The Merchant of Prato and the Scholar of La Foce

2021 is the 700th anniversary of the poet Dante Alighieri’s death in 1321. I celebrated this anno dantesco in the fall semester by teaching my Age of Dante course, an interdisciplinary offering that combines a history of medieval Italy with reading large portions of the Comedy.1 One of the topics we study is the commercial economy of the Italian communes, or city-states. The primary source anthology we use, The Towns of Italy in the Later Middle Ages, edited by Trevor Dean, includes a selection of documents on wool manufacture, an important facet of the economy of medieval cities like Dante’s Florence.

The documents Dean chose come from the Datini archive, which holds the records of Francesco Datini, a wealthy international merchant from Prato, a Tuscan city about twenty miles from Florence. Datini lived from ca. 1335-1410, so he’s a bit late for the age of Dante, but his archives are particularly rich, and wool manufacture didn’t change substantially between Dante’s time and his, so I felt justified in assigning these documents. In the passages printed in their anthology from Datini’s account books, students could see how many steps the process of wool-making involved and how decentralized it was, with the account books noting the amounts paid to individual carders and combers, spinners and weavers, dyers and finishers.2

Datini kept detailed and voluminous records of his various business interests, which included, in addition to wool manufacture, shopkeeping, banking, and import-export trade in such goods as cloth, arms, wheat, spices, and gems.3 Because he was often away on business, he corresponded with his wife, Margherita. And because he spent a lot of time at his premises in Florence, while she remained at home in Prato, letters could go quickly back and forth.

Statue of Francesco Datini.
19th-century statue of Francesco Datini, in Prato.

Francesco and Margherita Datini had no children. In his will, he directed that his estate should be used to establish a charitable foundation to help the poor of Prato. He hoped this would help atone for any sins he might have committed in his business activities, especially usury. The foundation still exists. The Fondazione Casa Pia dei Ceppi is headquartered in Datini’s former home in Prato, the Palazzo Datini.

The Palazzo Datini
The Palazzo Datini in Prato.

I first became aware of the Datini archive in graduate school, when I read The Merchant of Prato, by Iris Origo, for my comps. This fall, when reading the wool industry documents with my class, I became curious about the history of the archive itself. I learned that all of Datini’s records and correspondence sat, ignored, in the Palazzo Datini for centuries until they were discovered in 1870. They are now part of the State Archive of Prato, also housed in the Palazzo Datini.

I’d love to know the full story of the 1870 discovery. Was it accidental or intentional? Did someone just trip over a box in the Palazzo Datini and say, I wonder what’s in here? Or did someone suspect that there might be interesting documents and go looking for them? In the “Introduction” to The Merchant of Prato, Iris Origo simply says, “in 1870 some learned citizens of Prato brought them to life.”4 In the bibliography, however, she names the discoverer as “an Archdeacon of Prato, Don Martino Benelli, a man of taste and scholarship.”5

I’ve been unable to find any more information about the circumstances of Benelli’s find.6 Given the date, and the fact that Origo described Benelli as a scholar, I suspect that the discovery was intentional. Nationalism was very prominent in the nineteenth century. One expression of nationalism was an interest in historical study, and several national archives and publication projects were established in the nineteenth century. For example, the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, a series of published documents relating to Germany, began in 1819; Britain’s Public Record Office (now part of the National Archives) was founded in 1838; and the Archivio di Stato di Firenze was established in 1852. Nationalist feeling would have been especially high in 1870, when the final stages of both German and Italian unification were imminent, so I can easily imagine that a historically-minded archdeacon might think to see what he could find in the local Palazzo.

Italian economic historians began to draw on the Datini archive beginning in the early twentieth century. Then in 1957, Iris Origo, an Anglo-American writer living in Tuscany with her Italian husband, published The Merchant of Prato, a combination biography of Datini and social and economic history of fourteenth-century Italy based on sources from the Datini archive.7 Whereas earlier researchers had drawn on Datini’s business records to focus on his economic activities, Origo broadened her scope to include the extensive private correspondence between Francesco and Margherita, allowing her to explore domestic activities and family life.

