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.

Schliemann Syndrome

A trireme. A warp-weighted loom. A hike across the mountains of Attica. A peplos. Jumping weights. Hoplite armor.

What do all these items have in common (apart from their connection to ancient Greece)? They are all examples of a phenomenon in classical studies that I have labeled “Schliemann Syndrome.”

Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) is well known as the excavator of ancient Troy and Mycenae. His work, along with that of other pioneering archaeologists like Sir Arthur Evans, pushed back the boundaries of ancient Mediterranean history by thousands of years. But Schliemann was no average dry-as-dust academic.1

Heinrich Schliemann

Most classical scholars of his era believed that the poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were entirely works of the imagination. Nothing like the Trojan War ever occurred, and the Homeric poems were literature and not in any way historical.

Schliemann had a different attitude. He saw Homer as a historian and his account of the Trojan War as a reliable history. Schliemann was not an academic; he was mostly self-taught. But he was fluent in multiple languages, including ancient Greek, and, having made his fortune in business (including in the California Gold Rush!), he had the resources to test his hypothesis.

In 1871, he began his excavation at Hissarlik, a mound on the Aegean coast of what was then the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), one of the possible candidates for the site of ancient Troy. Among the artifacts he found there in 1873 was a cache of golden objects, which he labeled “The Treasure of Priam.”2 Priam was the wealthy and powerful king of Troy during the Trojan War, so clearly, reasoned Schliemann, any treasure found in Troy must be his. Some of the treasure was jewelry, and Schliemann took a photo of his wife Sophia wearing what he called “the jewels of Helen of Troy.” Who wears jewelry? Beautiful women. Who was the most beautiful woman in the world, who, according to Homer, was living in Troy? Helen. Ergo, the jewels were hers.

Sophia Schliemann wearing the “Jewels of Helen of Troy.”

Schliemann believed that having found the remains of a wealthy, hitherto unknown civilization on the site of Troy meant that he had proved his hypothesis, that the Homeric poems were historical. We might see some holes in this argument, but Schliemann didn’t. Instead, having found the home of one side in the Trojan War, he set out in 1876 to explore the home of their opponents. Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek contingent, was called by Homer the King of Mycenae, and so to Mycenae Schliemann went. There, among the artifacts of a pre-classical Greek civilization that would come to be called “Mycenaean,” Schliemann found a hammered-gold death mask. Who would get an elaborate burial with precious grave goods? A king. Who was king of Mycenae? Agamemnon. So Schliemann, naturally, promptly identified it as the “Mask of Agamemnon.”

The Mask of Agamemnon, now in the National Museum of Athens.

Schliemann was an important scholar who made significant discoveries, but as you can see, he was enthusiastic to the point of obsession and tended to over-identify with his subject. For example, he named the two children he had with Sophia “Andromache” (the wife of the Trojan hero Hector) and “Agamemnon.”3 In his honor, I refer to examples of later scholars who behave similarly as exhibiting “Schliemann Syndrome.”

One of the most significant, most studied, and most controversial events in ancient Greek history is the Battle of Marathon. The main source for the battle, Herodotus’ Histories, raises a number of questions. For example, Herodotus states that the Athenian army advanced on the invading Persian force “at a run.” Many classicists have questioned whether it was physically possible for the heavily armed Athenian hoplite phalanx to do this, especially given that the two armies were a mile apart. How to resolve the question? Run an experiment with American college students. In 1973, two professors at Penn State, Walter Donlan and James Thompson, equipped Physical Education majors with 15 lbs. of weight and had them run in formation for 1600 yards; they couldn’t do it. Donlan and Thompson concluded that Herodotus’ account was inaccurate.4

Another Marathonian question arises in the aftermath of the battle, when, Herodotus says, the victorious Athenian army marched back to the city as quickly as possible, hoping to arrive before the (still intact) Persian fleet could round the peninsula of Attica.5 Could they have made it back in the time Herodotus says they did? British scholar N.G.L. Hammond (1907-2001), author of a standard textbook in ancient Greek history,6 writes,

Taking the direct route from Mt Pentelicus, I walked fast from Athens to the mound at Marathon in 6 hours and returned the same day to Athens in 7 hours.7

Based on this experience, Hammond concludes that Herodotus’ account of the timing is plausible.

Perhaps the most dramatic instance of Schliemann Syndrome that I have come across is also connected to the Persian Wars: the reconstructed trireme Olympias. Ancient historians had many questions about the trireme, the three-oared warship that brought the Athenian navy victory in the Battle of Salamis in the 2nd Persian War in 480 and was the foundation of their fifth-century empire. For one, how were the “3 oars” (the literal meaning of “trireme”) arranged? If there were three levels of oars, how was the ship constructed so that they didn’t get tangled up with each other? How easy was the ship to maneuver? How fast could it go?

Another British scholar, John Morrison (1913-2000), hypothesized that the 3 levels of oars were cantilevered out from the hull. He tested his hypothesis by building a full-sized replica of an ancient trireme and then launching it in the Aegean Sea beginning in 1987. I brought Ford Weiskittel, one of the organizers and volunteer rowers involved in this effort, to Mount St Mary’s to speak back in the 1990’s. I took him to dinner before his talk and told him about the concept of Schliemann Syndrome, and then somewhat hesitantly suggested that Olympias was a manifestation of it. He immediately replied, “oh, absolutely.”

The trireme Olympias.

Not all instances of Schliemann Syndrome are military. While preparing a class on ancient Greek athletics, I learned about the practice of using halteres, or “jumping weights,” in the long jump event. Curious about how these worked, I discovered a study undertaken at Texas Tech University in which scholars constructed some weights, gave them to student athletes, and measured their efforts.

The history of textiles is another area that lends itself to Schliemann Syndrome. Looking for images of Minoan artifacts, I came across not only the so-called Snake Goddess figurines uncovered in Crete but also modern re-creations of the costume.

The Penelope Project, named for the wife of Odysseus in the Odyssey who tricks her suitors by unraveling by night the shroud she weaves by day, explores the technology of ancient weaving. I’ve also found patterns and videos for making a peplos, the dress worn by ancient Greek women.

I wanted to show a clearer representation of the peplos to my students, so I made Peplos Barbie.8 Uh-oh—I think I’ve caught the Syndrome.