In the latest issue:

Short Cuts

Jonathan Parry

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Unliterary, Unpolished, UnromanticCharles Nicholl

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Vol. 40 No. 3 · 8 February 2018

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, 978 0 241 29392 8
Show More
Show More

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.

In her essay ‘Biography: True and False’, Origo offers this sage advice to those embarking on a career in the life-writing trade:

The young biographer who has upon his desk his first intriguing pile of papers, will do well to arm himself with humility, and let them speak for themselves. Later on the time will come to sift, to compare, and to bring to life again; but first he should listen without interrupting. Then, as he deciphers the faded ink, a phrase may stand out which reveals the hand that wrote it. He may see – as suddenly as, at a turn of the passage, one comes upon one’s image in a mirror – a living face.

This essay was published in its final form in 1984, four years before her death, but it began as a lecture she gave at Cambridge in 1958, and this particular passage describes her own achievement in the recently published Merchant of Prato, where that ‘intriguing pile of papers’ – in fact, several sackfuls of them – is almost as much the protagonist as the eponymous merchant himself. Her description of that moment of biographical contact carries an echo of Eliot’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’ (‘I feel like one who smiles, and turning shall remark/Suddenly, his expression in a glass’). In The Merchant of Prato she borrows a more challenging metaphor. The book’s opening words – epigraphic if not actually placed as an epigraph – are by the historian Marc Bloch: ‘L’historien ressemble à l’ogre de la fable. Là où il flaire la chair humaine, il sait que là est son gibier.’ It is a potent image, at once menacing and playful. The historian is like the ‘ogre of fairy tales’ because when ‘he scents human flesh, he knows he has found his prey’. This comes from Bloch’s last book, Métier d’historien, left unfinished in 1944 when he was executed by firing squad as a member of the Resistance. Origo’s admiration of him may have an ulterior connection with her own wartime experiences in Italy, as chronicled in her celebrated War in Val d’Orcia (1947) and later worked over in pen portraits of her anti-fascist friends, ‘who bore witness to the truth during those years of oppression’, in A Need to Testify (1984).

The merchant – her biographical ‘prey’ – is Francesco di Marco Datini, born in Prato, in the lowlands west of Florence, in about 1335. His father is described as a tavernaio, which Origo translates sensibly enough as a taverner or innkeeper, though later historians have pointed out that in medieval Tuscan usage the word more generally meant a shopkeeper, and in particular a butcher, and in the august pages of the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani Francesco is described as a butcher’s son. When he was in his early teens he lost both his parents and two of his three brothers in the Black Death. From these ill-starred beginnings he rose by cautious degrees to control an international trading and banking network with branches in Florence, Pisa, Genoa, Avignon, Barcelona, Valencia and Majorca. He anticipated the Florentine big-hitters of the quattrocento: he was in business by the early 1360s, when the first of the Medici bankers – Giovanni, father of Cosimo – was still a toddler. His first ventures were in Avignon, temporarily the seat of the papacy: he imported Milanese armour on muleback across the Alps, and sold it impartially to the papal troops of Innocent VI and the mercenaries they were fighting. Later he moved into the cloth trade, dealing in English and Spanish wool, Venetian silk, French linen, Provençal hemp and Cordovan leather, in dyes such as madder, indigo and woad, and in alum, used as a fixative in the dyeing process. English wool, much in demand, was shipped to him ready-shorn or as ‘wool-fells’ (sheepskins with the wool still attached) by Italian merchant companies based in London; most of it came from the Cotswolds, splendidly garbled in his ledgers as ‘Chondisgualdo’. Foodstuffs were another frequent cargo: wheat and salt primarily, also fruit, rice, spices, oil and wine. But to compartmentalise his commodities belies the opportunism and diversity of the ladings: ‘Toledo blades, Valencian soap, ivory tusks and ostrich feathers’; ‘37 bales of pilgrims’ robes, 191 pieces of lead and 80 slaves’; ‘raisins, almonds, peacocks, marmosets and porcupines’. For Origo he is a kind of archetype of modern capitalism: ‘In his international outlook, in his swift adaptability to the changes of a society in turmoil, as in his own ambition, shrewdness, tenacity, anxiety and greed, he is a forerunner of the businessmen of today.’

