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.

“Stuff I Did”: The Res Gestae, Tulips, and Squeezes

We tend to think of the Latin language as fancy, formal, and technical. But my favorite Latin word when I am teaching ancient Roman civilization in Origins of the West is “res,” which means “thing.” In Origins, we encounter it in the term res publica, literally the “public thing,” which began, according to tradition, in 509 BCE, when the Roman people, led by Brutus the Liberator, exiled King Tarquin the Proud and replaced the monarchy with a republic. A monarchy is a private thing—the king treats the kingdom like he owns it—but a republic is a public thing, owned by the people as a whole.

We also encounter the word when we read Vergil’s Aeneid, which begins in medias res—in the middle of things.1 Book one of the Aeneid begins with Aeneas already in Carthage; we learn the previous events, the fall of Troy and his voyage to north Africa, through flashbacks, as Aeneas narrates them at the banquet Queen Dido throws for him in books two and three. By book four, we’re back to the present.2

I made this diagram to illustrate how the Aeneid is structured in medias res. The numbered items on the outside of the arch are the events in the order they occurred; the book numbers on the inside of the arch are the order in which we read them.

Finally, my favorite use of my favorite Latin word is in the phrase res gestae, or “things done.” This is the title of a document written by the emperor Augustus (63 BCE-14 CE) near the end of his life.3 The title is usually translated “accomplishments” or “achievements,” but it basically means “stuff I did.” So we’ve got “public stuff,” “in the middle of stuff,” and “stuff I did.” So much for fancy, formal, and technical.

We know of the existence of the Augustus’ Res Gestae from a passage in the biography of Augustus by the ancient Roman author Suetonius, written around 120 CE. Suetonius tells us that Augustus compiled a list of his accomplishments and arranged for them to be published on bronze tablets to be erected in front of his mausoleum in Rome.4

The bronze tablets no longer survive, but a copy that was sent to the provinces does. The Latin text of the Res Gestae is carved into the interior walls of the cella (the inner room) of the Temple of Augustus in what is now Ankara, Turkey (then Ankyra, provincial capital of Galatia). A Greek translation is found on the exterior wall (which makes sense, as Galatia was in the Greek-speaking part of the empire). The inscription is also known as the Monumentum Ancyranum.5

The ruins of the Temple of Augustus in Ankara. Only the cella is still standing.

I use a translation of this text whenever I teach the Age of Augustus. It’s a rare example of an extant ancient historical text that is not only contemporary with its subject but also written by the person in whose voice it is. (Unlike, for example, the Suetonius biography, written about a century after Augustus died, or the Funeral Oration of Pericles, written by Thucydides in Pericles’ voice.)

A portion of the Latin inscription of the Res Gestae on the wall of the Temple of Augustus.

In the document, Augustus lists the achievements he wishes to be remembered by. It’s a combination of a memoir, curriculum vitae, and a completed to-do list. The document is not particularly well-organized, but if we were to reorder the items and group them under headings (which is what I have my students do), they might look something like this:

  • Military Victories and Conquests
  • Diplomacy and Peacemaking
  • Public Works
  • Donations
  • Restoration of the Mores Maiorum (the “ways of the ancestors”)

If you are familiar with the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where John Cleese’s character asks, “What have the Romans done for us,” you might think of the Res Gestae as Augustus’ answer to the question, “What has Augustus done for us?” And both answers would include “the aqueduct” and “brought peace.”

Equally as fascinating as the document’s content is the story of how it was found. I knew that it survived only in the provincial copy carved into the Temple of Augustus in Ankara, and I knew that at some point it was recognized as the work of Augustus. Beyond that, I vaguely assumed that it had been identified by a classically-educated nineteenth-century British diplomat—like Lord Elgin, only less destructive.

As usual, I was partially right. My instincts were correct, but I was off on the details (just like with King Arthur flour). It wasn’t a classically-educated nineteenth-century British diplomat; it was a classically-educated sixteenth-century Flemish diplomat. Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-1592) was ambassador of Emperor Ferdinand of Austria to Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent. During his time there, between 1554 and 1562, Ghiselin de Busbecq traveled around the Ottoman empire and later published his observations in Turkish Letters (1581). He wrote,6

Here we saw a very beautiful inscription, containing a copy of the tablets in which Augustus gave a summary of his achievements. We made our people copy as much as was legible. It is engraved on the marble walls of a building now ruinous and roofless which formerly may have formed the official residence of the governor. As you enter the building one half of the inscription is on the right, and the other on the left. The top lines are nearly perfect; in the middle the gaps begin to present difficulties; the lowest lines are so mutilated with blows of clubs and axes as to be illegible. This is indeed a great literary loss, and one which scholars have much reason to regret; the more so as it is an ascertained fact that Ancyra was dedicated to Augustus as the common gift of Asia.

