A Vestige of the Black Death

Pepo degli Albizzi, a Florentine wool merchant, opened this ledger book in January 1340. It is a good example of a then-new literary genre, the family diary or ricordanze, which may be considered the ancestor of both personal diaries and modern business ledgers.

The book consists mostly of business transactions and contracts related to the family’s interest in wool-cloth finishing and export, one of the most important industries in Florence at the period.

The last section of the book, which the author entitled “All my other memoranda,” includes some more personal matters. Most poignantly, there is an entry for ten members of his immediate family who died in June and July of 1348, when the Black Death struck Florence as it swept across Europe.

The final name on this list is that of Pepo’s father, Antonio, who seems to have been a force for family unity. After this date, the compiler recorded a radical redistribution of the family’s wealth among feuding brothers, who nevertheless made careful provision for the maintenance of widows and orphans of the plague, for a brother in a religious order, and for a sick relative who had to be boarded in turn with various family members.

The strategy of redistribution represented by this ledger appears to have been a success, allowing the family to move into the political elite. Pepo himself became a member of the ruling council of priors during the 1360s, and when in 1372 his faction lost power, he was important enough to be proscribed by name from holding any further political office.

The ledger was written on fine blank parchment leaves, using a careful version of the typical mercantesca hand that merchants employed for all kinds of texts in Italian. Pepo’s precise script is probably less an indication of his personality than an expression of the widespread notion at the time that well-kept records were an indication of honesty and probity. The portfolio binding, of sturdy red calf lined in soft, white glove leather, appears to be original, representing the kind of luxury item that could be bought from Florentine stationers (then as now).

It was designed to be highly portable, again emphasizing its use as a personal record book. It may have been a gift to Pepo, who was married the same month the ledger begins. His monogram, PA, extended to form the Latin word “Pax,” is stamped on the front cover, and the original buckle clasp also survives.

By Paul F. Gehl, Curator Emeritus. A version of this story originally appeared in The Newberry 125: Stories from Our Collection, published in 2012.