opposite trends of an era in change. Mazzei's thoughts and actions were rooted mainly in the more traditional religious culture of the middle ages while Datini was more a part of the emerging secular culture of the modern era. Origo, the biographer, notes that famous historical figures have generally risen far above the level of common people so it is very good to have extensive accounts of the every day ideas and actions of common men as they give us a more realistic picture of the times in question.
Datini kept all of the correspondence he received and all of the business records he produced as well as copies of his correspondence. Then, when he retired and closed the business he had his agents ship all of their records back to him in Prato. After his death the records, which he had instructed his heirs to preserve, were carelessly stored under a large staircase which was later walled in leaving the records forgotten. But this careless act ended up preserving them until a time when they would be appreciated by scholars. The records were rediscovered in 1870 when, during a renovation of the house, the wall was removed from the staircase and the archive once again exposed.
Like a modern day Forrest Gumpp, Datini was an average person dealing with the everyday business of life but one where circumstances placed him at the center of great change. He lived at the time of transition from the middle ages to the modern era and was one of the many who were in the forefront of the march to modern times. He was a minor figure at the Papal Court in Avignon which was the center of a political and religious struggle. And, unlike the thousands of others in the same position, Datini kept his records which give us an insider's view of that world of a half a millennium ago.
The review of this Book prepared by Chuck Nugent