Unliterary, Unpolished, Unromantic

Charles Nicholl

  • The Merchant of Prato: Daily Life in a Medieval Italian City by Iris Origo
    Penguin, 400 pp, £10.99, May 2017, ISBN 978 0 241 29392 8

This latest reprint of Iris Origo’s The Merchant of Prato celebrates it as a ‘modern classic’, though it can’t have seemed very modern when it first appeared in 1957. Various books published that year had some kind of finger on the pulse – On the Road, Room at the Top, The Uses of Literacy – but a biography of a medieval Italian businessman written by a scholarly aristocrat living in Tuscany doesn’t sound like one of them. The Merchant of Prato has, nonetheless, proved a tenacious survivor. It has remained continuously in print for sixty years. In Italy, in Nina Ruffini’s translation, it is taught in schools. Its success over the long haul is a victory of quality over fashionableness (and is also good news because, like all Origo’s books, its earnings go directly to charity). The key to its longevity is partly her fluent style, the almost chatty erudition, but mostly the sense of total historical immersion. It’s as if she has set up camp in the 14th century and is simply reporting what she finds there.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] Gibson Square, 288 pp., £20, September 2017, 978 1 78334 111 4.

[†] Tessa Hadley will write about the diaries in a later issue.