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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).

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 from the sale of a small piece of land, he set off for the papal city of Avignon, the centre of trade between Italy and Flanders, where there was already a substantial community of Italian merchants.

There he bought a shop, and soon expanded. Indeed, Avignon remained his centre of operations for over thirty years until he returned to Tuscany at the age of about 50. By the time of his death in 1410, twenty years later, he had many businesses and thriving fondaci – in Prato, Florence, Pisa, Genoa, Avignon, Barcelona, Valencia, Majorca and Ibiza. These fondaci were groups of buildings which were at once office, shop, dwelling and warehouse, with inner courtyards where the trains of pack animals would be watered and stabled.

Datini was a meticulous record-keeper, collecting every letter and business document he received and telling the managers of all his branches to do the same. In his will he left instructions for all these papers to be collected and preserved in his own house which, with his fortune, he left to the people of Prato. As Iris recounts in her introduction, the papers remained stuffed in sacks and left under the stairs. It was not until 1870 that some enlightened citizens of Prato brought to light this vast collection, which included business documents and accounts, and 140,000 letters. Of the letters, 11,000 were Datini’s private correspondence with his wife and friends.

Iris came across the hoard when researching a paper about slavery in Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and following the lead of a deed of sale to Datini of a Tatar slave girl. For two years she collaborated with a young Italian archivist, Gino Conti, who was able to decipher and translate the documents from their original early Italian and Tuscan dialect, and from them she put together a fascinating and detailed picture of the merchant’s commercial, social and domestic life and attitudes, and intriguing portraits of his wife and friends. As Caroline Moorehead comments in her excellent biography Iris Origo, Marchesa of Val d’Orcia, one has to pinch oneself to remember that these documents portray life as it was over six hundred years ago.

From Datini’s European network of fondaci and from further ports sailed the galleys that carried his wares: Cotswold wool, which by English law had initially to be shipped to Calais; salt from Ibiza; leather from Cordoba and Tunis; silk from Venice; lead and pilgrims’ robes from Romania; sardines and honey from Marseilles; ivory and ostrich feathers from the Barbary coast; wine, bark and oranges from Catalonia; art from Florence; slaves from the Black Sea; dyes and spices from the Levant; vestments from Lucca; enamels from France; chessboards and maps from Barcelona; wheat from Sardinia and Sicily; coats of mail from Milan; swords from Toledo. It’s an astonishing list.

Datini traded in the best. He had his agents secure the finest English wool from Northleach (‘Norleccio’), Burford (‘Boriforte’) and Cirencester (‘Sirisestri’). He was always on the lookout for a good deal, astutely anticipating the opportunities from breaking news, for example of an approaching famine, a treaty with the Turks or the election of a new pope. His fattori, or factors, on the spot managed the logistics, but he controlled them from a distance with his own untiring pen. As Iris writes, ‘He was prepared to take great risks but diminished them by spreading them over the widest possible field.’

Personally, he was shrewd and mistrustful, not a serene or easy man. While making money he was perpetually anxious that he would be cheated in his fondaci and by the people around him at home, and that his galleys would founder or be taken by pirates, though they regularly sailed in Venetian or Genoese convoys and with crossbow men aboard.

Then, when he had made his fortune, he worried that he would lose it; and finally, as he grew old, he was ridden by a gnawing anguish (or maninconia, as he and his wife call it in their letters) about the afterlife. At the head of each ledger is written ‘In the name of God and profit’. The two were plainly not easy to reconcile. He lived in daily apprehension that none of his pilgrimages, fasts, gifts to convents or, finally, the bestowal in his will of his great fortune on his townspeople and the poor, would stand him in sufficient stead.

In contrast to Datini’s brooding are the letters from his friend Ser Lapo Mazzei. In her introduction Iris describes him as ‘the personification of the Tuscan virtues of piety and moderation – quietly counselling prudence and charity; proud of his friend’s riches, but with no desire to share them, glad to enjoy with him a fat partridge or a glass of red Carmignano, but accepting no richer gifts – and gently striving, as the years passed, to loosen his friend’s hold from the things he must soon leave behind him’.

Often do I hear of your great banquets, for men and women rich in the vain things of this world; and that is good . . . But do not forget to let the poor, too, sometimes see your fine house, and be filled and nourished by your food, so that God may not reproach you, saying ‘Had you but once asked my friends to the house I had given you!’

I was glad that you took pleasure in my little kitchen-garden. I call it so, because so small a thing cannot be called a farm, but to my mind, which desires but little, it is great enough. And this absence of desire seems to me the height of wealth.

Margherita, Datini’s Florentine wife, was twenty-five years younger than Francesco and his social superior. After their return from Avignon he set her up at Prato, in a fine house he built, with a garden ‘full of oranges, roses and other lovely flowers’, though he later wrote that this had been ‘a great piece of folly’ for it cost no less than 600 florins – ‘I would have been wiser to put it in a farm.’ He was constantly then away in Florence or Pisa. They corresponded at least once a week about every detail of their domestic life and establishments, including their clothes and the washing which went back and forth by mule to Prato, and the fowls, eggs, vegetables and produce from the farm that she was required to dispatch to him each week.

The book concludes with chapters on the architecture and furnishings of the house in Prato (it is still there, preserved in accordance with his will), his farm, the couple’s food, drink and health, and the plague and his ambivalent attitude to the Church.

Iris Origo’s own life is also intriguing. She was restless, of an independent mind, courageous and scholarly. She wrote over a dozen books, including a life of St Bernard, but her publishers did not always find her easy to deal with. Caroline Moorehead tells this nice story, verified by the current John Murray:

Jock Murray . . . had spent many hours grappling with Iris’s squiggles. Coming back one day to his office in Albemarle Street he found the entire staff trying to decipher the last sentence of one of her letters. He took it home with him and put it on the edge of a table; the trick was, he said, ‘to have the page at eye level, so I had a bath and a snifter, as Osbert [Lancaster] used to call it, and crept past the table on all fours’. The words now became perfectly clear: ‘Dearest Jock’, it said, ‘I can’t read what I have written. Please type it out and send a copy to me.’

Iris was the child of a wealthy and cultivated American father, who died when she was 7, and a mother of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. Her mother settled in Italy, and rented the Villa Medici in Fiesole where they became part of the literary circle which included Janet Ross, Edith Wharton, Harold Acton and Bernard Berenson, who lived not far away at I Tatti. She married Antonio Origo in 1924.

The destruction of all that she and her husband had achieved for the community at La Foce when the Communists came to power in Italy, after the Second World War, was an undeserved tragedy. Iris herself died in 1988 but the house and the garden she made at La Foce with Cecil Pinsent are still in the hands of her family, where they hold an annual music festival.

In a surprising way, it is Iris’s way of life which has disappeared, and Francesco Datini’s entrepreneurial opportunism which seems so contemporary – though the greed of the very wealthy no longer seems tempered by any fear of the afterlife.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 66 © Daniel Worsley 2020

About the contributor

Daniel Worsley has never been a businessman, but he does have some Italian blood and he grows an olive and a few vines.

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