The Merchant of Prato in the Retaia foothills


Weeks ago I started walking around the foothills of La Retaia (‘the Mountain’) and found it fascinating how it reminded me of Kyoto – the palatial residences at the edges of the city, the gardens, or, in this case, orchards and olive groves, the waterways and all the little shrines and chapels at the forest edge. Although the latter are rather better kept in Kyoto, it’s similar how the chapels and shrines are often located on waterways, or near springs. Probably, of course, they have replaced older, pre-Christian sacred sites. Springs watched over by nymphs, groves where dryads danced. It is rather a shame that these special, naturally beautiful places have been taken over and so altered by humans, with their prayer tokens, altars, churches. We are lucky, I think, in Australia, that many special places remain in their natural, beautiful state. Sadly though, some are changing as they become places of pilgrimage: tourist attractions with attendant boardwalks and interpretation panels.

Some shrines are also on crossroads, like this one.
S. Paolo Church, Carteano

The La Retaia foothills are an unmistakably anthropogenic landscape. Terraces, olive groves, laneways, habitations, even the forest is controlled to provide what humans have wanted from it – timber, foods, game. What I find interesting though is how little it seems to have changed over perhaps centuries, despite the urban sprawl below and, well, a fair bit of litter.

I’ve been reading a book called ‘The Merchant of Prato’, by Iris Origo. First published in 1957 it’s a local classic and quite a work of scholarship because Origo has digested a huge volume of undoubtedly very boring documents to create this really quite digestible book (actually, 346 pages of very small print, not counting notes). It’s based on the a cache of 150,000 letters and whole lot of business documents that were found in 1870, in this Prato stairwell:

Photo of a photo in the Datini house museum, of the stairwell in Prato where Datini’s documents were found.

Some of the documents looked like in the picture below. I find it amazing what a variety there are, and how beautiful and well-kept. They are record books, prayer books, notebooks. Different books for information about different industries or suppliers.

Documents in the Datini museum, Prato.

They belonged to a man called Francesco di Marco Datini, whose home was in Prato. He lived between 1335 and 1410 and, although the son of a taverner, became a successful merchant and one of the richest men in Prato. He built a fairly grand, for Prato at least, house in the town centre, where he had a garden growing fruit trees and flowers, which he seemed to regard as a folly. Unfortunately the garden is all gone and the house has been altered a fair bit, but it still survives and can be visited.

Later on Datini started to buy up other real estate around the town, including farmland, and he built a second house there, at a place called Palco, in the Filettole locality, which is very near to where I am staying at Magnolfi Nuovo. (Wiki link re the villa).

The La Palco house, now called Villa di San Leonado. It was given to the Franciscans (perhaps by Datini) and made into a convent in the late 1400s. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be visitable though it does seem to have interesting gardens around it. It is perched tightly and imposingly on a terrace above the Bisenzio River. All down the bank below it now there are cyclamens flowering.

This means that, in fact, the foothill walks I have been doing often passed through lands Datini once owned. As a result, I’ve found Origo’s chapter about farming really interesting. Here are a few snippets:

  • Prato was a fairly industrial little city with walls for protection and many channels diverting water from the Bisenzio river for use in the city, particularly in the textile industry. But Origo says:

“Always the Tuscan cities have held their arms wide open to the country, and in the trecento [1300s] it was often difficult to tell where the one ended and the other began. Not only did the orchards and gardens encroach within the city walls, but a large part of the population was of peasant stock. First, in the eleventh and twelth (sic.) centuries, the cities had opened their doors to starving serfs who had fled to the towns in search of bread, work, and freedom; then, as the great feudal properties began to break up, it had been these men’s former masters who had exchanged their country castles for a single grim tower in a narrow street. And more recently, the desolation wrought by the Free Companies had driven some of the remaining country folk to seek the comparative security and plenty of the towns. Most of them had become the humblest workers of the guilds… but some had turned into skilled craftsmen or set up a little shop. In a couple of generations, they had saved a small hoard – and then their first instinct was to put it back into the land again”.  (p.244).

It seems like Datini’s family was perhaps like these people – originating in the country, moving to the town and working their way up. This was a period with an upwardly-mobile bourgeois merchant class that was displacing the old aristocracy, like we have seen again and again and maybe like we are living through now/still.

One of the concerns of the upwardly mobile has been to distinguish themselves from others, demonstrate their eligibility as rulers or validate their status. Often this seems to be done through manners – all those elusive social rules that distinguish the ‘in’ from the ‘out’. Owning land and producing your own food on it has an intrinsic appeal, but perhaps it is also a way of demonstrating taste or education, and it has also been a way for the upwardly mobile to feel ‘like kings’ with their little estates. We saw this in Australia when colonists established their manors, and we saw also how quickly the wealthy and the ones with the right connections came to own power and exclude others from being able to establish like estates (James Boyce is a good reference on this).