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq

 Recognizing the Res Gestae wasn’t Ghiselin de Busbecq’s only accomplishment. He was also interested in plants, and claimed to have been the person who introduced tulip bulbs to Europe. This claim was an exaggeration, but Ghiselin de Busbecq probably contributed to their popularization. 7 Tulips became so popular in the Dutch Republic of the 17th century that the buying and selling of the bulbs is referred to as “Tulipmania,” and the rise and subsequent collapse of the market in 1637 is considered an early example of an investment bubble. 8

‘Still Life with Flowers,’ 1639, by Hans Bollinger (fl. 1623-1672), now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The striped tulips, known as ‘broken,’ were the most highly sought-after during the tulip craze. It is now known that the ‘break’ is caused by a virus. Coincidentally, the name of the most valuable broken variety was ‘Semper Augustus.’

The surviving copy of the Res Gestae was mentioned by classical scholars a few times in the subsequent centuries, but serious study of it was only undertaken in the nineteenth century, beginning with the work of Theodor Mommsen, a groundbreaking German historian of ancient Rome. Mommsen was not an archeologist, and he did not travel to Turkey to study the inscription in person. Rather, he relied on drawings made by others to produce his scholarly edition of the Res Gestae in 1865, and a second edition that utilized plaster casts of the inscription in 1883.9

Another technology that has been developed by epigraphers (people who study inscriptions) is known as “squeezes.” A squeeze is made by pressing dampened paper onto the inscription, letting it dry, then lifting it off. The resulting impression is lightweight and easy to work with (although the image is reversed; epigraphers have to become adept at reading ancient languages backwards). Taking a squeeze allows for prolonged study of the text off-site, and for simultaneous study of inscriptions from multiple sites.

I was delighted to learn that Cornell University, my doctoral institution, has an extensive collection of squeezes, including the Res Gestae. The Res Gestae squeeze was obtained as part of the Cornell Expedition to Asia Minor and the Assyro-Babylonian Orient (1907-1908). I was not aware of this collection’s existence while I was studying there, although ancient Greek and Roman history was one of my minor fields. At that point, in the pre-digital era, the squeezes were just sitting in storage in the attic of Goldwin Smith Hall, home of Cornell’s Classics department. But the squeezes have since been restored and digitized.

One of the squeezes of the Res Gestae now in Cornell’s collection.

Another Cornell connection to the Res Gestae, slightly more tenuous, is that Theodor Ernst Mommsen (1905-1958), grandson of Theodor Mommsen, taught medieval history at Cornell beginning in 1954 (having escaped Nazi Germany in 1935) until his untimely death from suicide in 1958. His successor was Brian Tierney, with whom I studied.

In the 1930s, archeologists excavated the Ara Pacis, an Augustan monument mentioned in the Res Gestae10

When I returned to Rome from Spain and Gaul, having settled affairs successfully in these provinces, in the consulship of Tiberius Nero and Publius Quinctilius [13 BC], the senate decreed that an altar of Augustan Peace should be consecrated in thanks for my return on the field of Mars, and ordered magistrates and priests and Vestal Virgins to perform an annual sacrifice there.

As part of his program to connect his rule to the glories of imperial Rome, Mussolini had a museum constructed to house the Ara Pacis, located near the ruins of the mausoleum of Augustus on the banks of the Tiber. The text of the Res Gestae was carved into an exterior wall of the museum. The Ara Pacis museum opened in 1938, a year celebrated as the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus.11

Mussolini’s Ara Pacis museum. The Res Gestae was carved on the wall in the foreground.

The Mussolini-era museum has since been demolished and replaced with a new building, completed in 2006, designed by American architect Richard Meier. The wall with the Res Gestae was preserved, however. So if you want to see an inscribed version of the Res Gestae, there’s no need to visit Ankara; there’s one in Rome, near its original location, although not on a bronze tablet.

Whenever an academic administrator asks me for the goals of a course, I always use the same three (polished a bit more for administrative consumption):

  • Teach them stuff (content).
  • Teach them to do stuff (skills).
  • Teach them how it relates to other stuff (connections).

The Res Gestae is a perfect example of this approach in action. Teach them stuff: the document is literally made up of, and named for, the stuff Augustus did. Teach them to do stuff: in addition to the skill of reading and interpreting a document, the Res Gestae also gives students the opportunity to learn about disciplines like archeology and epigraphy and techniques like squeezes that lie behind the conveniently anthologized, printed, translated text in front of them. Teach them how it relates to other stuff: the history of the Res Gestae not only connects to the history of the interest in and study of the classics—by Ghiselin de Busbecq in the 16th century, Mommsen in the 19th, and Mussolini in the 20th—it also, more unexpectedly, connects to the history of horticulture and early-modern capitalism. No wonder it’s one of my favorite texts to teach.