Chiara Marcheschi

Prato States Archives

The Datini Archive

(Prato, Italy)

The archive of Prato merchant Francesco di Marco DatiniOn Francesco di Marco Datini, see Federigo Melis, Aspetti della vita economica medievale, Francesco di Marco Datini. Studi nell’archivio Datini di Prato (Siena: Monte dei Paschi, 1962); Giampiero Nigro, ed., Francesco di Marco Datini. L’uomo il mercante (Prato: Firenze University Press, 2010); Paolo Nanni, Ragionare tra mercanti. Per una rilettura della personalità di Francesco di Marco Datini (ca.1335-1410) (Pisa: Pacini, 2010) and Jérôme Hayez and Diana Toccafondi, eds, Palazzo Datini. Una casa fatta per durare mille anni (Florence: Polistampa, 2012), 2 vols. is a rich and well-organised set of documents, with the characteristics of both a personal and a family archive. Besides being the archive of both the vast and sophisticated business conglomerate conceived and managed by Datini himself and each of its constituent companies, it has become the repository for documents on the activities of those individuals and companies who came into contact with Datini and his affairs. Consequently, it also restores voices which in many cases would have been dispersed or totally lost.

The Datini Archive’s main assets are administrative documents and business correspondence, issued and received in the course of the different activities conducted by the Prato merchant, which included trade, manufacture and banking. They also relate to the management of his real estate assets. Then, there is also a section with more personal correspondence. Its present configuration is the result of interventions carried out in succession between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries by distinguished scholars and archivists. They established the current structure, which classifies the archive in three distinct parts, one dealing with corporate activities, another dealing with personal and private correspondence, and the last one consisting of fragments and sheets forming distinct and well-defined documentary typologies.This includes, among several others, bills of exchange, warrants, memoranda, merchandise evaluations, bills of lading, maritime insurance, civil deeds, accounts, expenses, debit and credit items, debtors and creditors, notebooks of several sorts, repertories and ledgers.

The corporate part is divided into eight sections (fondaci) identified by the eight locations of Datini’s activities: Avignon, Prato, Pisa, Florence, Genoa, Barcelona, Valencia and Majorca. Each fondaco is divided into two sections: libri contabili (account books of the Datini companies) and carteggio (correspondence received from the Datini companies). The fondaci of Prato and Florence, seats of activities which were not exclusively trade- and credit-related, are in turn subdivided according to the different types of business, each of which are then subclassified into account books and correspondence. The Datini company records count over 1,100, including registers and accounting documents, and about 132,000 letters received by the various Datini companies.

To this figure we must add around 18,000 letters which can be categorised in part as belonging to the section of private correspondence, and in part to that of the more specialised sort of business letters. All in all the letters total about 150,000, which makes the Datini the most important medieval mercantile archive in the world, covering a chronological span that goes from the end of the 1360s to the second decade of the fifteenth century, geographically embracing Italy and the Mediterranean basin.On the Datini Archive and its structure, see Elena Cecchi Aste, ed., L’Archivio di Francesco di Marco Datini. Fondaco di Avignone, (Rome: Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali, Direzione generale per gli archivi, 2004), in particular 3–18; Jérôme Hayez, ‘L’Archivio Datini: de l’invention de 1870 à l’exploration d’un système d’écrits privées,’ Mélanges de l’École française de Rome. Moyen-Age 17, 1 (2005): 121–91, in particular 121–31; Diana Toccafondi, ‘Il mercante, l’archivio e la casa’ in Palazzo Datini, 245–55; also see the website curated by the Prato State Archives devoted to the Datini documents: Archivio di Stato di Prato, Fondo Datini on-line, The archives are the reflection of the commercial strategies of Francesco Datini, and to trace the history of their creation, we must necessarily retrace the intense life of the famous merchant from Prato.

Francesco di Marco Datini was born in Prato, presumably in 1335. His father, Marco, a tavern keeper, his mother, Monna Vermiglia, and two of his siblings died during the plague of 1348. Francesco and his brother Stefano, the only survivors of the family, were entrusted to the guardianship of Piero di Giunta del Rosso and the care of a neighbour, Monna Piera Boschetti. Monna Piera was a fundamental figure in Francesco’s life, and their relationship was marked by a strong mutual affection. Piero di Giunta del Rosso remained a constant point of reference for the young merchant from Prato, until he became his partner in the Compagnia dell’Arte della Lana. After he started his training in the practice of trade, he moved to Avignon in 1351, which was at the time an important political centre and commercial hub; it is also where Francesco is thought to have started working as a shop employee. In 1363 he entered into partnership with Niccolò di Bernardo first, and subsequently with Tuccio Lambertucci and Toro di Berto di Tieri, until he finally opened his own company specialised in arms. Avignon was where it all started: there he acquired his early professional experience, and there he also established his fortune and built his vast network of professional relations, including his first company. In Avignon he also created his family through his marriage in 1376 to Margherita di Domenico Bandini, the young daughter of a prominent Florentine family.Melis, Aspetti della vita economica medievale, 135–72; Luciana Frangioni, ‘Avignone, l’origine di tutto,’ in Francesco di Marco Datini, 255–85 and Jérôme Hayez, ‘La correspondance de l’agence Datini d’Avignon (fin du s. XIVe). Caractérisation, rythme des flux et pluralité des fonctions,’ in Oralità, scrittura e potere. Sardegna e Mediterraneo tra antichità e medioevo, ed. Lorenzo Tanzini (Rome: Viella, 2020), 227–50.

