Francesco Datini's life is one of the best documented merchant stories in all European history. At his death he left behind almost 140,000 letters and a collection of more than 500 account books. His career may not have been extraordinary, but the degree of records his businesses produced have provided a rich mine for scholars anxious to reconstruct the history of one of Europe's most vigorous commercial centers in the early Renaissance.
Datini came from humble origins and lost his parents during the Black Death in 1348. When he was about fifteen he left Florence and traveled to Avignon, which at the time was the capital of the Roman Church. There he began work in a Florentine business in the city. Like many later capitalists he shepherded his resources, eventually investing in the business. Within eight years of his arrival in Avignon, he had already acquired a significant fortune, although his success later in life was to outstrip vastly these early successes. In Avignon, Datini dabbled in all manner of business, including the selling of salt, dyes, gemstones, works of art, and military equipment, such as armor and daggers. When he was 47 he returned to Tuscany and took up residence in Prato, a small, but important trading center just outside Florence. Like other merchants of the day, he patronized scholarship, providing financial support for Lapo Mazzei's university studies. These two figures conducted an extensive correspondence, the letters of which revealed that Datini's business interests had become a significant burden in his later life that required him to spend a great deal of each day managing his enterprises. By the end of the fourteenth century, for example, Datini's interests had branched out from his early dabbling in retail and small trade. He now controlled a vast number of banking interests in trading companies. From Prato, his ties stretched out to firms in England, Flanders, Spain, the Near East, as well as the major Italian societies. By this time, Datini was also a major figure in the woolen industry, and he regularly imported huge amounts of fine English wool and finished English cloth to Italy. He kept a small portion of the wool he imported for his own woolen workshops, but also resold a great deal of the raw product to weavers throughout Tuscany. English cloth, while widely respected at the time, could also be sold cheaper in Italy because of its lower cost structure. Thus Datini was one of Europe's first outsourcers. Beyond these interests in the wool industry, the Merchant of Prato, as he came to be known, had a large amount of real estate at the time of his death, including more than seventy properties in and around Prato.
Datini's life and career shows the possibilities and limitations that existed within Renaissance society. Born relatively poor, he climbed the social and economic ladder in the urban world through a shrewd understanding of the new realities of trade. Like the Medici and other major Italian merchants of the time, Datini arranged all of his interests into an organization that resembled the modern industrial holding company. The branches of his business that stretched throughout Europe each constituted a separate company, although Datini retained controlling interest in their governance. In these ways he limited his liability, since if one of his business or banking interests failed, it did not threaten his still healthy companies. He was also extremely pious, supporting charitable organizations and founding the Casa del Ceppo to aid poor children. Generally, he did not involve himself in politics, though he did spend a brief period as a civic official in Prato. Shrewd, high-handed, and arbitrary, he, like many other merchants of his time, often strung along his small suppliers, many of whom performed steps in the production of wool for his shop. Datini kept these poorer artisans and craftspeople in a servile position, often refusing to pay them for months on end for their work. His curious combination of religious sentiment, corrupt practices, business acumen, and entrepreneurial risk taking, though, is strikingly modern.
E. Baselli, Francesco di Marco da Prato; notizie e documenti sulla mercatura italiana del secolo XIV (Milano: Fratelli Treves, 1928).
Giovanni Caselli, Un mercader florentino (Barcelona: Molino, 1987).
I. Origo, The Merchant of Prato (London, England: Jonathan Cape, 1957).