Iris Origo herself had a fascinating life.8 She had a privileged background on both sides. Her father’s family, the Cuttings, were members of the Old New York aristocracy; they sound like they stepped out of the pages of an Edith Wharton novel (in fact, Wharton was a family friend). Iris’ paternal grandfather, William Bayard Cutting Sr., was a co-founder of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Public Library. The Cutting country estate on Long Island, Westbrook, is now a state park. Iris’ mother’s Anglo-Irish family could have had their own storyline in Downton Abbey. Her maternal grandfather, Lord Desart, was an Irish peer. His daughter, Lady Sybil Cuffe, met William Bayard Cutting, Jr., while he was stationed in London as private secretary to the American ambassador. They married in 1901 and Iris, their only child, was born in 1902.

Iris’ father died of tuberculosis when she was only eight, and she and her mother settled in Italy, where they were part of the large British expatriate community. The Cuttings lived in the Villa Medici in Fiesole, in the hills just outside Florence. Yes, that Medici. The Villa was originally built in the 1450s; beginning in 1469, Lorenzo the Magnificent used it as his summer residence. It belonged to the Medici family until 1671. That’s where Iris grew up. Among her mother’s friends was Bernard Berenson, the Lithuanian-born American art dealer who almost single-handedly founded the study of Italian Renaissance art. Little Iris used to play in the gardens of his home, the Villa I Tatti, while her mother, Berenson, and his other guests discussed art and poetry. I Tatti is now owned by Harvard University and used as an institute for Renaissance studies.

Iris Cutting married Antonio Origo in 1924 and they bought a run-down estate south of Siena, La Foce, which they spent the next several years renovating. They made an effort to be good padroni, implementing agricultural improvements (aided by Mussolini’s agricultural policies) and building a school, medical clinic, and homes for their tenants, the mezzadri, or sharecroppers. During World War II, the Origos took in refugee children and aided the local partigiani, or anti-Fascist fighters. Iris Origo published the diary she kept during this period as War in Val d’Orcia. After the war she and Antonio repaired the wartime damage to La Foce and raised their two daughters, Donata and Benedetta (a son, Gianni, had died of meningitis in 1933). Iris Origo died in 1988; Benedetta now runs La Foce as a country hotel.

Iris Origo and family
Iris and Antonio Origo, with their daughter Donata.

In addition to the war diary and The Merchant of Prato, Origo wrote several other books: an autobiography9 and biographies of subjects drawn from medieval and Renaissance Italy10 as well as studies of nineteenth-century literary figures, both English and Italian.11 Iris Origo was not a professional historian, however. She was mostly educated at home, by governesses and tutors; she never taught at or even attended a university. She was what we would now call an independent scholar. You might even call her a scholarly dilettante.


Dinner with the Honorable Podrecca: An Invitation to History

I found another interesting photo when I was consulting my grandmother’s memoirs to write about Pietro Yon attending her wedding. This one, taken before her marriage, shows a group of people seated at a table, with three women standing behind. The caption my grandmother composed and my father transcribed reads, “Josie [my grandmother, referring to herself in the third person] playing waitress for the Honorable Podrecka. I am on the left, and my sister, Ida, is on the right.”

Dinner with Guido Podrecca
Dinner with the Honorable Podrecca

Josie’s parents are among the people seated at the table. I recognize Josie’s stepfather Charles (or Carlo) Boatti on the far left, and her mother Ida Boatti third from the left. But the photo and its caption raise a number of questions. First of all, who is the Honorable Podrecka, and what makes him Honorable? Why is he having dinner with my great-grandparents? And why is Josie playing waitress for them?

