16.09.25, Branca, Merchant Writers

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William Caferro

The Medieval Review 16.09.25

Branca, Vittore. Ed. translated by Murtha Baca with biographical essay by Cesare de Michelis. Merchant Writers: Florentine Memoirs from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Lorenzo Da Ponte Italian Library. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. pp. 424. ISBN: 978-1-442-63714-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
William Caferro
Vanderbilt University

The present volume is an English translation of Vittore Branca's ‪Mercanti scrittori‬: ‪ricordi nella Firenze tra Medioevo e Rinascimento‬, published originally in 1986 by Rusconi Press in Italian. The book has been an invaluable resource for scholars and students interested in the Florentine "merchant" writers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬The great and lasting virtue of Branca's work is its treatment of these writers as part of a tradition that includes their "literary" counterparts Dante, Petrarch and, above all, Boccaccio--to whom Branca devoted much of his scholarly career. Branca's unsurpassed erudition and familiarity with a vast array of written sources allows him to compare, often casually and in passing, the works of his merchant writers of the Trecento and early Quattrocento with later authors such as Marsilio Ficino, Leonardo Bruni, Matteo Palmieri and Francesco Guicciardini (among others). Domenico Lenzi, the self- proclaimed ‘humble and crude" Florentine grain dealer of the early trecento, is noted for the echoes of Dante (13-14) in his work, and for a "mercantile ethic" evocative of Boccaccio. Branca compares Lenzi's description of the famine of 1329 to the visual imagery of the Lorenzetti frescoes in Siena (12). Perhaps no scholar of the twentieth century possessed Branca's intellectual range and ability to see such connections. Branca himself transcribed many of the selections from the original manuscripts.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

One needs to make clear, however, precisely what this translation represents. It is an English language rendering of Branca's original book (1986) and should not to be confused with the 1999 English language "sampler" version by Branca entitled Merchant Writers of the Italian Renaissance. Branca added excerpts to that edition from Boccaccio, Lorenzo de' Medici and Niccoló Machiavelli, which are not in the original and thus not translated here, and wrote also a different introduction aimed at a more general audience. The translator of this volume, Murtha Baca, used both introductions for the current edition, making it "a sort of hybrid" (2). We are not told what proportions were taken from where.

In any case, Baca's rendition of Branca's introduction, like the translation more generally, flows well and expertly captures the essence of what Vittore Branca intended. Baca rightly notes in his preface that that every translation is simultaneously "an act of interpretation and negotiation" (ix). Baca's treatment of the selections from the merchant writers exemplifies this. Baca does an outstanding job conveying the nuance of Trecento and early Quattrocento Tuscan vernacular and renders clearly often abstruse economic terms. This is no small task and, indeed, allows the historians among us to forgive the translator's assertion that the selections chosen by Branca often consisted of "tedious" lists of "persons, dates, merchandise, prices" (viii). Such "tedious" items are the life-blood of the historical profession, and constitute a major reason for the continued utility of these "telegraphic" (as Baca calls them) works. The book ends with a laudatory portrait of Vittore Branca himself by one of his students, Cesare de Michelis.

Branca's selections from merchant writers include the work of Paolo da Certaldo, Giovanni di Paolo Morelli, Buonacorso Pitti, Domeno Lenzi, Donato Velluti, Goro Dati, Francesco Datini, Lapo di Giovanni Niccolini de' Sirigatti and Bernardo Machiavelli (father of the great Niccolò Machiavelli). The texts, Branca tells us, reflect a genre of writing that exists in "hundreds of examples" (many still unexamined) and should be studied alongside Petrarch's genre of lyric poetry, the narrative style of Boccaccio and also the contemporary romantic and chivalric genre of literature (4). Branca's arrangement of the selections is not chronological. Domenico Lenzi is the earliest writer, but Branca places him after Paolo da Certaldo, Giovanni di Paolo Morelli and Buonacorso Pitti, all of whom wrote later. The first selection is from Certaldo, a friend of Boccaccio, who provided bread for Florentine militia in 1362-64. It contains a series of moral aphorisms that reflect Certaldo's "earthbound middle class ethic" and concurrently his strong religious convictions (17). It is this conflict between desire for profit and moral rectitude that is representative of the merchant writers more generally.

