Non-fiction, about life in the late 14th and early 15th centuries in Italy
obervations: Iris Origo, Marchesa of Val d'Orcia, was of Anglo-Irish background, but spent most of her life in Italy, and had considerable expertise in the culture and history of her adopted country. This book is based on a stash of letters and documents relating to a wealthy merchant in the Tuscan town of Prato: they remained hidden in a cupboard for hundreds of years, to be re-discovered in 1870. This was pretty much a unique horde, painting an unparalleled picture of the tiny details of life in his household – letters, accounts, notes, financial documents. She pulled the details together into an account of his life – scholarly and careful and interesting.
Nowadays I think people would expect to see more of the whole letters, rather than her narrative account, illustrated by frequent short extracts. But she says that the letters are very repetitive, and would be boring to read in full. She also says that Francesco di Marco Datini wasn’t a particularly nice or popular man.
The book is very well done, she has an unobtrusive but very convincing style, and you do feel that she gives a very rounded picture of the lives of Francesco and his wife Margherita. Naturally I found the chapter on clothes by far the most interesting, full of gems such as this:
Fur seems to have been much less expensive than cloth. The pelts mentioned in these lists are ermine, miniver, squirrel, dormouse, cat and pelli sardesche (probably Sardinian sheepskins).It’s a sober book, but one that must be of endless use to anyone looking at life in Italy at that time.
There’ll be another entry on Francesco’s wife’s clothes.
The picture – from the book – is of Francesco di Marco Datini and four men of Prato, by Filippo Lippi.