Vittore Branca. Merchant Writers: Florentine Memoirs from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Trans. by Murtha Baca

Vittore Branca. Merchant Writers: Florentine Memoirs from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Trans. by Murtha Baca. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. x, 407p. ISBN 9781442637146. CAN $75.00 (hardback).

Students, scholars and more casual investigators of the Italian Middle Ages and early Renaissance have good reason to celebrate the publication of Murtha Baca’s expert translation of Vittore Branca’s Mercanti scrittori. If not transformed, our usual notion of the mercantile experience of this period will at least be greatly expanded and enriched by the documents assembled in this volume – ranging from the conduct book-like prescriptions of Paolo da Certaldo’s Book of Good Practices to the picaresque fanfaronade of Bonaccorso Pitti’s Memoirs – produced by the same industrious hands that count out the florins, wield the daggers, and bury the countless victims of violence and plague that darken these pages. Readers of this volume will not encounter the carefully curated assertions of the historian or the compelling fictions of the poet, but the voice of the merchants themselves, epitomized by an insistent and strongly ambivalent “I” that alternates between poles of self-seeking and generosity, deep spirituality and abject materialism, a delight in the clinking of florins and a horror of the plague. Collectively, these writings offer a far fuller and more intimate view of the merchant experience than can found in Giovanni Villani, Dino Compagni, and other chroniclers of the period: lives marked by the daily struggle to survive blows dealt by bad debts, burdensome dowries, forced loans, lost or confiscated goods, exorbitant duties, and so forth.

One of the defining qualities of these merchant writings is their regular integration of spiritual and practical priorities – one that at times appears entirely natural and unreflective, and at other times just as clearly reveals a state of spiritual conflict and anxiety. Though a grain merchant himself and only too aware of the economic benefits of hoarding grain in times of famine, Domenico Lenzi appears to condone the Signoria’s decision, during the famine of 1329, to put a cap on grain prices and torture grain merchants suspected of hoarding. In his Secret Book, Goro Dati is entirely at ease assigning to each of his moral transgressions a specific monetary penalty – as though the heavens were bound by the same principles of law that guide mercantile transactions and secular courts of justice. If, like these others, Giovanni Morelli apparently sees no fundamental incompatibility between the spiritual and practical dimensions of his daily life and is as concerned with cultivating moral and intellectual qualities (through the study of Virgil, Seneca, Boethius, and others) as he is with providing more practical advice concerning the danger of standing surety for others or of putting oneself under obligation without guarantors, his response to the anniversary of his eldest son’s death reveals a deep-rooted tension: a variety of psychomachia that shows us his better angels warring with the Enemy within; petitionary prayers clashing with a diabolic creed of self-seeking materialism.

As these merchant authors are not only businessmen, but also fathers and patriarchs intent on cultivating the reputation and social status of their growing families, a good number of these writings address questions related to education. For instance, Giovanni Morelli stresses the importance of good intellectual, moral and spiritual guidance in one’s early years and describes the effect of guardians – ranging from the character of one’s wet nurse to the temper of one’s teachers – on the shaping of character. Giovanni even goes so far as to offer a series of prescriptions for the proper education of the “poor, unfortunate child naked and abandoned” (137). Readers interested in examining such issues as the family dynamic, conventions of childrearing, and ideas on education in merchant class families of this period will find a wealth of relevant information in these texts.

Just as these accounts often mingle spiritual and economic concerns in ways that tend to confound the drawing of facile conclusions regarding the merchant’s moral character, the intersection of history and personal anecdote in these texts often makes it difficult to distinguish the one from the other. Bonaccorso Pitti’s Memoirs are at once autobiography and history, the life of a remarkable individual who is both an agent of historical change and Fortune’s favorite. That at least some of these merchant writers view themselves as historians is clear from their self-conscious adoption of Livian historiographical conventions – in particular the view (expressed in the Ab urbe condita) that the acquaintance with history (and, by extension, family history) bears moral dividends in that it allows one to avoid making the mistakes of one’s predecessors and teaches one to avoid what is harmful and seek what is good. Consequently, historians and students of historiography will find a number of these writings valuable for their highly personal and often quite nuanced perspectives on historical change.

Perhaps the most obvious audience for this manuscript is the international community of Boccaccio’s admirers – specialists and casual readers alike – who, enchanted by his Decameron, are eager to learn more of his cultural milieu. Since the relevance of these merchant writings to Boccaccio’s Decameron is so clear and extensive, I will point out only a few of the more obvious connections. In his description of the plague of 1363, Giovanni Morelli not only makes explicit reference to Boccaccio’s famous description of the great plague of 1348 in the Introduction to the Decameron, but repeats, with little variation, a number of the details of this description. However – and this is of critical importance and interest to students of Boccaccio (and historians of epidemics) – whereas Boccaccio stresses the failure of human ingenuity to combat the plague, Giovanni’s more optimistic account recommends a series of prophylactic measures to avoid contracting the plague. This difference in attitude is not only a function of the passing of time and greater familiarity with the disease, but is reflective of the mercantile world view, one whose hallmarks are optimism, doggedness and resilience in the face of calamity.