Giovanni di Paolo Morelli's "memoir" (written between 1393 and 1411) is in many ways the focal point of the collection. Branca calls it "a masterpiece" of merchant writing, with its realistic portrayals of individuals and moralistic digressions that to Branca seem "almost psychoanalytic" (19). Morelli's "dominating passion," however, was always his family, a theme that also runs throughout the merchant works (19). Branca also gives much space also to the colorful memoir of Buonacorso Pitti, which he places after Morelli and describes as "obsessively egocentric" (33). A much shorter excerpt is taken from the memoir of Bernardo Machiavelli, who is concerned primarily with land transfers, the description of an illicit love affair between a master and a maidservant and with the education of his famous son Niccolò. The excerpt from Donato Velutti's memoir focuses wholly on family related issues, while the excerpt from Goro Dati's "secret book" focuses almost exclusively on his business transactions. The selection from Francesco Datini consists of his will, in which the merchant gave his house to the city of Prato to serve as a hospice for the poor and indigent.

The selections are for Branca representative of a unique Florentine culture. The writers both reflected on and were involved in the world they lived in. They were part of a Florentine tradition that Branca explicitly traces forward to the work of Niccolò Machiavelli, Francesco Guicciardini and Benvenuto Cellini in the sixteenth century. Branca sees an evolution from a simple "thirst for wealth" in the earlier period to a "more cautious, deliberate exploitation of wealth" and search for "short cuts to riches "(7) in the later period. Branca quotes Giovanni di Paolo Morelli's dictum, "do less at first, and you shall be safe," as typical of the new ethos. The dominant theme among the Branca's merchant writers is a combination of ragion di mercatura and ragion di famiglia, that is, of mercantile and domestic concerns, that was necessary to negotiate changes in Florentine society, most notably the increasingly oligarchic nature of the government and institutions (8-9). The Florentine public sphere progressively intruded on the Florentine private sphere. Branca uses the "establishment" of the catasto in 1427, the creation of the monte delle doti in 1425 and the increasing demand for loans from citizens for war as examples. By the sixteenth century (although Branca is not entirely clear about the timing), the dual themes of ragion di mercatura and ragion di famiglia were overcome by the ragion di stato.

It is this historical framework that is the most problematic part of Branca's introduction. For all the complexity Branca adds to our understanding of the merchant writers in their literary context, he is correspondingly simplistic with regard to their historical milieu. Branca gives in too much to the urge to see modernity in the Florentine past. Branca calls his writers "middle class" merchants, a qualifier that is anachronistic to the era, and pointedly compares the merchants to modern day counterparts "like Edison, Ford, Krupp, Agnelli...Iacocca," who participated actively in economic activities of their world (5). Branca's portrait of Florence, whose "ideals and powers and institutions..." were in "crisis" at this time, would evoke little dispute among historians, but his notion that these were then supplanted by "supra-national economic institutions, large nations and their national agendas" is more cliché than reality. Economic historians would dispute Branca's statement that there was economic depression in Florence in the mid-fourteenth century and his belief that oligarchic domination was most evident in the "rise of the Medici bank and holding companies." Branca's assertion that Francesco Datini was "the most powerful, enterprising merchant of his time" (17) is again cliché, based on a single dated secondary work (Iris Origo), but hardly true in point of fact. In addition, Branca does not address the reasons for the different titles of his selections ("Memoir," "Book of Good Practices," "Mirror of Humanity"), which may bear on their intended readership. Indeed, in this sense the subtitle title of the book ("Florentine Memoirs from the Middle Ages and Renaissance") is something of a misnomer. We may forgive Branca's historical oversimplifications owing to the overwhelming virtues of his book, but it is important, given Branca's fame and broad readership, to point out these out.

To be sure, however, this is an excellent collection and its accessibility to an English speaking audience is noteworthy. The beauty of the book lay in its presentation and explication of a range of writers, whose work is fundamental to understanding Florentine society in the fourteenth and fifteenth century. Domenico Lenzi offers insight into the social and economic issues arising from famine. Donato Velluti provides an example of self-promotion in the political arena. Lapo di Giovanni de Sirigatti makes clear the importance of lineage. Together the works, placed beside those of Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch, underscore the singularity of Florence. Murtha Baca's translation is a tour de force that brings out all the color and immediacy of these works.

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