Upon his return to Prato early in 1383 he began planning the complex architecture of his company while also overseeing the construction of his palazzo. In the space of little more than a decade, between 1383 and 1395, he opened merchant banking companies in Pisa, Florence, Prato, Genoa, Barcelona, Valencia and Majorca. His business was centred around locations which were fundamental for the conduct of trade with the markets of the western Mediterranean, which he used as stepping stones to reach the English and Flemish markets, all of which in close connection with the maritime and commercial routes of the entire Mediterranean basin and Europe. Diversification in investment led to the creation of manufacturing companies in Prato, the Compagnia della Lana and the Compagnia della Tinta, and to the brief but significant experiment of the Banco di Firenze (1398–1400) which acted as a holding company for all of Francesco di Marco Datini’s activities. This complex business structure called for skilled and reliable personnel, whose training started early on within Datini’s own companies and their branches.Jérôme Hayez, ‘Les correspondances Datini: un apport à l’étude des réseaux marchands toscans vers 1400,’ in Les échanges en Méditerranée médiévale. Marqueurs, réseaux, circulations, contacts, ed. Élisabeth Malamut and Mohamed Ouerfelli (Aix-en-Provence: Presses universitaires de Provence, 2012), 155–99, especially 173–82.

Francesco Datini’s business model was, moreover, a structure which by its very nature worked and thrived thanks to the constant and frequent circulation of information. Communication was, therefore, a fundamental aspect of the merchant’s routines, always mediated through the ceaseless and frenetic practice of writing. The letters of Francesco di Marco Datini and his correspondents, the expression of the merchant class, involved a shared prose style and graphic format , and the use of the vernacular in a particular cursive handwriting – the so-called mercantesca – that emerged in the fourteenth century.

When the information that needed to be communicated was of a highly technical nature, the regular form of the letter was redefined, as in the case of bills of exchange or cheques, useful instruments for the circulation of value without the involvement of hard cash, always secured by a so-called authorised hand guaranteeing the authenticity of the document in question. Special documents could also be attached to the letters. These were also well defined and identifiable by their format and specific contents, such as important information on the official value of commodities in distant markets, or the nature and amount of goods loaded on ships. And in some cases, to avoid misunderstandings about the features of a requested supply, some letters included graphic representations of decorations or small samples of coloured woollen cloth. The dissemination of all this information by letter took place through Datini’s trade network in which the circulation of news created a dense concatenation of relational networks, geographically spreading information, for example on events that took place thousands of kilometres away. The Datini Archive contains a census of 4,402 senders and 267 places of origin of the letters. About 50% of them were sent from Italy, and the rest from abroad.

The information was important and thus confidential. In short, the information could only be revealed to the addressee or circle of addressees identified by the sender as is evident from the way in which the letters were carefully folded over, closed with hemp twine and sealed. Moreover, strategies were used to ensure that the information would arrive at its destination, such as sending several letters with the same content along different routes, and using the well-organised postal system for long distances.

The companies’ activities could only carry on if the information, in particular on the management of activities and commercial exchanges among the Datini companies, their customers and suppliers, arrived at its destination. Once received, this information was recorded within a sophisticated system of accounting records. Data regarding the same operation was recorded in different ways in separate registers, which were then cross-referenced. The records pertaining to the same accounting period were all identified by the same alphabetical letter. Each one was defined by its format and extrinsic characters, with a title specifying its function and clarifying whether it consisted of preparatory, elementary or analytical accounting records or final, systematic and summary accounting registers. The Datini companies kept the following accounting registers: generic notebooks (ricordanze), memoranda (memoriali), cash notebooks (quaderni di cassa), merchandise expenses notebooks (quaderni di spese di mercanzia), notebooks of receipts and balle bills (quaderni di ricordanze di ricevute e mandate di balle), giro operation notebooks (quaderni di cambi e dette), journals (giornali), main ledgers (libri grandi o mastri), merchandise notebooks (libri di mercanzia) and analytical accounts (quaderni di ragionamento), among others.

