Wednesday 12 January 2011

The Merchant of Prato - Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d'Orcia

I think it was in 1969 that I came across this book in one of my favourite book shops at the top of Kensington Church Street in London. I think the shop is probably long gone, but I have the book still and count it amongst my precious reads as I keep going back to it. The book is the life of a 14th century merchant banker, Francesco di Marco Datini, told pretty much in his own words from papers which miraculously survived the takeover of Prato by Florence, two sackings of Prato (at least) not to mention the chaos and turmoil of two later world wars. Prato was famous for its fine wool and textile industry and in this book you can read about all the machinations and worries of the trade at this time. Would cargoes arrive? Would they be seized by Barbary Pirates? What would be the effect of discontent in Avignon on trade - Datini had a branch of the business there. How much of his profits should be given to charity, to the municipality? What did his wife think of it all? Should he start to wind down his involvement in his later years so that he could better contemplate his Maker? Not only does the book get you so close to a living, breathing, calculating person of the time that you feel you could touch them, it is also an introduction to the intriguing woman, Iris Origo. Born in the UK, Iris came from a wealthy, Long Island family. She married into the Italian nobility and lived in the Val d'Orcia in Tuscany where she and her husband set about reviving the area. During World War II, as recounted War in the Val d'Orcia taken from her diaries, even while taken over by German soldiers, she and her husband continued to shelter fugitive prisoners of war and partisans. The Caroline Moorehead biography of Iris is one of the best books I have read.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this, Jacqueline, it sounds like something I'd like to explore further!