Google was made to answer at least some of these questions. I first discovered that my father must have guessed at the spelling of the Honorable guest’s name (there was no Google when they were working on the memoir in the early 90s). The person’s name is actually Guido Podrecca. Here’s a photo of him from the internet:

Guido Podrecca
Guido Podrecca, 1865-1923

He must be the person immediately to the right of my great-grandmother.

Once I had the correct name, it was easy to find information on him (most of it in Italian, however). Guido Podrecca was born in 1865 in Vimercate, in Lombardy, Italy. His younger brother, Vittorio, was a puppeteer who founded the Teatro dei Piccoli, an internationally-known marionette company. Guido Podrecca was a journalist who published a satirical newspaper, L’Asino. He was elected to the Italian Parliament—hence the “Honorable”—in 1909, representing the Socialist party.

Vittorio Podrecca
Vittorio Podrecca, 1883-1959

Socialists are typically internationalists, believing that workers in each country have more in common with workers in other countries than they do with capitalists in their own country. The slogan, after all, is “Workers of the world, unite”; the anthem in the “Internationale.” Many socialists, therefore, are anti-war. But sometimes nationalist feelings aroused by the outbreak of war can overpower socialist internationalism. This was the experience of both Guido Podrecca and his contemporary Benito Mussolini, both of whom turned from socialism to fascism after fighting in World War I.

But what was Guido Podrecca doing having dinner in New York City with my great-grandparents? A New York Times article published on November 11, 1921, begins to provide an answer. In those days, newspapers would note the arrival of transatlantic ocean liners and identify prominent passengers. This article is mostly interested in a delegation to an armaments conference; the headline is “Party of 14, Including General Vaccari and Admiral Acton, Arrive on Dante Alighieri” (the name of the ship). Also arriving from that voyage was “Giovanni Caruso, younger brother of the late Enrico Caruso,” who had come to the U.S. to “complete an inventory of the tenor’s estate” (Enrico Caruso had died on August 2, 1921). At the very end of the article, we are informed that “to assist Italian soldiers here who are suffering from tuberculosis and other diseases contracted during the war is the mission of Guido Podrecca, a member of the Italian Parliament, who arrived on the liner.”

An article published a few weeks later, on November 27, 1921, provides more information:

Guido Podrecca, Italian Member of Parliament, writer and lecturer, soon will visit this country as a member of a mission organized by the Italian National Association for War Consumptives. The Association expects that Italians in the United States will respond to the appeal for help. . . . Mr Podrecca . . . will deliver a number of lectures in New York and other large cities in America.

By March 1922, Podrecca was in San Francisco, where the San Francisco Call newspaper published a detailed article on his activities:

The war left in its wake in Italy 83,000 [or 33,000; the first digit is partially obscured] tubercular soldiers. Athough the government gives each of them 10 lira a day, most of them are without adequate care and treatment.

A commission, headed by Signor Guido Podrecca, is now in San Francisco bringing the appeal of the afflicted Italian soldiers to the members of the local Italian colony.

The commission represents the Italian National Association for War Consumptives, and, with the endorsement of the Italian government, is seeking to raise 2,000,000 lira, equivalent to about $100,000, among the Italians of the United States.

The commission has visited most of the principal cities of the country, and, according to its members, has everywhere met with generous response.

The San Francisco Call also provided some more background on Podrecca himself:

Podrecca is one of the most distinguished Italian journalists and authors.

For many years he was a deputy in the Italian Parliament and an active figure in the Socialist party. Eleven times he was sent to prison for his political activities, spending more than three years in jail and four years in exile.

With the coming of war and the split among the Socialists on the question of participation, Podrecca went with the pro-war Socialists and served on the Italian front. He took his three sons into the army with him, the youngest being 12 years old at the time of the war. The boy was in active service as a Boy Scout and had the distinction of being the youngest soldier in the Italian army.

Since the war Signor Podrecca has eschewed political activities and has devoted him [sic] to writing. He is known as one of the foremost critics in the fields of art and music in Italy. Besides being editor of Il Popolo d’Italia in Milan, he is contributing editor of the Messagero of Rome and is compiling a history of Italian music in twenty-five volumes. He is also editor of Il Primato, a Milan magazine devoted to art.

