THE CARDINAL'S HAT
Money, Ambition, and Everyday Life in the
Court of a Borgia Prince
By Mary Hollingsworth. Overlook. 308 pp. $27.95
Ippolito d'Este was spoiled and self-indulgent almost beyond imagination. The second son of Alfonso d'Este and Lucretia Borgia, born in August 1509 in the Italian city of Ferrara, he was fated by the custom of his time and class to enter the church -- to the firstborn son went the Este dukedom and all it entailed -- but he was scarcely more pious than Old Scratch himself. The Estes were "members of the old imperial nobility" and "the powerful rulers of a prosperous state" that "included three major cities: the imperial fiefs of Modena and Reggio, and the papal fief of Ferrara, capital of the duchy." These great holdings produced immense revenue, and Ippolito devoted most of his 63 years to spending as much of it as he could.
The bare outlines of his life provide a vivid picture, at once illuminating and hilarious, of the Roman Catholic Church in these last years before the Counter-Reformation and the "religious austerity" it ushered in. Everything that came to Ippolito was a consequence of his family's wealth or his connections, or a combination of both. At age 9 he was made archbishop of Milan; in gratitude to Pope Leo X, "the young Ippolito gave him a [sic] expensive golden vase worth 600 scudi in return (a skilled craftsman did well to earn 60 scudi a year)." By age 30 he had his cardinal's hat, purchased from the sublimely corrupt Pope Paul III by his elder brother Ercole II for the sum of 40,000 scudi, after which the titles simply poured in: cardinal of Santa Maria in Aquiro ("a small church behind the Pantheon, which dated back to the eighth century"), "Cardinal of Ferrara, Archbishop of Milan and Lyon, two of Europe's most important sees, and Abbott of the lucrative abbeys of Jumièges in Normandy and St. Médard at Soissions." In May 1549, a mere 10 years after his investiture and two years after losing a very close contest for the papacy itself, Ippolito went to Rome "to take up the important and influential position of Cardinal-Protector of France."
As these honors suggest, his life was scarcely insignificant, yet there was more: He was "one of the most important patrons of the arts in Rome, the builder of the magnificent Villa d'Este at Tivoli and the benefactor of the musician Palestrina." Yet though "his artistic achievements have been thoroughly researched by scholars . . . his life and career have so far largely been ignored," this despite vast archives in Modena that "contain over 2,000 of his letters, as well as many written to him, and over 200 of his account books."
It fell to Mary Hollingsworth, a British student of the Renaissance, to "stumble upon" this archive during an unplanned stay in Modena. She immediately recognized the importance of Ippolito's papers, from which she has fashioned this exceptionally interesting book. Not so much a conventional biography as a study of daily life in the court of a 16th-century Italian prince, it is the result of scrupulous research (including, of course, the translation of handwritten Renaissance Italian) and meticulous collation of an immense amount of material. Hollingsworth's narrative is seamless and her prose agreeable, though one wishes her publisher had taken the trouble to Americanize some of the Anglicisms to which she is (understandably) prone.
The real protagonist of Hollingworth's tale is not Ippolito but the household over which he presided. While still in his twenties, Ippolito was the supreme authority in a household to which the word "extended" quite literally applies:
"The 16th-century term for a household was a 'family' ( famiglia ), a word that meant much more then than it does now. When speaking about his 'family,' Ippolito included all his domestic staff -- the men who dressed him, prepared and served his food, made his clothes, looked after his wine and horses, ran his errands and cleaned his palace. Despite the fact that its members came from all walks of life, the household was a close-knit unit. Loyalty was expected, and in return Ippolito was generous towards his men. . . . At the beginning of 1535 Ippolito employed a staff of just twenty-two; by the end of the year he had eighty-two men on his books (there were no full-time women). . . . [He] now had his own courtiers, dining-room staff, cooks, footmen and squires, and even his own pages, young sons of noble families attached to his household to learn the art of court etiquette."
When, in 1535, Ippolito was invited by Francis I to join the French court at Lyon, he took most of his household along for the 450-mile trip. He "had no concept of traveling light (though it should be said in his defense that he was effectively emigrating, not just going on holiday)" and was accompanied by more than two dozen mules and horses "laden with luggage." Arriving at last in the French countryside when Francis was hunting, Ippolito struck up perhaps the most important friendship of his life, for the king took to him immediately and became his loyal sponsor:
"Francis I was 45, seventeen years older than Ippolito. He was a jovial giant of a man, self-confident and handsome, and still retained the energy of his youth. There can be little doubt that he genuinely liked Ippolito. The two men shared the same interests -- hunting, tennis, gambling and women. Ippolito was fun, irresponsibly so at times, and certainly no sycophant. He must have been a welcome change from the French courtiers with their factional rivalries who competed for favour and influence with the King. Ippolito was a guest and he was family, the brother of the King's brother-in-law -- a somewhat broader interpretation of kinship than we are accustomed to use, but very real in sixteenth-century Europe."
Ippolito was in France for about four years, not leaving until it was time for him to assume his cardinal's hat, for which Francis I had lobbied hard and effectively. His time there involved very little work -- the occasional letter home to Ercole II, apprising him of developments in Lyon and Paris, the occasional meeting with Ercole's ambassador -- and a great deal of play. In the French court, "a hive of intrigue and rivalry, fuelled above all by gossip," he was an enthusiastic participant and an assiduous networker. He gambled heavily, hunted and jousted, flirted with the ladies -- to precisely what end is unclear, though since when he set off for France "he left behind either a baby daughter or a pregnant mistress," it seems likely that more than mere courtly chitchat was taking place.
He had a "taste for conspicuous consumption" and delighted in indulging it. He was dandy to the max, "splendidly dressed in silk, velvet and damask -- and fur if the weather was cold." He was a man of the cloth, but he dressed (as he behaved) "like a secular prince, not a prelate, in the standard male attire of the non-clerical world." An inventory of his clothing taken in 1535 listed "over 400 items and 611 shoelaces," only 43 of these items being religious, yet further evidence that he "clearly preferred partying to performing his religious duties."
In the giving of gifts, he was masterful. "It is difficult to overestimate the importance of presents, tips and alms in sixteenth-century Europe," Hollingsworth writes. "Ippolito lost few opportunities to distribute largesse to those beneath him in the social hierarchy or to give extravagant presents to those he needed to impress." For servants and the poor, these were modest, but for the wealthy and powerful they were lavish. Alms "were given in the expectation that God would reward Ippolito," while presents were given in the expectation that the powerful would reward him.
Viewed by the standards of our own time, Ippolito comes across as selfish, jaded, cynical, opportunistic, "the kind of rich secular cleric who goaded reformers to condemn decadence and idleness in the church." But he lived by his own lights and those of his time and class, not by ours, and by those lights he is perhaps rather more kindly judged. He seems to have done little real harm and a modest amount of good, principally through his interest in art and artists. Had he actually risen to the papacy, he probably would have been no better or worse than his immediate predecessors or successors, this being a time when the papacy served not God but Mammon. In the remarkable story of the Borgias and their many offshoots, he is not a footnote but a chapter and, as told in The Cardinal's Hat , an intriguing one indeed. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.