14.10.30, Hayez and Toccafondi, eds., Palazzo Datini a Prato

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Joëlle Rollo-Koster

The Medieval Review 14.10.30

Hayez, Jérôme, and Diana Toccafondi. Palazzo Datini a Prato: Una casa fatta per durare mille anni, 2 vols.. Florence: Edizioni Polistampa, 2012. Pp. xvi, 685. ISBN: 9788859609490 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Joëlle Rollo-Koster
University of Rhode Island

Francesco di Marco Datini of Prato died in 1410. While his name may be meaningless to most, historians easily recognize him as one of the greatest medieval merchants whose agents plyed the trade throughout the corners of Europe during the second half of the fourteenth century. His is a story of rags to riches in more than one way. Orphaned by the plague in his teens--his father was a Pratese butcher/inn-keeper--he apprenticed with a merchant and left Prato for Avignon where he prospered selling weapons and luxury goods in the thriving new capital of Christianity. He eventually married into the Florentine elite: his bride Margherita Bandini was twenty-five years his junior, and belonged to the Florentine patriciate. She carried the weight of her name even if her father had lost his head and fortune for his defense of the Guelphs. Datini and his wife eventually returned to Prato in 1383 and settled at last in the palace whose construction had preoccupied him throughout his years in Avignon. This palace is the focus of the volume under review. In his testament the merchant dedicated his residence and wealth to the founding of an institution that would support the honorable poor of the city, the Casa Pia dei Ceppi. It survived into the modern era. There is little doubt that Datini's charity is what propelled him into secular sainthood. But his fame can be spelled in many ways, and for medieval historians he is known before all for the imposing archives he left to posterity. His five hundred ledgers and some 150,000 miscellaneous papers allow historians to literally enter his house and hear the not-so-silenced voices of its inhabitants. [1] Few medieval personas are that well known--and few houses too.

To celebrate this most famous Pratese the commune decided on the six-hundredth anniversary of his death to memorialize Datini in two magnificent volumes, part art books, part sourcebooks, as a fitting tribute to the man who made the renown of the city. The first volume offers a socio-cultural analysis of the house/palace, the true protagonist of the publication, from the fourteenth century to today following its evolution from residence to pious institution supporting the poor, to archive and museum. The second volume presents an Italian edition of some of the documents that directly relate to the house, its construction and decoration, the correspondence between various artisans involved in the project and Datini, and finally several inventories dating from 1394, 1399, 1405, 1410, 1411, and 1443. It should be noted that the well-known correspondence between Margherita and her husband has been omitted from this publication since it previously appeared in various editions. It is not a glaring omission. [2]

As described in the various introductions (this seems to have been a political as well as cultural enterprise, so in typical fashion Pratese communal representatives introduce the volumes along with the archive director and historians), the Datini palace was and is a symbol of civic identity, a fact of which Datini was already well aware. The subtitle of the book "a house built to last one thousand years" comes directly from Datini's hand, giving us a direct entrance into his psyche. Datini did not lack confidence or self-awareness. The self-made man knew that his house would become a case della memoria (the French lieu de mémoire is more elegant than "commemorative site"). The over abundance of archival material that he consciously preserved allows researchers to get to the man, his activities, his character, and the mentalities of his time. But more so, the house survived the man by hundreds of years and it has its own history too, that is addressed in details in the present volumes. The house was tied to the identity of the man and the town. Thus there is coherence--a totality that unites man, house, and city--which is marvelously reflected in the present volumes. In some dense 650 pages or so readers enter the intimacy of the world of the late fourteenth century. The essays are loaded with transcriptions of primary sources that will interest social, economic, and cultural as well as art and architectural historians of the Middle Ages in general, and Italy in particular. The second volume dedicated solely to the edition of various letters is a boon for everyone. Both volumes are illustrated with numerous photographs, reproductions, maps, and drawings.

The first half of volume one is dedicated to the private dwelling of the merchant, its foundation, and decoration. Claudio Cerretelli focuses on the building itself, which as the author notes was the merchant's pride and joy. The author traces the history of the buildings that comprised the palace and the constructions that further expanded it. Even if its structure may appear austere by today's standards Datini's palace stood as one of the most recognizable Pratese buildings of his time, alongside churches and government buildings. The author, like the rest of contributors provides ample iconographical evidence, with photographs and architectural drawings that clarify his exposition. Philippe Bernardi complements the architectural study by focusing on the organization of the work-site, a task that Datini never wholly deferred to others. The merchant always controlled the work done and as such, his image. Again the particular richness of the archives allows historians to follow closely construction, including decisions taken on the go, material utilized, and provisioning. Brenda Preyer closes this first section on the foundations of the edifice by comparing the external and internal structure of Datini's palace to Florentine's habitations of the time, noting their similarities. Datini conceptualized his residence in Florentine terms. Still, she remarks that Datini's palace was not as high as the Florentines', certainly because Prato was less densely populated than Florence and could seize space vertically but also because Datini knew how to keep his rank. She then discusses the paintings that decorated the outside walls of buildings suggesting that Florentine and Pratese habitations offered a colorful aspect that has completely disappeared from the modern cities. The author addresses the private/public dialectic present in the architectural projection of private space (benches, loggia) onto public streets before moving to a close reading of the structures of internal spaces in both Florentine and Pratese palaces.

