The Possessions of a Cardinal: Politics, Piety, and Art, 1450-1700

July 22, 2010

In this beautifully produced and generously illustrated book, art historians Mary Hollingsworth and Carol Richardson offer case studies on the activities of cardinals as patrons of art and architecture from 1450 to 1700. Its concentration on those religious figures is fully justified in light of cardinals' unique position in Renaissance culture and life. At once, princes of the Church and heirs to both the apostles and the senators of ancient Rome, cardinals had to attend to multiple loyalties and roles.

Officially, they were the devoted advisers to the reigning Pope and the defenders of the Church, but in fact they acted to strengthen the political influence and financial gains of their relatives, compatriots and political patrons. Their ceremonial and social obligations ranged from attending papal mass to hosting banquets for dignitaries and participating in carnivals and pageantries, but their power was real, extending well beyond the spiritual needs of their flock or the administration of the papal states. Cardinals were so deeply involved with diplomacy, wars, territorial conquests, marriage alliances and peace treaties that the ruling dynasties of Europe lobbied with the Pope to have a family cardinal at the papal court in Rome.

As the heirs to the apostles, cardinals were devoted to poverty, but one of their chief duties was extravagant expenditure in the form of munificent charity and lavish lifestyle: a cardinal who lived modestly and who did not donate large sums to the poor was regarded as unsuitable for his rank as prince of the Church.

It is this "splendid paradox" between professing poverty and displaying wealth, to use the felicitous expression of one of the contributors, David Chambers, that required cardinals to become discerning patrons of the visual arts. With unique access to artistic talents and church resources, cardinals built city palaces and countryside villas, family chapels and burial monuments; they amassed magnificent cloths and furnishings and, above all, they passionately collected works of ancient and modern art. Nepotism was the norm in papal Rome, with every new pope nominating nephews as cardinals, with no regard to their vocation or age, to build a circle of trusted advisers, but it also provided for outstanding patrons of the arts. Cardinals reciprocated their uncle's trust, working single-mindedly to enhance family prestige and using papal funds to build family palaces, villas and sepulchres, many of which the book examines.

The main question that the book explores is how cardinals used art and architecture to express their conflicting roles and loyalties, and each essay offers a fascinating immersion in the details of a cardinal's life. We learn how a French cardinal asserted his network of influence in Rome against the French king he was supposed to represent, and we surmise the lavish lifestyle of Cardinal d'Este through the inventory of his rich wardrobe. We imagine Cardinal Bibbiena relaxing in his stufetta, the bathroom of his Vatican apartment lavishly decorated by Raphael's workshop with a parade of Venuses and nude female figures, and we follow how artists lobbied viciously to obtain the patronage of a Medici cardinal.

As it is a collection of essays, this book is necessarily fragmented but, as the editors themselves intend, these in-depth essays may eventually become the building blocks for a synthetic book on cardinals' artistic patronage. However, hints of such a comprehensive study emerge in the present book, especially in relation to cardinals' daily life. For instance, we learn about cardinals' different red hats, such as the large ceremonial hat (galero) and the simpler red beret (biretta); the colour codes of their attire, and the fact that "cardinal purple" actually corresponded to different shades of red, purple and violet; and that red characterised the upholstery of cardinals' entire houses, albeit in different shades. One can only hope that, in building on the research presented in this collection of essays, Hollingsworth and Richardson will take up the challenge and write a much-needed comprehensive book on cardinals as patrons of the visual arts.

The Possessions of a Cardinal: Politics, Piety, and Art, 1450-1700

Edited by Mary Hollingsworth and Carol M. Richardson
Pennsylvania State University Press, 480pp, £54.95
ISBN 97801034683
Published 18 February 2010

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