The Merchant of Prato:

Francesco Maria di Marco Datini, 1335–1410

Datini, a fourteenth-century Florentine merchant-banker, provides us with one of the great success stories of the Middle Ages. A dealer in wool, sacred pictures, spices, and iron, he established an import/export house with branches in Pisa, Genoa, Barcelona, and Majorca. He also left behind, in wooden crates, the entire archive of his business—over 150,000 letters, some 500 ledgers and accounts books, and a mass of personal and business documents that Iris Origo tracked down, translated, and, through patient selection and perfect understanding, made accessible to the modern reader in this award-winning and singular biography.

In her fine introduction, Barbara Tuchman asks, “Why is this book one of the great books of historical writing of the twentieth century?” She answers, “[Origo’s] success in resurrecting not only a personality whom we can recognize but also his times, his town, his marriage, his household, his country home, his friends and associates, makes for a work of extraordinary interest with that quality to grip and take hold of a reader that makes a book everlasting.” And as for Datini himself, the epicenter of this remarkable historical recreation, she writes, “the story of his achievement is something more significant than the mere record of the enrichment of a single man. In the extent and variety of his ventures, in his powers of organization, in his international outlook, in his swift adaptability to a society in turmoil, as in his own ambition, shrewdness, tenacity, anxiety, and greed, he is the forerunner of the businessman of today.”

Iris Origo, Marchesa of Val d’Orcia, was a British-born biographer and writer. She lived in Italy and devoted much of her life to the improvement of the Tuscan estate at La Foce, near Montepulciano, which she purchased with her husband in the 1920s. During the Second World War, she consistently sheltered refugee children and assisted many escaped Allied prisoners of war and partisans in defiance of Italy’s fascist regime and Nazi occupation forces.

Barbara Tuchman was born to a life of wealth and privilege; her father owned The Nation and her mother was the daughter of a diplomat. These connections allowed her to pursue a career as an international researcher and foreign correspondent after her graduation from Radcliffe in 1933. These early experiences allowed her to gain an intimate knowledge of the realities of war and foreign policy, a knowledge that informed her later historical writing. Her books, including the two Pulitzer Prize winners The Guns of August and American Experience in China, 1911–45, are noted for their expansive, literary style that favors narrative over strict scholarship. Tuchman achieved both critical and popular success with this approach. Along with her two Pulitzer Prizes, she received a National Book Award, was selected for the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Lecture, and served as the first female president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.