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).
The Merchant of Prato had initially been rejected by her usual publisher with the comment that it was hard to think of anyone who might be interested other than medieval and Renaissance specialists; but in 1957 it was published in America, Italy and England, and received excellent reviews. Quentin Bell wrote to her describing it as a masterpiece: ‘of late I have been . . . eking it out crumb by crumb in order to stave off the inevitable moment . . . when it was finished’.
Its subject, Francesco di Marco Datini, made a great deal of money. The son of a poor taverner, he was born in Prato, north-west of Florence, round about 1335. Both his parents died in 1348, the year of the Black Death. Aged 15, ambitious and curious but without backing or capital save the proceeds
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in