All of these accounting registers were necessary to manage the companies and map their progress. What is more, they could be used as evidence in the event of legal disputes. To keep an eye on their investments, it was essential for merchant-entrepreneurs to carry out management control and to verify the transparency of the company systems as well as the legitimacy and reliability of their many partners and employees.
The need to control the accounts and verify their legitimacy and transparency was exactly why, towards the end of the fourteenth century, it was requested that the documentation produced and received by certain Datini companies be sent to Tuscany. Thirteen account books were recalled from Avignon, precisely because of their probative value. They were sent to Florence in 1399 for close examination due to suspicions about one of the partners in the Avignon company, Boninsegna di Matteo. Once received in Florence, they were placed under the custody of the trade guild authorities, who were to examine them and adjudicate on the case. Other than the account books, Datini also revised the correspondence with Avignon in search of evidence for his case.

The documentation, which by now had almost exhausted its informative and managerial function, moved towards the heart of the company system thanks to the exchange of letters which, at the same time, prompted the production of new writings and sedimentation of memories. In 1403, the account books and correspondence of the Datini companies in Barcelona and Majorca relating to past periods of operation were sent to the Florence company for verification and settlement of the accounts. A detailed description of all these documents and their shipping was recorded in the letters exchanged between the two companies, which the Florence company then registered in the memoranda (ricordanze) in Quadernuccio A. For example, the books from Majorca were requested because some perceived errors prevented the settlement of the accounts, which meant they had to be double-checked. The documents were differentiated by provenance into two bundles and boxes marked M for Majorca and B for Barcelona, and sent on a Catalan ship to the Ricci company in Genoa. The documentation sent from Barcelona included the account books marked D (financial year 1399–1400), E (financial year 1400–01) and F (financial years 1401–03) and the letters received ‘di poi ci siamo,’ that is, from the creation of the company in 1392 to 1401, ‘salvo il mazo de l’ano 1402,’ except for the folder for the year 1402, because it could still have been of use for the management of the company. The arrival of the letter from Barcelona to Florence on 11 July 1403 led to the immediate drafting of the relevant memorandum, or ricordanza, in Quadernuccio A. The books sent from Barcelona were listed in greater detail, indicating the title and the alphabetical letter corresponding to the period of operation, therefore they are intact and still easily identifiable (e.g., the Libro piccolo di cambi e dette segnato D).
Owing to the huge amount of documentation produced and stored in his palazzo, Datini deemed it important to organise the records in order to be able to find information and retrieve data quickly and easily.

I want to rearrange all the records that have arrived here and those that were already here, which are in the chambers on the tables, and I want to reorganise them so that when I need a record, I don’t have to search through each and every one of them.

This is how Francesco expressed himself in a letter of 5 May 1397 written from Prato to his Florentine partner Stoldo di Lorenzo. ‘piùe òe a ripore tutte le scritture che di chostà sono venute e e quelle che erano qui, che ssono nelle chamere su per le tavole, che le voglio ripore per modo che, quando io òe bisogno d’una scrittura, io non abia a razolare ogni iscrittura.’ ASPo, Datini, busta 700, fasc. 19, cod. 9291445. Almost two years later, however, it seems that his project had not been accomplished, when, reflecting on his old age and the impossibility of enjoying a well-deserved rest, he wrote:

This is the rest that I have in my old age, and it all happens to me because I was so poorly organised, that I wasted my time in building up [the palazzo], and created such a mass of documents that I explode under its weight, as each file piles up on top of the others. ‘Questo è i· riposo che i’òè in mia vechitudine, e tutto m’adiviene per esermi mal ghovernato, che òe perduto il mio tenpo in murare ed ò fatto un sì gran fastello di scritture che ora vi schop[i]o sotto e lle facende venghono l’una sopra l’altra’. ASPo, Datini, busta 1087, fasc. 21, cod. 1402694.

Francesco was about 64 years old and, having no male heirs, considered himself a merchant with no family. In 1395, he began to consider bequeathing his property to help the poor, moving from more traditional solutions, such as passing it to a religious institution, towards his plans to establish a secular charitable corporation in his name after his death. In his will of 31 July 1410, in addition to legacies to churches and religious institutions, family members and people close to him, the dispositions of the merchant from Prato established a bequest of 1,000 florins to create a hospital to care for abandoned children, the future Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence. He then laid down that all the remaining assets, to be cashed in also by selling off the companies in the Datini consortium, the palazzo and other real estate, were to be endowed to his Ceppo dei poveri charitable organisation. The final drafting of his will was assisted by the fundamental advice of his friend, the notary Ser Lapo Mazzei. Datini made his will on 27 June 1400, in the middle of another plague epidemic, just before he left for Bologna to escape death. This deed, drawn up by the same Ser Lapo Mazzei, set down the plans to create the Ceppo, alongside the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. Francesco Datini’s final will, with three codicils, is preserved in the Datini fonds under the code Datini 1193. Francesco’s death on 16 August 1410 triggered the process for the foundation of the Ceppo and with the gradual closure of the companies came the complete transfer of all his documents to Palazzo Datini in Prato, which had become the headquarters of the new charitable foundation. Francesco’s documents, and those of his companies, thus became a closed archive and were added to the archives involved in the process to build the Ceppo. While preserved in memory and glorification of the founder and legitimising the existence of the institution, this mass of documentation was nevertheless devoid of any actual interest or function for its own sake. There was only one intervention, in 1560, by the Prato scholar Alessandro Guardini, who in his own hand registered what appears to be an attempt to reorder and study the papers in the Avignon company’s quaderno segreto rosso.

