Francesco, Niccolo and Agnolo

Francesco, Niccolo and Agnolo

Datini Palace, Prato

The building may look a little in need of some repair, but you can see it has had status! I adore this building in the city of Prato, Italy. It was built back in the 14th Century by a gentleman called Francesco di Marco Datini. All it’s history is still within the building

– the open doorway takes you inside the Palace …

The artwork on the walls is fabulous – imagine what it must have looked like back in the late 1300’s when all was beautiful and new. The display boards at the side tell you about the man who had the palace built and his work.

Display Board in the Palace

So, why am I telling you about this place and this man? For me he is one of the most significant you can find in Medieval history. I usually describe him as my hero!

There is a legend told to all the children growing up in the city that a merchant of Prato sailing the seas in search of goods came to a remote island called the Canary Isle and the king invited him to dinner. When he sat down to join everyone for dinner he saw that each place was laid with a napkin and a club – which he thought very strange, but once he had sat down and the food started being brought to table a whole army of mice arrived and if the guests wished to eat then they had to club the mice to have a chance of getting the food!

The next day the merchant returned to the Palace with a cat up his sleeve and when the food arrived along with the mice he let the cat out and she speedily killed 25 – 30 mice and the remaining ones ran away quickly. The king was thrilled when the merchant gave him the cat as a present for all the courtesy given. Before the merchant sailed onwards the King then gifted in return jewels worth 4000 scudi. The following year the merchant returned with a Tom cat and was gifted 6000 scudi and so the merchant came home a rich man!

Origo Iris, The merchant of Prato

A charming story told about many medieval merchants apparently and sadly not applicable to this particular merchant, however he certainly returned home a rich man!

He left Prato at 15 to seek his fortune in Avignon, having sold a small piece of land he had inherited for 150 florins. Avignon at the time was 1 of the most significant “market towns” in Europe trading English wool cloth, wheat, barley, linen and armour. Silks and brocades from Lucca, Perugia ware plus gold and silverware from Florence. It’s isn’t known exactly how Francesco started trading – or in which commodities but by 1361 he was securely established as a successful merchant.

Possibly the most exciting part for me is Francesco’s relationship with the family of Piero di Giunta, his old tutor. Just after leaving Avignon Francesco opened a branch in Pisa, specifically to be able to import wool and dyes from abroad and in 1383 he was enrolled into the Arte della Lana to enable his being able to trade in wool and cloth. Piero’s son Niccolo was a master dyer and 10 years after the death of Piero, Francesco entered into a partnership with with Agnolo, Niccolo’s son. Nicolo was a skilled dyer with the following reputation – “a good merchant and dyer in woad and every other colour”

Francesco lived to the age of 75, although during his last 10 he didn’t have good health. For a full history of his life I recommend reading Iris Origo’s book “The merchant of Prato” it is fascinating,

What is far more pertinent though is that the man had the wonderful foresight to leave all his documents to posterity. There are 500 ledgers and account books, about 300 deeds of partnership, insurance policies and bills of lading, bills of exchange and cheques plus 140,000 letters, of which 11,000 are private correspondence and the remainder (which are held in files) refer to his commercial activity.

There is so much of interest just in the book, details of the wool trade between England and Italy – the quantity of Cotswold wool bought in a season (1397), when and how it was traded. Information on Edward III defaulting on bank loans causing a financial crash in Florence, all backed up by the documents. If you find something in particular you would like to focus on then a trip to the archive brings it all to life.

The archive is held upstairs in the palace – accessed by the closed door you see in the photo. The archivist is a wonderful lady who can translate the various documents for you from the “old” language to modern Italian – documents are written in various languages which include old Italian, Pratese and medieval latin.

The dye ledgers list all the products purchased, where from plus there is a list of names of the men working with Niccolo “Here below we shall write down all the fullers and dyers and every other person who will full or dye the stuffs given by us …”

What is truly breathtaking are the colours on the samples sent in by letter asking for cloth to be dyed in matching colours –

Look carefully at the letter – you probably think I’ve forgotten to rotate the image, actually there are additions to the original letter glued in. So much social history in 1 simple item! (and what you can’t quite see are the other colour samples in the other additional piece) Watermarks on the paper are also clear on some of the documents so if you’re a papermaker it’s worth a visit just for those!

You may think I’m going a bit overboard, but if we are genuinely trying to research life and social history of the Middle Ages, why do so many not study this archive? When I asked how many British visitors they had I was told very few – there had been 1 person doing research in about 10 years – please encourage others, so that’s what I am trying to do!

You don’t actually need to go to Prato to study the archive – it has been digitised, but to hold the documents and see all the ledgers is an experience not to be missed.

Oh and if you like to read a novel at bedtime the Niccolo series by Dorothy Dunnett are based on the Niccolo dyehouse in Prato (although how accurately I wouldn’t like to comment!).


Datini Archive Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica F. Datini – Informations to …: THE DATINI’s ARCHIVE (

The Merchant of Prato by Iris Origo The Merchant of Prato: Francesco Di Marco Datini, 1335-1410 (New York Review Books Classics): Origo, Iris, Nicholl, Charles: 9781681374208: Books