So I think it’s safe to say that the Boattis hosted a dinner for Guido Podrecca as part of his fundraising tour in the early 1920s, and my teen-aged grandmother and great aunt were drafted as servers (I have no idea who the person standing between them might be). I wonder what the dinner conversation was like?

Guido Podrecca never got to complete the “history of Italian music in twenty-five volumes.” He died in 1923 while still in the United States, in Auburn, New York, a town near the northern end of Cayuga Lake. I thought it was unlikely that a small town in the Finger Lakes region would have had a large enough Italian-American community for Podrecca to have visited it on his tour. I wondered if perhaps Podrecca himself suffered from the disease he was raising money for, and if Auburn had a TB sanatorium. Bingo! The website of the Cayuga Museum of History and Art tells us that Auburn’s sanatorium was located on Prospect St, in a building now occupied by the Sunnycrest Concrete company. Sunnycrest doesn’t have any photos of their premises on their website, but I found this one courtesy of Google Street View.

Former TB Sanatorium in Auburn NY
The former TB Sanatorium in Auburn, NY

When I was searching for information about Guido Podrecca, I came across an obituary for a Guido Podrecca who died in 2012. I knew that this was not the Guido I was looking for, and I almost didn’t follow the link. But my curiosity got the better of me, and I discovered that this Guido Podrecca was born in 1923—in Auburn, NY! He must have been born while his father was staying in the sanatorium. Guido Sr. had already fathered several children in Italy. He named two of his sons Carlo Marx and Giordano Bruno—he reminds me of the capitalist Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times, who named two of his sons Adam Smith and Malthus.1 The American-born Guido Jr. grew up to be a physician; he worked as a pathologist in Springfield, MO and died in Key Largo, FL at age 89. The comments on his obituary indicate that he was well-loved.

So what began with my curiosity about a dinner guest developed into a trip through the twentieth century, with stops in puppetry, Italian politics,  World War I, transatlantic voyages, the Italian-American experience, the treatment of tuberculosis, and a second-generation American success story.

‘Round Yon: Connections to Gesù Bambino

I’m not ashamed to admit it—I love Christmas music. I love listening to it, singing it, and playing it. One of my favorite Christmas songs is “Gesù Bambino,” composed in 1917 by Pietro A. Yon. The song combines a beautiful melody in the form of a Pastorale (a dotted rhythm in six-eight or twelve-eight time) with the tune to Adeste Fideles. There are innumerable performances on youtube. Here’s Luciano Pavarotti singing the Italian version.

I am more familiar with the English lyrics, beginning “When blossoms flowered ‘mid the snows,” written by Frederick H. Martens. Here’s a performance by the Cathedral Singers.

Nowadays Pietro Yon might be considered a one-hit wonder, with “Gesù Bambino” being his one hit, but during his lifetime he was well-known as a virtuoso organist and composer, mostly of sacred music. Here’s a newsreel clip from 1930 showing him playing the organ at St Patrick’s Cathedral (he starts playing forty seconds in; sorry about the audio quality).

I recently discovered some unexpected family connections to Pietro Yon. My maternal grandmother, Josephine Valentino (whom we called “Nonni”), spent her last years in a nursing home. She had long expressed a desire to write the story of her life, and my father (her son-in-law) offered to help her. He would visit her once a week and tape record her reminiscences, transcribe them during the week, bring them to her on his next weekly visit for her review, and then start the cycle again. Working this way, they produced two volumes of memoirs, which he had duplicated and bound at a copy shop and sent to all the relatives. Producing these books, I think, was one of my grandmother’s proudest accomplishments.

