Opening Remarks

Simone Mangani

Municipality of Prato, Councillor for Culture

The Municipality of Prato is thrilled to have been part of the organisation of this two-day People in Motion: Entangled Histories of Displacement across the Mediterranean (1492–1923) (PIMo) COST Action event. An international research network involving dozens of different countries and hundreds of researchers is – and will always be – welcome in our city. In this case, however, we are not only offering our hospitality out of choice but also due to the necessity to give further, well-deserved visibility to a fundamental piece of our regional heritage. The archives of Francesco di Marco Datini, preserved in the Prato State Archives, provide vivid testimony of the excellence achieved by their founder in skilfully managing a complex organisation of people and documents. We therefore extend our informal but very heartfelt thanks to the entire research team – to professors José Maria Pérez Fernández and Giovanni Tarantino in particular – for creating this research project and consequently, promoting this international event.

Diana Toccafondi

Italian National Council for Cultural Heritage

‘What by our fault, or Time’s relentless flight, Or Fortune’s chances, or by accident (whatever be the cause) we lose down here, miraculously is assembled there.’ In canto XXXIV of Orlando Furioso, Ludovico Ariosto uses these words to describe the miraculous place on the moon where Astolfo goes in search, among the many and disparate things gathered there, of Orlando’s lost wits. In doing so, perhaps unwittingly, Ariosto’s pyrotechnic imagination provides us with an unexpected and effective image of an archive, a fascinating and secret place where the wisdom (and therefore the meaning) of our existence is collected. The deep meaning of these words is well understood by anyone who has had the good fortune to work, as a researcher or archivist, in the midst of ancient papers and has been able to savour what Arlette Farge calls, in one of her successful books, the ‘pleasure of the archive’. 

This is what happened to me, like many others. Today, looking back on my life in contact with archives, I can say that it was a privilege and an extraordinary opportunity for my professional growth to have been able to work, for some years, on the Datini Archive in the State Archives in Prato. This meant not only coming into contact with a mine of data to sift through in order to obtain results on some research topic (as a historian does), but also being confronted with a complex and stratified system of writings and trying to understand its nature, history and structure. I had to ask fundamental questions about the characteristics, including the formal ones, of the individual types of records and the relationships between them, about how the archive has been set out and transformed over time, about the meaning and use of the records at the time they were produced and then later, in the course of history. 

As we know, the Datini papers were to find their singular destiny and privileged home in Palazzo Datini, built as the Prato merchant’s residence at the end of the fourteenth century. It was Francesco Datini, together with his wife Margherita, who created the conditions for this house to one day become an ‘archive’, when the trader’s entire inheritance was bequeathed to the foundation of a charitable institution to support the poor of Prato. Datini’s archive remained almost intact over time until it was rediscovered at the end of the nineteenth century (which is why historians have called it the Pompei of the Middle Ages). However, we would be wrong to think of it as an archaeological object frozen in an immobile time: not only does its exploration amaze researchers with its kaleidoscopic variety, just like Astolfo on the moon, but the nature of the papers it preserves has much to say to our contemporary world, and to our sense of information providers and communication society.

If the archives of government institutions, families and institutions usually offer a well-structured and almost monumental representation of the subjects from which they originate (and this strength, this monumentality also includes transformations, manipulations, successive aggregations and all the vicissitudes that place the seal of history on the papers), mercantile archives, and in particular the Datini Archive, are born and live under the banner of mobility. The papers they contain often travelled by sea and land along with the goods, determining and accompanying their destinations, sustaining personal and business relationships, feeding networks of knowledge and communication, and laying the foundations for the process of abstraction of money. In a word, they helped lay the foundations of the noosphere in which our contemporary world is immersed. 

And it is precisely thanks to its originally fluid and open nature that the Datini Archive has not escaped the permanent mutation of history and has chosen to continue reaffirming its strong vocation for mobility and communication, even at the beginning of the twenty-first century. At present, a project is underway to digitise and put the archive online and the Prato State Archives are assiduously and competently working on increasing the digital content. The digital version of the Datini Archive places the entire source in front of us; it is a sort of fresco, a total history, a complex system which can display the different segments, hone in on the smallest details and at the same time illustrate the lines of the general picture. 

