At the heart of Mary Hollingsworth's marvellous book The Cardinal 's Hat is the kind of discovery that most historians dream of but few accomplish. In the process of researching the 16th-century career of Cardinal Ippolito, Archbishop of Milan and younger brother of Duke Ercole d'Este, Hollingsworth travelled to the state archives in Modena in January 1999 to consult Ippolito's neglected letters and account books. What she unearthed were more than 2,000 letters and 200 account books that provided an intimate portrait of Ippolito's life and times. "What I had stumbled upon," writes Hollingsworth, "was a unique account of life in 16th-century Europe, a detailed record of how a Renaissance prince lived."
Although the archives allowed Hollingsworth to trace Ippolito's life in broad outline, what they really provided was a rich vein of the detailed, everyday transactions that constituted the creation of Renaissance magnificence. Not just Ippolito's tapestries, jewels and silks, but also the shopping lists for food, wine, cutlery, linen, wood, horses and mules - the list is endless and even includes the amount in kilos of fat purchased for greasing saddles and the number of shoelaces owned by Ippolito (611 in all). Hollingsworth trained as an accountant and is the author of two acclaimed studies of patronage in early modern Italy.She explains the social significance of each object and ritual with the adroitness of the scrupulous scholar writing for a wider general readership.
The ease with which she achieves this is primarily due to her subject. As the second son of the Duke of Ferrara, Ippolito d'Este was destined for a life in the church, which in early 16th-century Italy meant a life of ease and pleasure interspersed with diplomatic intrigue and political gossip.
For the first 30 years of his life, Ippolito gave himself over to the single-minded pursuit of excess - hunting, playing cards and organising lavish 18-course banquets (Hollingsworth takes us through each course, what it cost and its culinary significance). But Ferrara was precariously sandwiched between the warring factions of King Francis I and the Emperor Charles V. In 1535, Ippolito was invited to the French court in an attempt to keep Ferrara in the French camp. But Ippolito's main ambition was to use the French king in his search for a coveted cardinal's hat.
As Hollingsworth points out, a cardinal's hat provided the kind of wealth and power equal to that of a prince. The rest of her book follows Ippolito to the French court, his close friendship with the French king and the rivalries and tortuous negotiations that finally led to Ippolito's appointment as cardinal in 1539. Interspersed in this wider political story is a painstaking account of how Ippolito and his retinue adapted to French court life and the endless round of hunting, gambling and gift-giving that assured his rise to political prominence and even impressed Benvenuto Cellini, just one of the many talented craftsmen who benefited from Ippolito's lavish patronage.
The Cardinal's Hat is a splendid book that draws on the latest developments in the analysis of material and the social life of "things" in a readable, compelling manner. The only disappointment is the poor quality of many of the illustrations, composed of low-resolution scans. This is hardly Hollingsworth's fault, but such a tactile, sensuous book deserves better.
Ippolito would not have been impressed.
Jerry Brotton is senior lecturer in Renaissance studies, Queen Mary, University of London.
The Cardinal's Hat: Money, Ambition and Everyday Life in the Court of a Borgia Prince
Author - Mary Hollingsworth
Publisher - Profile
Pages - 308
Price - £18.99 and £8.99
ISBN - 1 86197 750 6 and 770 0