Recently my son asked me a few questions about our family history, and to answer them I got out Nonni’s books. I hadn’t read them in a long time, and I found a few surprising things (look for later blog entries!). Nonni and my father chose some supplemental materials to go along with her text. These were mostly family photos, but in the section where she talked about her 1924 wedding at Sacred Heart church in Manhattan, my father transcribed newspaper accounts of the event. One of these articles listed some of the wedding guests, including, according to my father’s transcription, “Peter and Constantino Yon.” My first reaction upon reading this was, could that be Pietro Yon, the composer of Gesù Bambino? And if so, I wonder if it was the newspaper that called him “Peter” or if that was a transcription error on my father’s part?1 Next, I wondered if Pietro’s wife was named “Constantina” and if “Constantino” was a typo (again, either my father’s or the paper’s).

Some quick googling answered at least some of my questions. Pietro Yon was born in Italy in 1886 and came to the US in 1907.  From 1907-1926 he was the organist at St Francis Xavier church in New York City, and from 1926 until his death in 1943 he was the organist at St Patrick’s Cathedral. At least the chronology and geography, therefore, are consistent with his attending my grandparents’ 1924 wedding in New York City. Yon’s wife was named Francesca, not Constantina, but it turned out that Constantino was the name of Pietro’s brother, also a church musician.2 Wikipedia also helpfully informed me that Pietro Yon’s birthplace was in the Piedmont region of Italy, which is the same region my grandmother came from (she emigrated to the US as a child in 1910). The obvious next step was to check Google Maps, where I discovered that Yon’s hometown, Settimo Vittone, is only a couple of miles from Borgofranco d’Ivrea, where my grandmother’s family lived.

Next piece of evidence: the photographs. Here’s a photo of Pietro Yon from the internet:

And here’s a photo taken at my grandparents’ wedding reception at the Hotel McAlpin:

I’d say the gentleman on the far left is Pietro Yon. I’m not sure if Constantino is in the photo, as I couldn’t find a good image of him for comparison. (As an aside, check out the pageboys, dressed as Little Lord Fauntleroy. There’s a wedding custom that probably would profit from further research.)

I think it’s fairly certain that Pietro Yon attended my grandparents’ wedding. But the question remains, what was the connection? How did he (and his brother) get on the guest list? It’s possible, given the closeness of Settimo Vittone and Borgofranco, that the families knew each other in the Old Country. Or perhaps they just moved in similar Italian-American circles in New York City. I like to imagine my grandmother’s stepfather, Carlo Boatti, encountering Pietro Yon at an event—perhaps a dinner at some Italian-American society—and recognizing his accent. Just like in canto ten of Dante’s Inferno, where Farinata degli Uberti hears the character Dante’s speech and calls out to him, “O Tosco” (“Hey, guy speaking Tuscan!”)3 Maybe Carlo Boatti called out, “O Piemontese!” I was unaware of this family connection to Pietro Yon while either my grandmother or my mother was alive, so I can’t ask them how our family knew the Yons. I guess I’ll never know.

I found another Yon connection in the course of my research. Pietro’s older brother Constantino was also a musician. In addition to being the organist at St Vincent Ferrer church in New York City, Constantino was also a music instructor at the College of Mount St Vincent in the Bronx (affectionately referred to as “The Mount”). Pietro dedicated one version of Gesù Bambino to the college, presumably because of his brother’s connection to it.

Mount St Vincent is affiliated with the Sisters of Charity of New York, the same order who ran Holy Cross Academy for Young Ladies, the school attended by both my mother and grandmother. My mother, who graduated first in her class, was offered a full scholarship to Mount St Vincent, but she turned it down in favor of attending Hunter College, where she majored in music (another story for another blog entry). But if she had taken the scholarship, she might have studied under Constantino Yon. And to bring the connections full circle, the Sisters of Charity of New York are a branch of the order founded by Saint Elizabeth Seton, who left New York and settled in Emmitsburg, MD, where one of her other communities, the Daughters of Charity, have their Mother House right down the road from Mount St Mary’s University, also affectionately referred to as “The Mount,” and where I teach. And now I think I’ll go play “Gesù  Bambino” on my violin.