The Merchant of PratoDaily Life in an Italian Medieval City
by Iris Origo
This extraordinary re-creation of the life of the medieval Italian merchant Francesco di Marco Datini is one of the greatest historical portraits written in the twentieth century. Drawing on an astonishing cache of some 150,000 letters unearthed centuries after Datini’s death, The Merchant of Prato reveals a shrewd, enterprising, anxious man as he makes deals, furnishes his sumptuous house, buys silks for his outspoken young wife, and broods on his legacy. It is an unequaled source of knowledge about the texture of daily life in the small, earthy, violent, striving world of fourteenth-century Tuscany.
[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
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.