Sunday, May 28, 2006

Middle Age Business Man

cover of The Merchant of Prato by Iris OrigoFive months ago I posted this excerpt detailing strange Medieval behavior. I quoted from "The Merchant of Prato, Daily Life in a Medieval Italian City" by Iris Origo (Penguin, 1957).

I picked this book from one of Leslie's many book piles to read a little bit each night (er, morning) thinking it would help me fall asleep. Last week I finally finished; hey, I only read 2 pages at a time.

The merchant of "The Merchant of Prato" was Francesco di Marco Datini (1335-1410). Datini died old and rich and respected and he left his fortune to charity. His legacy lives on to this day in the city of Prato. There's a statue of him there.

The pictures of Palazzo Datini by Massimo Gasperini came from here. Another well illustrated bio of Francesco is here (source of his portrait and pictures of his tomb.) Visit the Datini International Economic History Institute in Prato.

Palazzo di DatiniThink back 600 years, before Leonardo da Vinci, before Columbus, before Joan of Arc. Think back to the time of the Black Plague when there were two competing Catholic Popes. A time when "freelance" actually meant someone carrying a lance. It was during this time that Francesco Datini excelled at making money in business and international trade.

An invoiceHe spent a lot of time writing things down: instructions to his partners and employees; letters to his friends or his wife (who could read and write); contracts, invoices, account books and household inventories. And he meticulously preserved the paper trail - instructing everyone to save everything. After his death the papers were sealed away and forgotten until the 19th century. Now they're a valuable resource for scholars.

My initial assumption was that I would be reading about a strange, bizarre alien environment, long ago and far away, but I was wrong.

Palazzo di DatiniInstead this picture of city life 600 years ago shows people worrying about and aspiring to the same sorts of stuff that we do in 2006. Be it money, clothes, family, relatives, in-laws, housing, social contacts, politics, business contacts, weddings, celebrity chefs, household help, wars, food and wine, country homes, religion, medicine, remodeling or home furnishing - and on and on - I kept noticing the similarities more than the differences.

Datini's TombFrancesco's personality shines through all this too. He was a man I would probably not like. A micro-manager who ignored advice, who wanted only the most expensive stuff just because it cost more, who adhered uncritically to the superstitions of his day and who seemed to enjoy nothing much beyond his work.

Fearful that the established clergy would squander his money but even more fearful of what would happen to him after death, Francesco willed his considerable fortune to help the poor.

These days Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling (who also excelled at making money for a while and turned the word Enron into a synonym for crime) have other worries at the moment besides what awaits them after death.

I probably wouldn't like them either.
They spent their careers in fear of what would happen to their corporation (and their self image) if the very high growth rate started to sag. As a result of their greed, fraud and thievery they now face many decades in prison.

Ken Lay & Jeffrey Skilling in the movie ENRON - Smartest Guys in the RoomI've never quite understood why our culture heaps so much honor on high growth rates. Isn't that like rewarding cancer? Maybe each of us can't resist hoping for our own greedy share.

I think companies should earn public respect (and tax breaks) for limited steady sustainable growth. Companies with out of control growth rates should be reined in with high, burdensome taxes before they flame out to prevent everyone from paying for lost jobs, lost pensions, legal prosecutions and prison guard salaries for years afterwards.

A portrait of Datini by Tomaso del TrombettoThere are some pervasive things in our society which are more debilitating than they are helpful. I would be much happier if the American people placed considerably less importance on heaven, corn sweetener, back beats and high business growth, to name only the most obvious.

It'll never happen. But I can dream.

Like Francesco Datini saving all his papers, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has put hundreds of thousands of Enron's emails into a free online database. Click here to search it yourself. It'll be fun for the voyeur in you.

Read about the movie Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room source of the picture of Ken & Jeff.

UPDATE: this quote is from a Molly Ivins column:
Until January 2004, Enron was Bush's top contributor. And what did it get for its money? Ken Lay was on Bush's short list to be energy secretary. He not only almost certainly served on Cheney's energy task force, there is every indication that the task force's energy plan, the one we have been on for five years, is in fact the Enron plan.
Read the whole thing here.

Other fascinating Mixed Meters posts in which the Middle Ages are mentioned:
Baudolino by Umberto Eco
ASLAP by John Cage

Mixed Meters posts about business
A Life Span for Big Corporations
One Market Under God
Corporate Stunts and Corporate Criminals

Whew - you probably want to watch a video now, huh?
Here's a guy on Russian television wearing an ugly "synthesizer suit".
Here's his interactive home page. where you can choreograph his movements.
I found this link at Music Thing. They say it's viral marketing for some cellphone company or other. It may not even be real - but at least no one lost their job because of it.

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