“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Or do they?
The Merchant of Prato – a detailed recreation of the inner lives of a late-fourteenth century trader’s household – suggests otherwise. Published by Iris Origo in 1957, it draws on 150,000 extant letters communicating every aspect of life around Francesco Datini, a self-made trader from the eponymous Tuscan town. These lead us deep into the interstices of daily life and feeling. Francesco’s obsessive addiction to commerce casts a cold pall over his family; informing the kaleidoscope of relations between his many dependents, the relentless domestic cycles of a large household, the failure to find spiritual balance, and the public tensions of a childless marriage.
The correspondence of Francesco and his younger wife Margharita lie at the centre of the book, revealing a jagged emotional topography. When Francesco is – as usual – living away on business, they forswear separation, writing of the comfort they would like to offer each other (“I would go to the world’s end if it pleases you,” she writes). But when the opportunity comes to live together, they spring apart. This in turn allows Francesco to resume his litany of remote micro-management (“Wash the mule’s feet with warm water, draw off some of the wine, send the left-over grain back to the mill”). Margharita intuits that this is really displacement from her apparent inability to bear him a child, and fights back with bitter sarcasm: “It is fifteen blessed years since I came here, and I have always lived as an innkeeper’s wife”.
At one point, she leaves him entirely. During the separation, a friend writes to Francesco bluntly of his “rough soul and frozen heart”. As is often the case with such men, no-one is a harsher critic than Francesco himself: “Fate has willed that from the day of my birth, I should never know a whole happy day. I fear greatly my end will not be a good one, and I think of little else”. Surveying his own riches, he writes: “What pleased me once, pleases me no longer; and nothing grieves me more than the time I have wasted on such matters.”
This portrait of a man who – in the words of a friend – is “so busy with building, that he cannot see life itself” stands outside of time. Not content with ordering the construction of a farmhouse outside Prato, he fills spare hours by rushing there to lay the stones himself (“You are so greedy, he is told, “that you will not allow one groat to be misused.”). In Francesco’s defence, his parsimony may only be an acute form of a much wider social norm. When Margharita loses a sapphire ring, she turns the house upside down, sweeps the street outside, and searches every pawn shop in town (“Since I lost it, I have known no joyful moment by day or night.”).
Yet, whatever life was, it certainly wasn’t merely “nasty, brutish and short.” Underpinning many of the letters’ anecdotes is (what we would consider) a very modern focus on the individual. In era when slavery – both domestic and international – was still common, slaves “seem to have been treated very much like everyone else” (in the author’s words). Confronting a typical piece of Francesco’s nitpicking, one slave retorted that he’d “rather eat grass than be spoken to like that”. The de-facto equality becomes unavoidable when – as was often the case – a slave falls pregnant to a householder. This eventuality stalks the imagination of many a Tuscan housewife; with one seeming to identity a calculated ploy when “such a young and handsome slave” is sent, writing that “women should be careful not to do such things to each other.”
The protagonists in The Merchant of Prato took comfort from being bound together by God and law
It is no surprise to the reader when Francesco and Margharita’s own marriage arrives at just such a pass. Having initially been sent away on Margharita’s wishes, the product of this relationship is eventually accepted as a member of the family, joining a wider gaggle of servants’ children. The development and character of these wider nipoti seem to occupy the wider household regardless of their birth. Francesco’s Florentine business partner takes a whole day off commerce to search the city for a tambourine: “2 lire, 10 soldi,” he notes solicitously, “so that the little girls may be happy”. The illegitimate daughter, Ginevra, is eventually married in one of the most sumptuous weddings Prato had seen. Perhaps mindful of his own rise from obscurity, Francesco was no enemy of social mobility.
A significant factor in the book’s knack of collapsing the centuries is the background of its author, Iris Origo. As a hard-working Anglo-American landowner in mid-century Tuscany, she was no stranger to many of the perennial local qualities found in Francesco’s correspondence. She writes of his bucolic ambitions that Tuscan life was not – “and nor has it ever become – completely urban. Her own estate still employs the same crop-share system developed before Francesco’s time; while she recognised the same malattia del calcinaccio – “rubble disease” – in contemporary Tuscans who cannot leave their building sites alone.
At a deeper level, Margharita’s lack of children must have resonated with Iris, whom had recommitted herself to writing after the loss of her seven-year old son to illness. And when, in the face of advancing army in 1397, Francesco instructs Margharita to bring everything from the farm, right down to the metal fittings, inside the walls of Prato – and uncharacteristically to start distributing bread and wheat “without stint” to all who asked for it – we do not need Iris to tell us what we already know: that she personally shepherded the Val D’Orcia through German Occupation in exactly the same way, recording the experience in one of the most extraordinary war diaries ever written.
What comes through most strongly in The Merchant of Prato is that, for all their trials and disappointments, its protagonists took comfort from being bound together by God and law. In one of her darkest moments, Margharita writes to her husband that “were it not for love of you, and because I am not free, I would leave all these tribulations and stay no longer in the service of this world… Nothing holds me save the two things I have told you.” A year later, her contemplation has deepened further: “I desire nothing but to do what is pleasing to God and to find peace within myself.” A year later still, she delivers a Stoical aphorism for the ages: “The good and evil we have in this world are what we make for ourselves.”
A hundred years after Francesco died, his beloved Prato would be subjected to a brutal sack by Spanish troops advancing on Florence at the behest of the Pope. “More than four thousand died,” wrote Machiavelli, “nor did they spare the virgins cloistered in the holy sites, which were filled with acts of rape and pillage”. Iris’s gift to us is that when we read those words, we no longer just see the numbers: we see little Ginevra and her tambourine.
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