Letters of the Datini Company

One of a number of Italian trading companies of the fourteenth century, the Datini company achieved a high point of influence and financial power during the lifetime of Francesco di Marco Datini (1335-1410).  At its height, the Datini company moved Eastern imports such as spices through Venice and into the Western Mediterranean and even to the North Sea where they exchanged these imports for Spanish and English wool which they brought back to the company’s heartland in Tuscany to supply the many cloth and textile workshops in Florence and other Italian cities.  Under the leadership of Francesco di Marco himself, the company expanded from its home offices in Florence and Prato to open multiple sattelite offices called fondaco around the Mediterranean in cities including Pisa, Genoa, Avignon, Barcelona, Valencia, and Palma de Mallorca.

For the purposes of the Travelers Lab, what is most important (and perhaps most impressive) about the Datini company was their consolidation of documents.  Each of the fondaco communicated with a network of regional towns which produced huge numbers of letters, most of which were conserved at the fondaci and eventually moved en masse back to Prato.  Today, the archive contains a whopping 143,000 letters between almost three-hundred different towns and cities.  Despite the viscisitudes of survival, damage, and often incomplete information on the letters themselves over three-fourths of the collection (around 108,000) contain sufficient information to ascertain the origin, destination, sender, receiver, and date sent and received for each letter.  The documents are currently housed as the Datini Collection at the Archivio di Stato di Prato [the State Archives of Prato] in Italy.  The archive has an incredibly thorough catalog for all of the letters, including extensive metadata as well as digitial images for almost the complete letter set.

This mass of information provides a wealth of data for travel and communication across long distances ranging from London and Bruges to Barcelona or Valencia to Florence and Venice.  Previous scholars have dedicated massive amounts of work to reading the letters and contemplating the structures and practices of the Datini Company.  Perhaps the most famous is Federigo Melis, who has multiple works looking at Datini’s company, their mercantile practices, and various other facets of the archive.  Several of these works are available online.  Additionally, there are numerous smaller editions of selected portions of the letter collection, but by no means a complete set.

This project is an attempt to use the vast metadata of the collection to guide questions about both which letters to focus on or read, but also to try to answer much larger aggregate questions about their network of communication and the standards of mercantile information in the fourteenth century using the entirety of the collection.  The project director is Adam Franklin-Lyons and several students have worked on the project including Logan Davis, Avellana Ross, and Emma Holtsinger, all from Marlboro College.