On his death in 1410 Datini left a fortune of 70,000 florins to the poor of Prato, and his house there as the ceppo or office of the charity, which it remains to this day. Not long afterwards the town council commissioned a fresco on the building’s walls, showing 16 scenes from his life, but this has faded. Only two early portraits of him remain. Neither is contemporary, though the earlier, in a panel by Fra Filippo Lippi completed in 1453, may be a reasonable likeness. It shows a thin, sharp-faced, austere-looking man. He forms part of a small group of Pratese burghers kneeling in devotion at the feet of a Madonna. The motto he habitually inscribed at the front of his business ledgers – ‘Nel nome di Dio e del guadagno’ (‘In the name of God and profit’) – would make a perfect caption for the group. His own relations with the art world were not always happy. Like many merchants of the day, conscious that God’s view of profit margins was less enthusiastic than theirs, he made amends by commissioning religious artworks. In the 1390s he had three painters decorating his house with devotional images, among them the distinguished Florentine artist Agnolo Gaddi, but the atmosphere soured when they presented their bill, and he turned them out of the house unpaid. ‘Having found some soft soil they mean to dig their spades in it up to the hilt,’ he grumbled. ‘When Giotto was alive he was cheaper!’ The case went to court. Experts were called in and valued the disputed painting at 60 florins; Francesco said he would rather lose the money at sea than pay up, but after much haggling he handed over 55 florins. The tone of this episode is not untypical: he tended to get crabby when money was at stake, and there were few hours in his waking life when it wasn’t.

In the Lippi panel Datini wears a long gown and a round, flat-topped berretta, both in suitably costly scarlet. The later full-length portrait by Alessandro Allori shows him in the same garb – it is virtually the uniform of a respectable Tuscan citizen-merchant. That ‘living face’ Origo sought was not to be found in these essentially generic representations but in the more nuanced and largely involuntary self-portraiture of the handwritten page. ‘It befits a merchant always to have ink-stained hands,’ Leon Battista Alberti wrote in the 1430s, and few exemplified this better than Datini. A born micro-manager, he wrote almost all of his business letters with his own hand. ‘They were written on sheets of paper folded in three, closed by a small cord passing through holes in the edges, and sealing it at each end … Each bundle of letters was then wrapped in a waterproof canvas and enclosed in a bag or purse called a scarsella, sealed by the merchant and worn at the messenger’s belt.’ In his will Francesco instructed that his letters be preserved in their entirety. In the 16th century they were seen neatly stacked in cupboards in his house, but sometime after that they were bundled into sacks and dumped in a recess under the stairs, and it was here they were found, in 1870, by a scholarly archdeacon, Don Martino Benelli. This period of neglect, Origo drily remarks, was not ‘entirely unfortunate’: a few pages had been ‘nibbled by mice or worms, but at least thieves and fools remained unaware of their existence’. In this great cache were some five hundred ledgers and account books, another five hundred files of business correspondence, and a further scattering of miscellaneous documents such as deeds of partnership, insurance policies, bills of lading, bills of exchange and so on. By the time Origo came on the scene in the 1950s this material had been mined by economic historians such as Enrico Bensa and Federigo Melis, but there was also a trove of personal correspondence that the academics had scarcely touched, and these – some 11,000 letters written over a period of thirty years – are the raw data of The Merchant of Prato.

Most are letters to and from his wife, Margherita di Domenico Bandini. They had married in Avignon in 1376, when she was a ‘full-blooded’ girl in her late teens and he about forty. They were both part of the city’s Florentine community, though she and her family were there as exiles. As Francesco bluntly states, her father ‘had his head cut off’ for ‘wishing to hand over Florence to our Lord’– the pope. For Origo, the very ordinariness of their letters makes them precious. They are ‘unliterary, unpolished, unromantic, self-repetitive’; they give us ‘the small change of everyday life, the details of domestic intercourse’. To call them unromantic is something of an understatement. Francesco was almost perpetually away on business, and his letters are often just a long bossy list of reminders. ‘Remember to wash the mule’s feet with hot water, down to her hooves,’ to ‘have my hose made and then soled’, to ‘give some of the millet that is left with you to the nag, and see that it is well-mashed’, to ‘water the orange trees as we used to do, or they will be burned up’, to ‘keep the kitchen windows shut, so the flour does not get hot’ – in short, ‘remember to do all that you have to do, and … see to it that I shall not have to scold.’ Margherita’s patience was understandably tried by this. Referring to his cosseted mule she says: ‘Would God you treated me as well as you do her.’ She is sometimes tired and ill, but ‘I would bear it all, if only half of what I do was recognised by you.’ Their friend, the notary Ser Lapo Mazzei, tried to patch up the sometimes frayed relations in the Datini household. He implores Margherita to be less rebellious and Francesco to be kinder. ‘I wish she were as meek as she is shrewd,’ he writes to Francesco, but can she be blamed when ‘she has had to listen to your blessed sermons for eighteen whole years’? Beneath the superficial frictions of a long marriage lies a deeper resentment: Margherita’s failure to produce any children. Francesco addressed this lack by importing an illegitimate daughter, Ginevra, into the household.

