However, Datini was ambitious, for recognition as well as riches, to the dismay of another friend, Luca, who wrote, “You said you would live in peace and not seek for worldly fame … But now I see, either because of worldly vanity or some other men’s counsels, you have changed your mind and wish to go to Pisa to see the King.” Undeterred, Datini still went.
Like many successful businesspeople, Francesco Datini was stingy in his business but ostentatiously generous in his personal life; too much so, thought Ser Lapo: “Do not believe,” he wrote, “that sweet oil, bestowed by a friend, does not please me. But, in faith, too much of it gives me no pleasure.”
It was not until he was in his 60s and the threat of plague hit Italy that Datini began to contemplate the prospect of his death and to wonder what it was all for. Even at the very end, as Datini passed away in his arms, Ser Lapo said, “It seemed to him very strange that he should have to die, and that his prayers should be of no avail.” He made amends finally in his will, drawn up by his mentor, leaving the great bulk of his worth to endow a foundation for the poor in Prato and to help found the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence, both of which are still standing.
Today, a mass is said for him every year on the day of his death in Prato’s cathedral, and the passerby can still read the inscription carved over the doorway to his house: “The Ceppo of Francesco di Marco Datini, Merchant of Christ’s Poor,” an honor of which some members of the city council did not approve. “If he rendered some service to Prato,” they grumbled, “it was only because he sought to profit by it.” It was ever thus.
This is a lovely book, beautifully written, one to dip into to savor the life of those times. But because Datini is so wonderfully honest with himself and his wife and friends, the book also acts as a mirror reflecting our own dilemmas. Six hundred years may have changed the world in some respects, but the problems of love and marriage, of business and the management of people, of money making and the point of life, these have altered very little down the centuries. God and Profit may now be retitled Social Responsibility and Shareholder Value and written in our annual reports rather than at the head of our ledgers, but that does not make them any easier to balance, in business or in personal life.
Reprint No. 02407
[email protected], a renowned observer of business life, lives in London and is the author of many books and articles. His most recent book is The Elephant and the Flea: Reflections of a Reluctant Capitalist (Harvard Business School Press, 2002). Others include The Age of Paradox (Harvard Business School Press, 1994), The Age of Unreason (Harvard Business School Press, 1989), and The New Alchemists: How Visionary People Make Something out of Nothing (Trafalgar Square, 2001), with photography by his wife, Elizabeth Handy.