By Joseph Byrne
Journals of the Georgia Association of Historians, Vol. 17 (1996)
Introduction: Almost forty years ago, Iris Origo introduced the English-speaking public to Francesco di Marco Datini, the ‘Merchant of Prato’. This self-made man, who lived from 1335 until 1440, was orphaned in the Black Death, made a fortune as a young merchant in the papal city of Avignon, and returned to his hometown of Prato to live out the last thirty years of his life. Here he established the center of a network of commercial enterprises through which he bought and sold goods from England to the Black Sea. He also built a fine urban palazzo that still stands today.
This house the Datini Archive, the collection of some 500 account books and 150 000 sheets and scraps of paper on which were written the notes, commands and letters that flowed incessantly through the palazzo’s doors. He himself kept everything, and insisted that his associates do likewise: the resulting cache is the most complete record of an Italian merchant’s activities we have from the later middle ages or early Renaissance. Serendipitously, the whole lot was simply bundled and hidden away in the palazzo, to be discovered only by accident when the house was renovated in 1880.