  • Lorenzetti painted a fresco for the Palazzo Pubblico in Sienna, called The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. This includes a scene showing the countryside in peace and, as Origo points out, although the Prato region was greener than around Sienna, the crops were the same: wheat, wine and olives. Datini’s land at Palco included “…olive groves, vineyards, plough-land and wood…”. There is not so much evidence of wheat in the hill country now, but there is certainly still wine and olives, and the woodland remains too, on the mountainside. Then and now these grew on terraces, and also include fruit and nut trees like figs, almonds and walnuts.
Lorenzetti’s fresco of the Tuscan countryside in peacetime, Palazzo Pubblico, Sienna (1338-1339).

Terraces with olives and fruit trees today, around Filettole. I wonder how old some are – there are plenty old enough to have had the original trunk rot away, as is typical of olives, and a characteristic that makes them difficult to date. Some have developed methods for dating them in other ways, eg.:

According to Origo, labour was scarce (this was plague time) and acreages were “…sparsely and thinly cultivated.” A single man with no family might manage 20 acres! Datini worked his labourers hard: he specified that they should dig over teh whole of his ploughland acres every four years, and “…dig thirty ditches for new vines each year and plant three olive trees”.

“…farm houses were few and poor” Origo says. On Datini’s estate there were “a couple of ‘labourers’ houses’, one house ‘with an oven and a stable and dogs and a shed’, and ‘one tower with a dove-cote and a walled court, enclosing a labourers’ house and oven’. Datini later built some better houses for his peasants apparently, though this went against the prevailing wisdom, which said “If you put them into houses fit for craftsmen, they will die of heat!”

Looking around the landscape there are plenty of old buildings which might, at least in part, date back many years, perhaps to Datini’s time, or perhaps be very similar. Poultry scratch around them, and sheep, goats and dogs.

  • Farms were generally poor, Origo says ‘…because their owners were poor’. Most owners were small town craftsmen who couldn’t get to their farms often themselves, nor could they afford to build or repair their farms, buy cattle or pay overseers and labourers. (Sounds like all those weedy, junky, run-down acreages in Tasmania). The shortage of labour however, gave labourers some power – during the period the mezzandria system of farming spread rapidly over Tuscany. This was a profit-sharing system whereby “… the land-owner supplied a house, tools, seed and cattle, and the peasant the labour – both sharing the profits in equal parts.” This didn’t really mean everything was harmonious equality though – Origo says that where old feudal lords had been cruel and demanding, but ‘bourgeois’ landowners considered their peasants to be uncouth, ignorant brutes, and the peasants “…often retorted with the under-dog’s weapons: sullen resentment and craft”. Advice to landlords was: “…above all, trust none of them. And if you do thus, you will be the more loved and respected by them and will obtain whatsoever good there is in them.”
  • Landowner-peasant relations weren’t the worst of it though – these were also politically turbulent times with troops rampaging back and forth through the country and where they passed they were like locusts – they lived off the land they passed through and would sometimes settle in places for months. Origo says “…Wherever the soldiery had been, fields and vineyards were laid bare, farms looted and burned down, cattle slaughtered and the peasants killed or taken prisoner. Even monastery walls were not respected by the marauders… (and one Prior wrote) …once or twice a year, or even thrice, he was obliged to move all his possessions into a walled town…”


The Wild

This fresco in Datini’s house in Prato seems to show a proverbial ‘wolf at the gates’ with the city providing a haven from the wild places. But maybe I am wrong and it means something else entirely…

Origo gives us a lot of insight into who owned the land, and why, and what they did with it, but she tells us little about the uncultivated places. Were they seen as closer to a sort of original, pure nature, like I wrote about in relation to the Villa Lante? The forests were probably more dangerous places, away from other social company and protection in numbers, and in open countryside in which an approaching danger could be seen, but they provided resources and probably there were resourceful people who worked in them. Don’t trust me on this, I haven’t done any research, but hunting seems to have had an important place in people’s thinking, at least this is suggested in the following frescoes from Datini’s Prato house. They seem to show a beautiful and idyllic landscape. Perhaps the hunter is a metaphor for the merchant, who hunted for beautiful goods very far indeed, as can be seen in the map of Datini’s world, below.

A hunter on La Retaia, 2016.
Datini’s trade network. And he was a relatively small trader!

Ok, so I’m getting increasingly speculative. Here are just a few more photos to wrap up.

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