This narrative of marital ups and downs is only one thread in the rich material of the letters. Many readers come to the book not as a biography per se but as a compendium of early Italian social customs. There is a mass of detail about the couple’s wardrobes, both fashionable and functional: I like the little twist about Margherita’s favourite pair of gloves, ‘double kid bordered with gold thread’, and how she probably gave up wearing them after 1388, when a new Florentine law decreed that prostitutes had to wear gloves. Another favourite topic is health, about which Francesco fretted continuously. Prescriptions are offered by friends as well as physicians. We learn that piles were treated by anointing ‘the place’ with ‘an onion well-cooked and pestled’, and that to encourage urination – and hence to lessen the danger of kidney stones – one took a spoonful of ‘ginger jam’ before dinner. Some of the advice is common sense – what would today come under the rubric of ‘healthy lifestyle’ – though a ‘prayer to stop the flow of blood’ might prove unhelpful in an emergency. There is frequent mention of the popular but mysterious compound known as theriaca, or theriac: its mystery is probably down to the fact that no two apothecaries used the same secret ingredients for it.

Origo​ was in her mid-fifties when The Merchant of Prato was published. She had honed her biographical skills on a Life of the Romantic philosopher-poet Giacomo Leopardi and a short study of Byron’s daughter Allegra, both issued in 1935. The latter was published by Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press, which led to her meeting with Virginia Woolf, whose diaries describe her as ‘tremulous’, ‘honest-eyed’ and very glamorous: ‘I like her bird of paradise flight through the gay world. A long green feather in her hat suggests the image.’ But the biographical study which first earned her critical acclaim in England was The Last Attachment (1949), a bean-spilling account of Byron’s affair with Teresa Guiccioli, the Ravenna-born contessa described in Don Juan as a woman ‘headlong, headstrong … beautiful and daring’, who would ‘rather whisk/The stars from out the sky than not be free’. As with The Merchant of Prato it was a cache of unpublished letters that lit the fuse. In her autobiography, Images and Shadows (1970), Origo gives a droll account of her first sight of them:

With some trepidation I set off to Florence to try and persuade Count Carlo Gamba, the great-nephew and heir of Contessa Guiccioli, to allow me to consult the papers of his great-aunt. My fear of meeting with a refusal was not unfounded, since Count Gamba – an old gentleman of much taste, who was both old-fashioned and very deaf – had already refused access to several people, including André Maurois, to the papers of ‘poor dear aunt Teresa’. I don’t remember how I persuaded him to change his mind, since it is very difficult to be persuasive or reassuring at the top of one’s voice, but I suspect that he did so not because of anything I said, but merely because his niece knew me, and he did not think I looked too foreign or unreliable.

The count duly rang for his manservant and despatched him to fetch ‘Contessa Teresa’s chest’: a carved mahogany box in which she found ‘many bundles of letters tied up in ribbon’, as well as lockets of hair, a piece of Byron’s shirt and a desiccated rose leaf picked from the gardens of Newstead Abbey.

