Intelligence and long-sightedness have made Francesco di Marco Datini the very symbol of Prato’s resourcefulness, because his remarkable ability to conduct business with a capitalist spirit, “in nome di Dio e del guadagno”, as we read in his accounting books, merged with his strong qualities of a believer and a benefactor who chose to leave all his possessions to the “poveri di Prato”.
Born in Prato around 1335 into a family of modest means, he was left an orphan in 1348 when both his parents and two brothers died from the terrible Black Death which had ravaged Europe. After learning the first rudiments of commerce in various Florentine shops, he moved to Avignon, at that time the Pope’s Holy See, where he began a successful business activity and married a young Florentine noble, Margherita Bandini.
In 1382 he returned to Prato and founded a system of firms with an authentic “holding company”, specialized in all kinds of commerce with branches in Avignon, Florence, Pisa, Genoa, Barcelona, Valenza and Majorca.
He died heirless in Prato on 16 August 1410 and in his will, made provisions for the foundation of the “Ceppo dei Poveri di Francesco di Marco”, the present-day Casa Pia dei Ceppi, to which he bequeathed all his possessions, valued at over 100,000 gold florins.
Francesco Datini also made provisions in his will for various legacies to the city of Florence. The most important was one of 1,000 florins, as a contribution to the construction of a new welfare centre, to care for ”gittatelli” (i.e. children, whose families were unable to support them and put them in institutional care). A few years later, the legacy was paid to the Silk Merchants’ Guild, who had taken over the project and begun construction of the Ospedale degli Innocenti.
In keeping with its founder’s attention to childcare, during the early years of the twentieth century the Casa Pia dei Ceppi set up an “assistenza baliatica” service to promote the maternal breast-feeding of babies from poor families, also providing subsidies to guarantee their artificial nutrition and operating to divulge correct medical information for the care of Prato children.
The “mercante di Prato” is buried in the church of S. Francesco, which for many years he had richly endowed with donations and embellished with works of art; the history of his life is recounted in books known the world over and translated into every language.