Nothing but the Best
It was grudgingly that I started to read Iris Origo’s The Merchant of Prato. My wife told me to. She had been referred to it for her studies. It sounded dry stuff, the re-creation of the life of a fourteenth century Tuscan businessman from his account books and correspondence. We had each been handed down copies of Iris’s immensely readable Images and Shadows (1970) in which she describes how in the 1920s she and her Italian husband bought the derelict estate of La Foce south of Siena and painstakingly re-established the mezzadria system. This had been used in Tuscany from the days of the Roman Republic, the landlords providing the upkeep of the farms and paying for half of everything needed for cultivation, and receiving in return a half share of all that was produced. We had also retraced by bicycle Iris’s fraught journey from La Foce in 1944, when she walked twenty-five refugee children she had taken in, along with the old people and babies from the farms, to the relative safety of Montepulciano, through the German front line under bombardment by the Allies as they fought their way north (War in Val d’Orcia, 1947; see SF no. 20).