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A warm, intimate, and engrossing biography of Francesco di Marco Datini, who built a powerful mercantile network in fourteenth-century Tuscany, and a peerless evocation of the sensations, personalities, and everyday struggles of Italian life more than half a millennium in the past.
“For God and Profit” is how the medieval merchant Francesco di Marco Datini headed a notebook in which he kept track of his business dealings, and these were certainly his guiding lights. Born in the 1330s in the Tuscan town of Prato, the son of a poor taverner, Datini set out at the age of fifteen for Avignon, where, over the course of the next thirty-five years, he made a fortune trading in arms, armor, artworks, wool, saffron, leather, silk, and much more. Returning home, he expanded his operations, setting up offices all across the Mediterranean, which he oversaw through an unceasing flow of correspondence. When he died, Datini asked that all his papers be preserved in his house, and in 1870 they were found, a little worm-eaten and mouse-nibbled but largely intact, in a sack under the stairs. They are one of the great records not only of medieval life but of the emergence of the modern commercial world.
Drawing on this rich archive, Iris Origo offers a wonderfully vivid account of Datini’s public and private worlds. The Merchant of Prato is a masterpiece of modern narrative history.
About the Author
Iris Origo (1902–1988) was born in Britain to an aristocrat mother and a wealthy American father. She lived in Italy and devoted much of her life to the improvement of the Tuscan estate at La Foce that she purchased with her husband, Antonio Origo, in the 1920s. Their son, Gianni, died of meningitis in 1933, after which she embarked on a writing career, publishing a successful biography, Leopardi: A Study in Solitude. Traveling in London in the 1930s, she befriended Virginia Woolf and became romantically involved with L. H. Myers (the author of The Root and the Flower). During World War II, she gave birth to two daughters, Benedetta and Donata, and, with Antonio, sheltered refugee children and assisted many escaped Allied prisoners of war and partisans in defiance of Italy’s Fascist regime and Nazi occupation forces. Her memoirs of life in Italy during the war period are collected in two volumes, A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939–1940 (first published in 2017) and War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943–1944 (first published in 1947). In 1976, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She died at La Foce.
Charles Nicholl is a British-born historian and travel writer based in Italy. Among his books are Leonardo da Vinci: The Flights of the Mind, The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (winner of the James Tait Black Prize for Biography), Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa (winner of the Hawthornden Prize), and The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street.
"This is indeed the fullest single source of information about the methods of medieval trade. [Francesco di Marco] Datini’s letters suggest a man of shrewd, reserved, pious character, daring and imaginative in his schemes but cautious in their execution. Constantly anticipating disaster, he still survived the plague and a Papal ban; and if his marriage to a young girl goes childless, his wife consented to rear his illegitimate daughter. The merchant is hardy, patient, and in fact admirable. One likes him, and his wife, and his family friend with his 14 children and unselfish loyalty. The biography has warmth and intimacy, and it makes the most of the domestic affairs and business interests of the canny Florentine." —Kirkus
"Iris Origo’s success in resurrecting not only a personality but also his times, his town, his marriage, his friends and associates, and his business dealings, makes a work of extraordinary interest with that quality to grip and take hold of a reader that makes a book everlasting." —Barbara Tuchman
"Origo was a remarkable writer, with a clear, engaging style, a mind steeped in history and scholarship, but alive always to the nuances and subtleties of human relationships." —Caroline Moorehead, The Times Literary Supplement
"As a picture of Tuscany before the dawn of the Renaissance it is a complement to The Decameron." —The Sunday Times
"[The book’s] success over the long haul is a victory of quality over fashionableness . . . The key to its longevity is partly [Origo’s] fluent style, the almost chatty erudition, but mostly the sense of total historical immersion. It’s as if she has set up camp in the 14th century and is simply reporting what she finds there . . . Origo revels in the blunt aphoristic vernacular of these letters, their scattering of witty ‘Toscanismi’ . . . Her characters talk the Tuscan of Boccaccio’s Decameron, written in the early 1350s when they were young men with their lives ahead of them. Their voices carry clearly across the centuries." —Charles Nicholl, London Review of Books
"[Origo has] the alert, perspicacious mind of a supremely intelligent person." —Cynthia Zarin, The New Yorker