Additional Book Information
Series: NYRB Classics
Publication Date: July 14, 2020
The Merchant of PratoFrancesco di Marco Datini, 1335–1410
by Iris Origo, foreword by Charles Nicholl
“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.
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.
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.
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