Francesco di Giusfredo Sembrini, a notary of Lucca, died in 1348, likely a victim of the Black Death. We know the year of Francesco’s death from a brief notice—one of dozens for the year of the plague—that appears in a register of the local bishop’s court.✱ The same notice reveals that Francesco had prepared a testament, but this not been found.✱ Nonetheless, Francesco’s household inventory has fortuitously survived, occupying two loose bifolia wedged in the spine of another notary’s register. Simo Lupori, a citizen of Lucca residing in the nearby town of Pietrasanta, was appointed guardian for Francesco's children and heirs and arranged to have an inventory made of Francesco’s estate. The resulting inventory is one of the few discovered so far in Lucca’s otherwise rich archives. Moreover, while most of the known inventories from Lucca’s notarial records list only landed property, Francesco's features a rich array of household goods. (Other inventories and auctions of movable goods may be found in the records of the Curia dei rebelli e dei banditi, or “Court of the Rebels and the Banished,” today held in Lucca’s Archivio di Stato.)
The inventory describes a small but comfortable house in Lucca, nestled in a courtyard, known as the Corte Overardi (in curti filiorum de Hoverardis), that lay a short walk from the church of San Michele in Foro.✱ Assuming the inventory is complete—the pages are loose and the proper sequence is somewhat doubtful—the house consisted of a bedroom, a hall, an upstairs kitchen, a storeroom full of wine and supplies, and the shop or office in which Francesco likely met with his clients. Each of the rooms offers fascinating insights into the lifestyle and habits of a typical Lucchese notary and his wife and family.
The couple slept in a canopied bed dressed up with a great bedspread that carried a design of peacocks (paones) and vines, reminiscent of the silk textile depicted above.✱ Several strongboxes in the bedroom held a marvelous collection of garments, including a silken jacket adorned with yellow and bloodred sendal, as well as two purses worked in the French style, two golden rings, a tiara, a box of tassels, and a notary’s license. A painting hung on the wall, protected by a little curtain; also fastened to the wall were four satchels full of documents. In the hall, beside an array of decorative shields, the guardian found an assortment of goods: an albarello or jar for serving olives, a little cup partly filled with olive oil, and some worked and unworked flax, leaving the impression of a room abandoned suddenly by its residents. Pantry items, including a sack of beans and some sifted flour, occupied two compartments at the base of a bench. The kitchen contained the usual pots, pans, and utensils, along with a chicken coop and nine chunks of salted meat. A chest was stocked with 226 bowls, 46 trenchers, and perhaps a dozen frying pans, suggesting that Francesco and his family were accustomed either to hosting parties or breaking tableware (or both). In the storeroom, beside a bed frame, a funnel, sturdy poplar planks, and half a dozen casks filled with red and white wine, was a barrel conforming to the official Pisan unit of measure—a subtle reminder of Lucca’s conquest by its neighbor and arch-rival six years before Francesco’s death.
The space probably of greatest interest to scholarship, and apparently the last room on the guardian’s itinerary, was Francesco’s office (apotheca). The furniture, listed at the end, was minimal and utilitarian: a chest that, somewhat improbably, contained several bushels of millet; a few other chests or caskets; a bench; and a writing table. But along with this, the guardian listed a veritable archive of registers and documents, beginning with “A book of requests from the years 1331, 1332, and 1333, made up of six gatherings.” This entry heads a list that appears to identify registers produced by Francesco while he worked as a public notary. Each entry was classified either as a book of requests or instruments (liber rogitorum) or a book of memoranda (liber memoriale). All were carefully dated, with the years extending from 1331 to 1348, and listed in chronological order, suggesting that the registers were neatly arrayed in sequence in a chest or on a bookshelf. What may have been a stray notarial register, identified as a bastardello, appears in one late fourteenth-century Florentine inventory in the DALME corpus, among the goods of a decedent who was not, apparently, a notary himself. Francesco's scrupulously organized professional archive offers a rare glimpse of what was likely a common feature of notaries' households throughout Tuscany.✱