‘Iris Origo, like Byron, was soaked in Italy,’ said Michael Foot, who cited her book as the inspiration for his own writings about the poet. The comment is apposite also for The Merchant of Prato, which is steeped in the landscape and culture of Tuscany as much as in a particular period of its history. Though she was born in England, and though she spoke (and, one might say, wrote) in a cut-glass English accent, she had few ties there. Her ancestry was mixed. Her father, Bayard Cutting, was American, from a very prosperous family whose wealth came from railroads and sugar beet; her mother, Lady Sybil Cuffe, was a daughter of the 5th earl of Desart, an Anglo-Irish peer with estates in Kilkenny. With Scottish and French blood as well, she was, in her own words, ‘a complete mongrel’. Her childhood was peripatetic, but after the early death of her father from tuberculosis she lived almost continuously in Italy. In 1911 Lady Sybil rented, and later bought, the Villa Medici in Fiesole, built by the Renaissance architect Michelozzo. Here Iris Cutting grew up in an idyllic but constricted world of picnics, excursions, loggias and fireflies. She was tutored by a Professor Monti, who knew half of Virgil by heart, and surrounded by a posh, chattery, intellectual circle of Anglo-American expatriates: Harold Acton and his parents at La Pietra; Bernard and Mary Berenson at Villa I Tatti; the authors Janet Ross and Violet Paget (penname Vernon Lee); and streams of summer visitors including Edith Wharton and Vita Sackville-West. Though isolated from other children, and oppressed by a ‘long and dreary dynasty’ of governesses, her childhood ‘was not unhappy; it was merely disconcerting, in its swift alternations between excitement and tedium, between caviare and bread and milk’. Lady Sybil was both possessive and unpredictable: she is summed up by Origo’s biographer, Caroline Moorehead, as ‘a woman with a will of iron and an all-consuming obsession with her own health’. In Aldous Huxley’s caustic satire of expats in Italy, Those Barren Leaves, she is caricatured as Mrs Aldwinkle, the rich Englishwoman who thinks of Italy as ‘her property’: ‘she had bought its arts, its music, its melodious language, its literature, its wines and cooking.’ This sort of touristic expropriation was not Origo’s style, though her later writing career certainly benefited from a range of top-drawer connections. It helped that she was acquainted with Count Gamba’s niece, that her godfather was the American ambassador in Rome, that she could call on a former president, Luigi Einaudi, to write a foreword to the Italian edition of The Merchant of Prato.

In 1923, the Bloomsbury diarist Frances Partridge described the 21-year-old Iris as ‘very delicate, almost like a Botticelli, with a very quick voice and a mind as quick, running from one thing to another, and alarming because so clever’. In that year she met Antonio Origo, the illegitimate son of an artistic Roman marquis, Clemente Origo, and a Russian singer. They were married in early 1924; some years later Antonio was recognised as Clemente’s heir, whereupon Iris became a marchesa. To the alarm of her Florentine circle they settled at La Foce in the deep south of Tuscany: a remote, rundown villa with a 3500-acre estate spread over the parched clay slopes of the Orcia valley. It was ‘treeless and shrubless but for some tufts of broom … a lunar landscape, pale and inhuman’, Iris wrote. ‘Neglect, indigence and suspense are etched on the faces of men and the earth alike,’ wrote Antonio. They threw themselves into a Herculean programme of irrigation and restoration, slowly transforming both the land and the harsh lives of their sharecropper tenants, for whom they provided such unheard-of amenities as schools and clinics. Much of this work was assisted by Mussolini’s policy of land reclamation – Antonio’s relations with fascism were rather more cordial than she later cared to admit. In 1933 their seven-year-old son, Gianni, died of meningitis, a tragedy that shadowed her life, yet which also precipitated her into authorship: ‘After Gianni’s death, in an effort to find some impersonal work that would absorb at least part of my thoughts, I turned back to writing.’

There is throughout Origo’s story a powerful sense of energy and resolve. Her passion for organising people is often mentioned, a trait that is reflected in her marshalling skills as a biographer, but which had its finest hour in the war, when the Origos sheltered orphans, partisans and Allied soldiers at great personal risk. To some she seemed aloof: she had a ‘built-in distance’. Susanna Johnston, who worked for Iris’s widowed stepfather, Percy Lubbock – Lady Sybil’s third husband – in the late 1950s, recalls her visits: ‘she was a formidable creature with a gigantic brain and expensive clothes … She treated us graciously, as she might have done invaluable servants whose notice she wished to avert.’ This comes from Johnston’s charming memoir of the art historians John Fleming and Hugh Honour, published last year.* They too were part of the Lubbock household; their own memory of Origo’s visits was summed up in a sentence: ‘Then this icicle appeared and the whole house pulled itself together.’

