The Merchant of Prato

Francesco di Marco Datini, better known as the Merchant of Prato, left a personal archive has given us an intimate portrait of the life and work of a medieval Italian businessman.

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Francesco di Marco Datini

Twenty odd kilometres north of Florence is the thriving city of Prato, now, as it was six hundred years ago, renowned for its textile industry. There, in 1870, a remarkable cache of private papers and account books was discovered.

Not that the discovery should have come as such a surprise. The papers were bequeathed to the city in 1410 by its richest citizen, Francesco di Marco Datini, together with all his worldly goods. While his house and money were made good use of for the benefit of the city and its poor, the archive he had carefully collected during his lifetime lay disregarded, moved from cupboard to cupboard until what was left of it was finally rediscovered in a hessian bag under the stairs of his house during renovations.

We can only imagine what the original collection held, but the remaining 150,000 letters, 500 account books and hundreds of financial documents have proven a treasure trove to historians and a unique insight into the men who were the true backbone of the Medieval Italian city state, the merchant class.

Francesco Datini was perhaps not typical of his class. He was a shrewd and ambitious but prudent man, more interested in security than fame and prestige. Over a career of more than fifty years, he meticulously built a complex business network that spanned not only northern Italy but Spain and southern France. His trade links extended throughout the Mediterranean and as far as the Black Sea, the Balkans and northern Europe. At the same time, he kept himself aloof from politics, both local and international. Nor would he lend money to kings or prelates, for it was the lending of large amounts of money to the English king Edward III, who defaulted on his debts, that had caused the collapse of Florence’s major banks.

Datini came from humble beginnings. The son of a taverner, he lost both his parents in the Black Death and was raised by a guardian and foster mother. At the age of fifteen, after perhaps serving an apprenticeship with a merchant in Florence, which in 1351 had annexed Prato, he decided to liquidate a portion of his father’s legacy and move to Avignon to take advantage of the opportunities created by the relocation there of the Papal court between 1309 and 1377.

By 1361, Datini had established a small but diverse merchant company which traded at first in arms and armour, a profitable business during the Hundred Years War, but then diversified into importing household and luxury goods via his contacts throughout northern Italy. For almost thirty years, Datini prospered in Avignon. Working in partnership with fellow Tuscans, Datini continued to expand his interests. He set himself up as a money changer, dealing not only in currency but jewellery and precious objects. He opened a wine tavern and a draper’s shop and imported saffron and other spices. He also became an art dealer, commissioning works of religious art from Tuscany for the many rich prelates in the city.

In 1376, when Datini was in his forties, and after much urging from his foster mother, he married Margherita Bandini, a Florentine teenager, whose family had been exiled after the execution of her rebel father. When business in Avignon dried up after the removal of the Papal court back to Rome, Datini returned to Prato where he had already had built for himself an imposing house in the centre of town, only one of twenty odd properties he would acquire in and around Prato, including a farm which he worked himself.

Once in Prato, Datini got involved in the city’s dominant industry, the cloth trade, bringing to the enterprise not only his capital, but connections that allowed him to import cloth and dyes of the best quality. However, missing cosmopolitan Avignon, Datini was unable to settle down in small-town and small-minded Prato, and after five years he left his young wife in charge while he worked with his companies in Florence, Pisa and Genoa.

Datini’s prolific correspondence with Margherita has given historians not only an insight into domestic life in Medieval Italy, but also a picture of a strong, intelligent and feisty woman. Now in charge of her husband’s household and business in his absence, she learnt to read and write so she could correspond with him without the need for intermediaries. While Datini’s letters to his wife are full of detailed and repetitive instructions, hers to him are full of sound advice and backchat.

Datini’s letters to his wife were typical of his correspondence as, despite having entrusted his branches to competent partners, Datini insisted on keeping total control of his business interests, even from a distance, and would spend up to twenty hours a day writing letters of advice, instruction and admonishment to all his partners, not allowing them to carry out any transaction without his express permission.

Datini’s business structures were typical of those developed in Medieval Tuscany. Working with two or three trusted friends, fellow Tuscans, usually with whom he shared familial ties, Datini would set up individual companies (or partnerships as we would call them now) for each enterprise. The contracts forming the company would cover a period of only two or three years, and would be renewed if the business was successful. Complete trust was required between the partners as all would be liable for any debts incurred by any one of them.

Almost invariably, Datini would contribute the largest portion of the capital which meant he had the controlling interest in the enterprise and could claim the lion’s share of the profits. Generally his partners would be young men who had previously acted as his agents or stewards. They might not be able to bring much capital to the enterprise, but would contribute their labour. Datini set up such companies not only in Italy, but as far afield as Avignon, Barcelona, Majorca, Nice and Marseille. Datini’s contacts also went beyond his own companies as he had agents throughout Europe as well as close business relationships with other merchant companies like his own.

Though it might seem that Datini was overstretching himself with such an extended and diverse network, it proved to be a very stable structure because if one enterprise fell on hard times, another might prosper, for business in fourteenth century Italy was a perilous enterprise. Transporting goods over long distances was hazardous to say the least and subject not only to natural calamities such as storms and shipwreck, or the constant danger of robbery by pirates and brigands, but also the consequences of the constant internecine wars fought between the Italian city states. Datini’s diverse network helped him overcome such obstacles. When Genoa was harassed by the Duke of Milan, Datini was able to move his importing and exporting enterprise to the port of Pisa, and when Pisa grew hostile towards Florentines, he moved back to Genoa where conditions had improved.

While all these vicissitudes caused Datini a great deal of anxiety, he could accept them as the natural conditions of trade. However, what he could never accept were the exorbitant taxes, or forced loans, exacted by the civil authorities, usually to pay for prosecuting one war or another. Having finally settled in Florence, Datini found himself called on to pay taxes there as well as in Prato. His only nebulous defence was to plead poverty and keep the authorities away from his private account books. (Whenever one of his ships went down, he would urge his wife to put the word about and exaggerate his losses.) Nonetheless, he was often forced to provide ‘loans’ for hundreds of florins at a time.

Late in life, Datini set up his own bank. While it acted mainly as a central clearing house for his own companies’ international financial transactions, it also dealt with private customers, both accepting deposits and making loans. However well run his bank was (according to economic historians, it was perhaps the most sophisticated bank of its time) any such enterprise was subject to suspicions of usury, then considered a most heinous sin. It was perhaps to atone for this sin that, having reached old age without legitimate issue, Datini willed his fortune to the city of Prato where he is honoured to this day.

Reference

The Merchant of Prato by Iris Origo (1957)

© Pauline Montagna 2015