Cultivating Patronage in Late Medieval Tuscany: Epistolary Networks of Spiritual and Material Support. Daniel Bornstein

Talk to be presented in Weingarten, December 1st 2018

The support that Italian elites lavished on the new religious foundations of the fifteenth century, and especially the houses of the Observant movement, is well known. The Este family’s patronage of the Poor Clares of Corpus Domini in Ferrara and Cosimo de’ Medici’s financial backing for the Dominicans at San Marco in Florence are just two examples that can stand for many dozen such major construction projects.  Most patronage, however, was conducted at afar less spectacular level, through the exchange of prayers, letters, religious objects, and liturgical books.  

This paper looks at more than 200 letters addressed by religious (including figures as notable as Giovanni Dominici and Chiara Gambacorta) to the wealthy merchant of Prato, Francesco di Marco Datini, soliciting his aid and support in relatively small ways, along with a dozen or so letters that Datini wrote in response. Exchanges such as these built relationships of spiritual friendship that might eventually develop into more substantial patronage of religious reform –or so the supplicants hoped.  However, their cultivation of Datini did not yield the desired result.  Despite his admiration for the preaching of Giovanni Dominici and his support, in many small ways, for the work of Observant reform, in the big decision regarding the disposition of his estate, Datini chose to create a charitable foundation to assist the deserving poor of Prato.  The administration, as well as the beneficiaries, of his largesse was to be lay. This foundation, he declared, was to be “in no way subjected to the Church or ecclesiastical officials or ecclesiastical prelates or any other ecclesiastical person,” entrusting it instead to the direction of a committee of laymen selected by the communal government.

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