The Cardinal's Hat by Mary Hollingsworth

A shopaholic's guide to the Renaissance
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The Independent Culture

If it were bliss to be alive in Italy during the Renaissance, surely it would have been very bliss to be a painter. But Jacomo Fiorini, perhaps the real hero of this book, abandoned painting to be a book-keeper. We should not judge this career change in the light of assumptions about the conflict between art and commerce. Accountancy was a Humanist art; its founder, Luca Pacioli, had worked with Leonardo da Vinci on a book about the human body.

If it were bliss to be alive in Italy during the Renaissance, surely it would have been very bliss to be a painter. But Jacomo Fiorini, perhaps the real hero of this book, abandoned painting to be a book-keeper. We should not judge this career change in the light of assumptions about the conflict between art and commerce. Accountancy was a Humanist art; its founder, Luca Pacioli, had worked with Leonardo da Vinci on a book about the human body.

Fiorini kept the books of his employer, Monsignor Ippolito d'Este. Much of his paperwork survives in the archive he left it in, and from it Mary Hollingsworth has produced this book for the general reader. She concentrates on the years 1534 to 1539, during which Ippolito inherited the Palazzo San Francesco and much else on the death of his father, began a career as an amateur diplomat and was appointed a Cardinal at the age of 29. This was not the meteoric ascent it might appear. Ippolito had held high office for 20 years, since he had been consecrated Archbishop of Milan aged nine.

If the book has a weakness, it is that sometimes Hollingsworth is too eager to persuade us that we can take the experiences of Ippolito's household and our own as like for like. Her claim that we should take Ippolito's elaborate doublets and jewelled rosaries as the equivalent of a Savile Row suit and a Rolex watch is misleading. All four may be status symbols, but our ideas of what status is are completely different from Ippolito's. Whether we regard the wearer of a Rolex as displaying the fruits of hard work or fat-cat cunning, we believe him or her to be in command of their destiny.

Ippolito, like all his peers, believed his destiny was beyond his control and lived in terror of disgrace. He did not understand disgrace as being found out - his faults were plain to see, often energetically displayed - but as the turn of fortune's wheel which in an instant could make a somebody a nobody. His accounts show that he spent much on both supernatural and practical precautions against this.

Hollingsworth is excellent at teasing out the complex web of present giving, the exchange of obligations through which Ippolito kept disgrace at bay. But she is shy about the savagery this system of patronage produced. In passing we learn that Ippolito's horse trainer has gone to Florence to buy a bay horse. The bay is on the market because its previous owner, Alessandro de Medici, has been murdered by a cousin. Ippolito's mother's first marriage (she was the unjustly infamous Lucrezia Borgia) ended when her husband was strangled on the orders of her brother. In sketching Ippolito's childhood, Hollingsworth mentions that two of Ippolito's uncles lived at home. Indeed they did, confined to a dungeon for the attempted murder of his father. We should read Ippolito's correspondence with his older brother Ercole, and its mutual profession of love, with such events in mind.

The strength of this book is the details of the life which plodded on regardless of history: the counting of logs, the making of salami, the annual journey of Ippolito's falconers across the Alps to bring the birds home to moult. This is the world Auden saw in the works of the Old Masters: "the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree."

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