From the moment they begin the second document in this anthology – the same chronicle by Giovanni di Paolo Morelli referred to above – many readers will be surprised to discover the degree to which Boccaccio’s stories, even the most extravagant or implausible among them, actually conform to the lived reality of the fourteenth-century merchant. Indeed, many of the events narrated in these merchant chronicles could, with only the slightest editorial modification, invisibly take their place alongside the tales of the Decameron. Readers are sure to be moved by Giovanni’s account of how his father, Paolo, was put out to nurse in the rural Mugello region, effectively abandoned to his fate by a father too old to care and three brothers too covetous of their father’s estate to rescue their younger brother from a life of ignorance and poverty. No less riveting is the story of Paolo’s success in pulling himself out of this squalor by the bootstraps, a tale that epitomizes all the best traits of the Florentine merchant: resourcefulness, resilience and a good dose of moral virtue. Paolo, Giovanni tells us, was favored by “Fortune and his own industry and hard work” (119) – a phrase that almost exactly reproduces the rubric to Decameron Day III.

Here, in more abbreviated form, are a few more brief examples of moments in these merchant writings that call to mind the Decameron and would be useful points of comparison for students and scholars of Boccaccio’s work:

—Paolo da Certaldo’s tale of the aged Giovanni Cavazza’s success in duping his successors and securing their good behavior by leading them to believe that he has deeded them a treasure chest filled with florins. When, however, the chest is opened after his death, his legatees discover nothing but an iron bludgeon and the message “This is the last will of Giovanni Cavazza: May he who gives his all to others be killed with this bludgeon.” (84)

—Bonaccorso Pitti’s ingenious response to Rupert of Bavaria’s exorbitant request for 500,000 florins recalls the baker Cisti’s equally witty rejoinder in tale VI, 2 of the Decameron.

—In Donato Velluti’s Memoirs we read of Madonna Diana’s success in surviving the impact of a falling rock– due to her unusual habit of wearing a massive turban!

—Bernardo Machiavelli’s exasperated account of Niccolò Machiavelli’s seduction of a servant girl and success in pinning her pregnancy on another man has all the formal characteristics of a well-hatched comedy, and certainly shows a family resemblance to the Decameron tales.

Once they have read these anecdotes, and the numerous others that enliven these merchant writings, readers may well come to view the improbable plot twists and historical vicissitudes of Boccaccio’s more byzantine tales in a completely different light, recognizing in them not only the imaginative wanderings of a creative genius, but the quotidian reality of the fourteenth-century merchants, none of whom, to judge by these first-hand accounts, was a stranger to abductions for ransom, political conspiracies, rampant brigandage, shipwrecks, betrayals, and assassinations. Certainly, Bonaccorso Pitti’s memoirs make the antics of Cellini and Casanova seem tame by comparison! Readers will not soon forget Bonaccorso’s vivid description of how he was snatched from death by a group of frisky Germans who took it upon themselves to drag him about the room, reasoning that this rough treatment would either accelerate his convalescence or abbreviate his suffering (262). To the longstanding realization that many of the great historical events are conceived in the boudoir, a number of these merchant narratives provide a complementary insight; the shape of historical events owes just as much to the passion for wealth – the purse and the pocket book – as it does to erotic passion (“the sound,” as Giovanni Morelli puts it, “of florins clinking,” 218).

Consequently, these primary texts will also be of interest and importance to economic historians, or scholars interested in examining the shaping force of economic pressures on the domestic and political experience of those individuals, the Italian merchants of the fourteenth-century, who were in many respects the principal motors and promoters of Europe’s economic life, the unsung heroes of what Branca has called the mercantile epic of the fourteenth-century. In addition to their ear for a good anecdote – and obvious pleasure in relaying these colorful tales – these merchant writers often reveal a spiritual, elegiac side more in the key of the tragic tales of Decameron Day IV. Giovanni Morelli’s commemorative portrait of his eldest son Alberto – of his precocious learning, excellent character, and excruciating death – is heart-rending. Bonaccorsos’s brief – but intensely tragic – tale of the Englishwoman who, her city under siege, decides to immolate herself along with her three young children by rushing into her flaming home, is another memorable instance of this contrastive, tragic vein.

Finally, Murtha Baca’s translation does an excellent job preserving the sober, unadorned – but not inelegant – quality of the original Italian texts. It is, one could say, written in a merchant “hand” that corresponds precisely to the “merchant ear” alluded to by Giovanni di Paolo Morelli in his Memoirs.

Tobias Foster Gittes
Concordia University, Montréal