The second section of this first part focuses on the "painted house." Several articles analyze the iconographical projects that embellished Datini's palace on the inside and out. Maria Pia Mannini initiates the discussion emphasizing the primacy of red as an element of myth construction, not so much by Datini himself but by those who portrayed him. In the years that followed his death Datini found his way into Pratese civic memory through the choice of various painters. Represented in red garments Datini symbolized nobility and most of all the merchant's "beatification." Margherita Romagnoli offers a chronology of the palace's decorations and an iconographical reading of its external decorations. She also reminds us that this specific private house also served public functions. When Datini received for example "foreign" dignitaries his house served a communal, public purpose that explains certain iconographical choice in the decorations (illustrations of famous men, and allegories of charity, faith and prudence, for example). The external choice emphasized republican values, love of the patria and courage. In three subsequent articles Cristina Gnoni Mavarelli focuses on the decorations that covered the walls of the ground floors, while Marco Masseti analyzes zoomorphic figurations in various rooms of the palace, and Philine Helas concludes the section with a study of the iconographic cycle presented on the external façade of the palace.

The third section of the first half of the volume focuses on the palace as center of Datini's life. In a long article Jérôme Hayez discusses Datini's life as it related to his residence. He notes that the palace was his anchor while away from home, a symbol of his eventual return to his homeland. But the palace was also a site of ambivalence and a space that he inhabited and vacated as he moved between Prato and Florence. In short his movements in and out of the palace reflected his complex social network. In a refreshing article Chiara Marcheschi distances herself from the male Tuscan world focusing instead on the women of Datini's household, paying heed to Datini's wife Margherita and the couple's conception of family. In doing so she discusses the household's feminine personnel and staff, its recruitment, activity and service, salaries and length of employment. Claudio Paolini decorticates Datini's fourteenth-century inventories to excavate the furniture, household goods and things that Datini collected in his home. Diane Toccafondi offers a chronological history of the formation of the archive while Simona Brambilla unearth the type of books that found their ways in the house of the merchant. Thus ends the first half, devoted to the palace during Datini's lifetime.

The second half of this first volume shed lights on the functional and architectural transformation of Datini's palace after Datini's death, as it went over the course of a few centuries from granary for the poor to cultural center. The first section sheds light on Datini's foundation, the Casa Pia dei Ceppi. It is composed of several articles. Giuliano Pinto sketches the history of Pratese assistance to the poor during Datini's times while in a detailed article Veronica Vestri investigates the institutional history of the Casa Pia between the fourteenth and nineteenth century, and Vanessa Castelnovi details the history of the house throughout the nineteen hundreds. Francesca Carrara concludes this section with the architectural evolution of the Pia between the fifteenth and nineteenth century. The second section, concentrates on restoration. Lia Pescatori initiates this discussion with the work of Nello Bemporad (1954-1958) the first architect who tackled the unification of the Pratese archives with the archives of the Casa Pia and Datini's own archives. Cristina Gnoni Mavarelli, Francesca Piqué, Svitlana Claudia Hluvko, Cecilia Frosinini, Letizia, Montalbano, and Michela Piccolo, discuss the various restoration projects that brought the paintings that decorated the house back to life, and also permitted the discovery of portraits of the Datini's family.

The last section of this second part is dedicated to the newly defined functions of the palace, which now serves as the state archives of Prato and as a museum dedicated to Datini and his foundation. Maria Raffaella de Gramatica, and Gabriele Ciolini respectively address the creation of both institutions.

The second volume introduces the edition of scores of medieval documents relative to the construction, decoration and various usages of the palace. The documents are organized chronologically starting with the period that preceded Datini's return to Prato and ending with inventories of goods taken before and after his death. Some documents take the form of accounting registers involving the various expenses incurred by Datini's representatives in Prato for the purchase of material or recruitment of artisans. Others itemize labor and equipment costs. Art historians will be specifically interested in various painters and artists' itemized bills and their correspondence with Datini. All will be intrigued by the inventories of goods. I suspect that with some additional (translating) labor many of these documents will find their way into the American classroom. These texts offer a great introduction into the lifestyle of the bourgeoisie of late trecento Tuscany. The volume ends with a chronology detailing the history of the buildings, a general bibliography that unfortunately focuses mainly on Italian and French authors, and an index.

These two beautiful volumes offer a comprehensive look into the life accomplishments of a man who knew PR long before it became a trendy word. While the volumes' specialization may deter some readers, the articles and analyses will interest most economic, art, social and cultural historians: a testament to a man and a house that had many tales to tell.



1.The documentation is now available online in a most comprehensive website at http://datini.archiviodistato.prato.it

2. See Francesco Datini, Franco Cardini, and Elena Cecchi, Le lettere di Francesco Datini alla moglie Margherita (1385-1410) (Prato: Società pratese di Storia Patria, 1990); Margherita Datini, Francesco Datini, Diana Toccafondi, and Gianni Cascone, Per la tua Margherita: Lettere di una donna del '300 al marito mercante: Margherita Datini a Francesco di Marco, 1384-1401 (Prato: Comune di Prato, Archivio di Stato di Prato, Provincia di Prato, 2002); and more recently Margherita Datini, Carolyn James, and Antonio Pagliaro, Letters to Francesco Datini (Toronto: Iter, 2012).

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Author Biography

Joëlle Rollo-Koster

University of Rhode Island