Thirty years after her death, the gardens Origo and Cecil Pinsent created at La Foce retain her imprint – a vivid mix of Italian geometric and English herbaceous styles. On a recent visit I was introduced to her daughter, Benedetta, who still lives in part of the house. Arithmetic tells me she’s in her mid-seventies, though she could easily be a decade younger. She is tall and elegant, with a quietly gracious style that might under certain circumstances become a bit chilly – all qualities one hears of in reminscences of her mother. To stroll through the wisteria bowers and cypress alleys of the garden, to admire the fountains of soft-hued travertine stone, the trompe l’oeil frescoes in the dining room, the library full of d’Annunzio first editions lushly inscribed to his friend Clemente Origo, is to feel a little closer to the spirit of Iris, while at the same time sensing a ghostly reproach for expecting to retrieve her ‘living face’ so effortlessly. It was here that she wrote The Merchant of Prato, in her little study on the first floor, overlooking the box-hedged private garden with the dolphin fountain designed by Pinsent. Benedetta’s daughter, Katia Lysy, describes Iris’s writing habits in an afterword to the recently published edition of her 1939-40 diaries, A Chill in the Air: ‘In my memories [she] has a pen close to hand, usually a leaky ballpoint that left stains on armchairs, chaise-longues and quilted satin counterpanes, which gave away her favourite writing haunts.’ In her study, ‘every surface, even the window-seat cushions in leaf-patterned sea-green and white cretonne, was obscured by stacks of books … There barely seemed to be room on her desk for her typewriter.’ Her typescripts were invariably messy – ‘a flurry of scribbles, scratched-out words, and strips of paper ineptly glued-on’. The illegibility of her handwriting was also notorious. Her publisher and friend Jock Murray tells of tackling a passage at the bottom of a letter, which had defeated everyone else, and eventually deciphering the words: ‘Dearest Jock, I can’t read what I have written. Please type it out and send a copy to me.’

In a chapter​ of her autobiography simply titled ‘Writing’, Origo says: ‘The biographer who puts his wit above his subject will end by writing about one person only – himself.’ Rereading Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, a book she had once admired, she complains ‘not that it is inaccurate, but that it is thin, and that its thinness springs from condescension. If you wish to see a person you must not start by seeing through him.’ It is one of the paradoxes of this refined and very privileged bluestocking that her books were so egalitarian in outlook, so dedicated to an ideal of empathy, the end of her researches being neither to trumpet nor to denigrate, but to discover ‘what life “felt like” to [her] subject’. In this she was closer to Strachey’s friend Virginia Woolf, who (perhaps apocryphally) questioned a stallholder in a London market: ‘Tell me, what does it feel like to stand in the fog on a dark evening selling apples?’

That Francesco Datini was not a very likeable person did not escape her notice, but she admires him for what he achieved and tenaciously protected, and for his career carved out against the odds of his lowly origins (his ‘self-fashioning’, one might say, though this new historicist term came into fashion too late for her to use it). In this context empathy and sympathy are distinct: the latter she reserves for the much put-upon Margherita. But the one she really loves, the one whose letters positively twinkle out of these pages, is the notary Ser Lapo, their confidant and counsellor, a mellow, proverb-mongering character who seems to her the best kind of provincial Italian. His frequently proffered advice is ‘always on the side of moderation, kindliness and patience’. Part solicitor and part business adviser, the notary was – and still is – an indispensable part of Italian life: the oiler of the wheels of commerce, the drafter of contracts, the mitigator of tax burdens, the knower of loopholes. Though he never quite tells Francesco that the world is his lobster, Ser Lapo has the chipper air of a medieval Arthur Daley. He delivers a gift of Francesco’s wine to an influential client and retails the recipient’s enjoyment of it: ‘it seemed as if roses were blooming in his face.’ He oversees every stage of the construction of Francesco’s house, delivering an eloquent mock-grumpy synopsis of the tribulations involved: ‘maestri, manovali, opere, galcine, rena, pietre, grida e disperamenti’ (‘bosses, workmen, labour, lime, sand, stone, shouts and despairs’). He tells him which medicines to take, which books to read, which horses to buy, which eligible bachelor to choose for his daughter, Ginevra. And, with quiet insistence, as the years flow by, he reproaches Francesco for his worldliness and arrogance: ‘your rough soul and your frozen heart’. His own philosophy was simple: ‘I am for going slowly, and I trim my sails, but the wind must be sent by Messer Domineddio [Mr Lord God].’

Origo revels in the blunt aphoristic vernacular of these letters, their scattering of witty ‘Toscanismi’ – ‘Ha più corta la fede che la lepre la coda’ (‘His faith is shorter than a hare’s tail’); ‘Arrivederci, come le volpi in pellicceria’ (‘Till we meet again, as the foxes say at the furrier’s’ – i.e. they will meet in the next life). Her characters talk the Tuscan of Boccaccio’s Decameron, written in the early 1350s when they were young men with their lives ahead of them. Their voices carry clearly across the centuries.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.