This is why the initiatives promoted by the People in Motion: Entangled Histories of Displacement across the Mediterranean (1492–1923) (PIMo) COST Action are particularly valuable. The project interprets the need to understand our world and cultural and material reality in the best possible way, by putting together an international network of conservation and research institutions, partnerships, interests and skills, following in the footsteps of those who historically contributed to founding this reality. Today it has become urgent to follow these tracks in an integrated and interdisciplinary way, also in the light of new questions and fresh perspectives. In a time that risks being without history, as Adriano Prosperi recently wrote, archives provide a memory full of sense and meaning that is waiting to be understood and reactivated in order to generate new awareness and sustain our present world.  

Leonardo Meoni

Prato State Archives, Director

The documentary archives of Prato merchant Francesco di Marco Datini are certainly the most outstanding of those preserved in the Prato State Archives. The Datini Archive is universally known and consulted by scholars from all over the world, as it offers a formidable source for innumerable research fields, in the first place for economic history and accounting techniques, but also for the cultural, intellectual and social history of the period. In both its form and substance, it is also a privileged source for investigating the complex and efficient management system of written communication between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The fonds consist of more than 1,100 accounting registers and about 150,000 letters, covering a chronological period that goes from the end of the 1360s to the second decade of the fifteenth century. It bears witness for the greater part to the vast activity carried out in the fields of industry, commerce and banking by the various companies created by Francesco di Marco Datini. Its extraordinary size makes it the largest mercantile fonds in the world dating from the Middle Ages.

At the height of his business expansion, between 1398 and 1399, Francesco was at the head of a group of companies comprising two independent firms, five trading companies, two industrial companies and a bank. All of this could only be managed through the continuous circulation of information conveyed by uninterrupted correspondence between the various companies.

Information was a primary asset for the merchant and essentially had a dual function: a knowledge function, to therefore forecast economic facts, and a control function, certainly within the same company to guarantee correct operations, but also externally, given that economic relations were, and still are, based on the principle of ‘trust’ and the reliability of the various economic operators.

The connection of the merchant’s own close network with those of his correspondents created a vast web along which information circulated, frequently from places which were thousands of kilometres away. The denser the web of the merchant’s relations and the more possible connections, the greater the number of letters he wrote and received and the greater the amount of information he had to know and handle.

The size and scope of these networks can be measured by the figures: the Datini papers boast more than 4,400 correspondents writing from more than 400 different locations.

The Prato State Archives, aware of the extraordinary documentary heritage we have to preserve and promote, are delighted to collaborate in some of the initiatives of the People in Motion: Entangled Histories of Displacement across the Mediterranean (1492–1923) (PIMo) COST Action directed by Prof. Giovanni Tarantino. In particular, we are thrilled to partner with the ‘Paper in Motion’ workgroup, led by Prof. José María Pérez Fernández, whose aim is to investigate the role of paper in communication and trade across the Mediterranean, in the circulation of people, ideas and goods, and as a tool for the creation of complex relational networks.

Our institute can certainly offer an important contribution to a project like this: the wealth in number and variety of the documents conserved in the Datini Archive offers extraordinary opportunities for the investigation of the many aspects involved in the movement of paper at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Diana Toccafondi – for many years the director of our institute – masterfully underlines in many of her writings the two-way movement behind the formation of the Datini Archive. In a first phase the papers circulated through the various nodes within the dense commercial networks that united the Mediterranean basin and in turn connected these domestic networks with places well beyond its shores, conveying extremely valuable information of a very diverse nature on a global scale. The very circulation of these papers, letters of exchange for example, even ‘created’ the economic fact itself. Then a second, this time centripetal movement brought the documents from the various fondaci towards the heart of Datini’s business system, into the hands of Francesco himself, substantially for reasons of control and final verification. This second centre-bound flow is what makes up the archive which we preserve.

The Prato State Archives have great pleasure in collaborating with PIMo through two different initiatives.

First of all, we are pleased to provide the virtual exhibition and this publication which catalogues the event with the digital reproduction of some documents from the Datini Archive, with corresponding descriptions, as well as a short essay. The value of both projects cannot be understated. By bringing together – albeit virtually – documents from several international archives, the aim is to restore a perspective that gives an account of the complexity of economic, cultural and social relations in the Mediterranean basin, starting from the fourteenth century. 

The second initiative is a traditional documentary exhibition, curated by Chiara Marcheschi with the collaboration of Matteo Calcagni, which will be held at our institute. It intends to offer the city and scholars a selection of papers from the Datini Archive, and illustrate the richness and variety, in terms of format and content, required and adopted by the mercantile communications of the period.

In conclusion, I must say that it will certainly be stimulating, and also quite moving, to see scholars from so many countries of the Mediterranean basin and Northern Europe gathered around the Datini papers to reaffirm, and in some way renew, relationships and connections with distant roots.