A vivid look at 16th century’s rich and powerful
BOOK REVIEW (Scotland on Sunday)
Published Date: 16 May 2004
BY LUCINDA BYATT
THE CARDINAL’S HAT
Mary Hollingsworth Profile Books, £18.99
HISTORIANS occasionally strike gold in the form of documents that illuminate an entire period. Iris Origo set the standard half a century ago in The Merchant of Prato and Hollingsworth has followed suit, benefiting from the latest research on 16th-century social, economic and religious history. This particular treasure trove focuses on Ippolito d’Este, builder of the magnificent Villa d’Este in Tivoli. As a second son, Ippolito was destined for the church, a well-known route to riches and power. He became Archbishop of Milan at the age of nine, but the ultimate accolade of the cardinal’s hat remained elusive as it depended on the ability to play a winning hand in the fickle game of curial and international politics, favours and alliances. Hollingsworth focuses on the years culminating in Ippolito’s long-awaited nomination as cardinal in 1539. Accounts from this period were recorded with meticulous precision, often including extensive descriptions relating to a particular item. Hollingsworth uses these ledgers to paint an extraordinary picture of the food, wine and other material goods used at court – literally “the soap, the candles, the shoelaces, the cooking pots and the drains, the stuff of everyday life”. But she also reads between the lines to reveal the ambitious personality of this passionate young prince, who preferred finery, gambling, hunting, tennis and women to confession. Moreover, we also gain a precious insight into a much less tangible group: the serving members of Ippolito’s household, whose characters and circumstances can be glimpsed through entries in the accounts. Ippolito’s pursuit of the red hat prompted him to seek the support of Francis I, the family’s traditional ally. Leaving Ferrara in 1536, he travelled across the Alps to meet the French king and his court near Lyons. The logistics of travelling in the 16th century – let alone feeding, accommodating and looking after such a large party of men, horses and pack mules (23 carrying stacks of luggage, including Ippolito’s bed, and clean mattresses for the rest of the household) – emerge clearly from a notebook kept by one Zoane da Cremona. The expense and dangers of travel made even the wealthy think twice before embarking on long journeys, but it was essential for the personal contacts required to further Ippolito’s career. Ippolito’s income came primarily from his estates, as well as from stores and granaries he owned in Ferrara, from the archbishopric of Milan, and two lucrative taxes (one on butchers in Reggio and the other on live animals entering Ferrara). Ippolito’s wealth was the machine that powered the conspicuous consumption expected of the rich and influential at the time. It was also used, no less conspicuously, to support the needy through alms-giving and tipping. However, the business of giving was not always devoted to worthy causes. Gifts – often undisguised bribes – served to oil the wheels at every level of society and provided “excellent political currency”. Hollingsworth has brought to life a period well known through other sources, but her analysis enables a precise financial value to be put on the cost of display.