One register was devoted to contracts Francesco had prepared for Nicolao Boccansocchi, a merchant involved in Lucca's silk trade, while another recorded the private business of Jacopo Sbarra, a prominent Lucchese moneylender; both survive in Lucca's notarial archive today.✱ The list concluded with what was described as Francesco’s “alphabet” (alfabetum ser Francisci Sembrini). This was probably an alphabetized index of the contracts he had prepared over the years or that, for whatever reason, had come into his possession. Lucca’s statutes of 1331 required each notary in the city to maintain an index per alfabetum of contracts extending as far back as 1250, if the notary happened to have any.✱ Francesco possessed a couple of thirteenth-century registers, the oldest being a book of requests from 1275, which he appears to have acquired from the estate of a Lucchese notary named Ugolino Cincini.✱
As it happens, a copy of Lucca’s “old” statutes (statuta vetera)—probably those of 1331, which by the time of Francesco’s death had undergone one major revision, in 1342—was also found in Francesco’s office, together with various court registers, a small but respectable collection of law textbooks, and documents of some import to Lucca’s recent past.✱ All of these items appear after Francesco’s “alphabet” and his year-by-year sequence of notarial registers, suggesting that they formed a collection distinct from his professional archive. Some are judicial in nature, perhaps acquired while Francesco or a colleague was working in one or another of Lucca’s courts: they include a register of cases heard by a certain “Lord Tegrinus”—possibly Tegrimo Tegrimi, a Lucchese judge active in the 1330s✱—and three registers of civil cases, two pertaining to Lucca’s highest magistrate (the Podestà) and one with no court specified. There were also items of a more fiscal character: two registers, composed of high-quality paper (carta regalis), that pertained to the tax farm (proventus) on wine; and a register of properties in Pietrasanta held by Lucchese citizens, among whom may have been the guardian, Simo.
These items are not known to have survived, but others can be identified with material held in Lucca’s Archivio di Stato. The most intriguing, by far, is a book of oaths sworn to John, the King of Bohemia. In 1331, when Lucca came under John’s lordship, one of his first acts was to compel every Lucchese male over eighteen years of age to pledge allegiance to the new regime. The resulting oaths, copied in an elegant chancery script by a Lucchese notary (alas, not Francesco), filled 345 folios’ worth of parchment. Only one official copy is known to have been made; it survives as one of the most prized items in the Archivio di Stato’s holdings.✱ In the same year, John revised Lucca’s statutes, which proclaimed that his book of oaths was to be kept in the public archive “for the eternal remembrance of the deed” (deponatur in Camera Lucani Comunis…ad perpetuam rei memoriam).✱
As for how this book made its way into Francesco’s possession, we can only speculate. Perhaps it had something to do with Lucca’s turbulent political situation in the 1330s and 1340s, which saw the city pass from one ruler to another before falling, ignominiously, into Pisan hands.✱ A change of regime might mean the destruction, but also the sheltering, of politically sensitive documents; John’s book of oaths would have certainly fallen into this category. The confusion of the Black Death may have also been a factor—indeed, the public archive had to be re-inventoried one year later, in 1349.✱ Francesco himself suffered personal misfortune in late 1342, when, at the end of a protracted and somewhat murky dispute, he had been ordered to vacate an office located in a different part of the city.✱ Whatever the case, Francesco’s library, combining his professional archive with a miscellany of other records, speaks to the enduring role of late medieval notaries (and their households) as treasuries of social and political memory. At the time, Lucca and other cities across northern and central Italy were vigorously experimenting with public archives, which were to be the dedicated repositories for all official documents.✱ Notaries, however, were often responsible for copying this material, some of which might find its way into their homes and offices.✱ When calamity struck, as it did in Lucca throughout the 1330s and 1340s, notaries like Francesco preserved relics of the city’s history.
As an almost poetic touch, the last of Francesco’s books to be inventoried was “a Boethius.” It was probably the Consolation of Philosophy, a Roman statesman’s meditations on fate, justice, and free will as he awaited trial for treason, set in an empire that had long since passed into the hands of foreign, “barbarian” rulers. Classical texts appear from time to time in the DALME corpus, notably in this Florentine inventory of the late fourteenth century. Given the professional and administrative slant of Francesco's library, however, his lone Boethius stands out as something of an enigma. It appears, in any case, to have sat at the end of a row of books. Perhaps Francesco had decided to read from it shortly before he died, noting the parallels with his own situation—a consolation, indeed.