After 1545, following the reforms ordered by Cosimo I which affected all assistance and charitable institutions in Medicean Tuscany, the Ceppo di Francesco Datini, at this point known as the Ceppo Nuovo, was merged with what was known as the Ceppo Vecchio, founded in 1282 by the merchant banker Monte di Turingo Pugliesi. Hence a new institution came into being: the Ceppi Riuniti, which continued to be based in Palazzo Datini. Other closed documentary nuclei were stored and preserved in Palazzo Datini, without any catalogical apparatus for their description. Only in 1758 was an inventory compiled by Francesco Casini registering the different documentary fonds preserved in the institution: the Ceppo Vecchio archive , the Ceppo Nuovo archive, the Ceppi Riuniti archive and the Francesco di Marco Datini archive. The inventory opens with a brief and concise description of the Datini archive, with an indication of its location: the documents are visible, but distant and inaccessible, ‘above the cornice on the side of the door opposite the two windows’ in the archive rooms next to the scriptorium. The inventory drawn up in 1818, again dedicated to all the documentation of the Ceppi foundation, concludes by describing the Datini archive, locating it ‘in a room destined for the preservation of said books and sheets in the house of the storekeeper and custodian of these Ceppi.’ It also gave a summary of the types of documents and a precise indication of its size: ‘560 records and 2,600 bundles of letters are preserved in this room for the period between 1363 and 1410.’ASPo, Ceppi, 445. This inventory also describes the documents of the other archives in greater detail, again to facilitate retrieval. The Datini archive, despite its apparent total (or almost total) integrity, became even less visible and was moved to an area that was probably not easily accessible and was certainly in an outer part of the building. The documents were thus moved around the building and relocated to suit the practical needs of the institution. They were considered a mere symbolic artefact that stood for the founder, a bulky mass to be stored, not a documentary source to be put to good use. In the following inventory of 1858 all the documents of the institution were placed in two rooms used as archives: once again the Datini archive was moved and once again it was briefly described at the end of the first part of the inventory (where the description of the first room is found): according to this description it was placed on the shelf of Lettera H,ASPo, Ceppi, 445 bis. which suggests that the shelf may have been in a compartment close to the condemned spiral staircase.Cesare Guasti, Ser Lapo Mazzei. Lettere di un notaro a un mercante del secolo XIV, con altre lettere e
documenti, (Florence: Le Monnier, 1880; anastatic reprint, Sala Bolognese: Forni, 1979), t. I, III. The spiral staircase, where Cesare Guasti came across the merchant’s documentation stored in sacks about a decade later, connected the ground floor to the upper floors. It was interrupted during renovation of the building in the 1840s, when new rooms were created for rent on the upper floors and the ground floor space was reorganised.
The documents were still woefully hidden away not so much in material terms, as is traditionally believed, as in conceptual terms, because they were concealed in an undifferentiated mass, ‘only’ awaiting an initial ordering process in order to be put back into circulation.

The Datini is certainly a many-layered archive, but it is also a well-articulated organic whole, each of whose separate sections are closely integrated with each other. Its carefully systematic organisation makes it possible to follow the stages of an economic transaction as well as the sequence of events and different episodes in the life of a correspondent, whether that person was a supplier, client, company employee, friend, relative, domestic servant, or anyone else who, despite not participating directly in producing documents for the company, was fully integrated in the environment of Francesco di Marco Datini. This also includes many communities and individuals who belonged to different cultures and languages.The correspondence preserves the voices of the servants and slaves of Francesco Datini’s family and household. On this, see Chiara Marcheschi, ‘In Prato chon XXIII bocche in chasa. Le donne della famiglia domestica di Francesco e Margherita Datini’, in Palazzo Datini, 209–55. The Datini Archive also preserves eight different documents in Hebrew and Arabic, which the organisation of this exhibition and the preparation of its catalogue have cast light on for the first time. For this we owe a debt of gratitude to José María Pérez Fernández, and above all to José Ramón Ayaso Martínez, whose expert advice has provided useful information on the historical context for the Hebrew documents, their transcription and translation.