James, Carolyn and Antonio Pagliaro, trans., Letters to Francesco Datini by Margherita Datini.
Carolyn James and Antonio Pagliaro have brought to life the first English translation of the 251 letters Margherita Datini (1360-1423) wrote to her husband--the merchant of Prato, whose life was famously described by Iris Origo--between January 1384 and January 1410. It is a fascinating corpus of letters, made even more special by the fact that it is by far the largest collection of letters by a single premodern, western laywoman.
In the enlightening Preface to the edition, James explains why this collection has remained largely ignored: it belongs to a large mercantile archive frequented solely by economic historians looking for Francesco Datini's business records, not the epistolary voice of a woman. But perhaps two further reasons account for this neglect. Prato is no Florence or Venice, and its State Archive has only recently attracted sustained attention from Renaissance scholars. This is a familiar story for Italian Renaissance scholars working outside Florence, Venice, and Rome. Another reason is language. Margherita and Francesco Datini's letters have been available through modern Italian editions for some time now--Margheritas since 1977 and Francesco's since 1990. These editions were printed by Prato-based publishers and in relatively small print runs. The accessibility has been further limited by the fact that the original documents are in a polymorphic Tuscan vernacular, and contain cryptic and at times confusing domestic and private information that only the Datini and their entourage could have understood. An example is a postscript at the end of letter 13 in which Margherita asks her husband to relate to a 'Benvenuto the bread man' that 'not everyone who managed to make you laugh should be a jester'.
This English edition is a remarkable contribution to the study of women's writing. Not only does it make this unique corpus of letters accessible to general and academic readerships, the translation is carefully produced to account for the complex swings of registers, styles, and content. I have crosschecked the 1977 Italian edition of these letters against this English version, and found the latter flawless, inspired, and utterly convincing.
Margherita was no ordinary woman: from a disgraced knightly Florentine family, she emerges from her letters as a spouse required by her irascible and workaholic husband both to conform to and stray from the conventional obedience expected of wives as described by the prescriptive texts of the period. In her letters, Margherita communicates unrelenting love, fractious complaints, stern reproaches, and intelligent observations on everyday life. She embraced the domestic and mercantile business in a dignified and canny manner, fending off her husbands demands, suspicions, and inattentiveness. Such endurance of Francesco's often inconsistent, tactless, and demanding behaviour towards her was somewhat rewarded towards the end of her husbands life: in January 1410, Margherita produced a flurry of letters showing utmost confidence, authority, and empowerment. On 4 January of the same year she was occupied with preparations for Cardinal du Puy's visit, while at the same time she was busy attending to signing documents and keeping debtors at bay until the cardinals departed Prato.
Margherita's strong-willed and wise views extend over domestic turmoil, her husbands business, and the complex social fabric of employees, friends, and family in Florence and Prato are couched within an impressively complex syncretism of epistolary conventions, improvisation, self-representation, and pragmatic communication. Margherita asserts her voice by engaging in various levels of mediation: the expectations of her husband and the Florentine and Prato mercantile neighbourhoods, and the complex and gendered relationship with her scribes. The latter is particularly interesting, for in her letters Margherita constantly redefines the boundaries between semi-private and semi-public communication and her dependence on and independence from the male scribe and Lapo Mazzei, her informal and involuntary teacher of calligraphy.
The letters are accompanied by highly informative footnotes that provide essential contextual details on the familial members, the community at large, and material culture of fourteenth-century Italy. This is a rich and enthralling contribution to our understanding of the role of early modern women to written culture and to their social worlds, and the importance of the epistolary forms in the expression of the 'other voice'. I look forward to reading Pagliaros translation of Francesco Datinis letters to Margherita.
ANDREA RIZZI, The University of Melbourne
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2014|
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