The Cardinal’s Hat, Mary Hollingsworth
This book drew me in. I was a bit reluctant when I first started reading it, but as I got more into the story, I became much more interested. This book is part-history, part-biography and tells a fascinating story of life in Renaissance Italy and France, focusing specifically on the life of Ippolito d’Este.
Ippolito d’Este was the archbishop of Milan and this book details, in part, his route to becoming a cardinal. Mary Hollingsworth researched this book using archives of documents at Modena and one of the most fascinating things about it is discovering how much of the story of a life can be gleaned from documents such as bills, inventories and letters. Chapter Two was particularly interesting, as it contains a reconstruction of Ippolito’s household – describing the members of staff who worked there and the physical appearance of his home. There is, for example, a highly-detailed description of his bedroom, including decorative items. When visiting homes from the sixteenth-century today they sometimes lack the textiles and other decorative objects that would have been present in the past, and therefore can seem austere to modern eyes. The high level of detail that Hollingsworth has gleaned from the archives corrects this impression, ensuring that the reader sees in her mind’s eye the real sumptuousness of Ippolito’s surroundings. It provides a little bit of insight into daily life, albeit for a very wealthy household.
The nature of this book provides an interesting combination of everyday life and larger political events. During the period covered by the book, Ippolito spends a significant amount of time in France with François I and we are therefore see the conflict between Charles V and the French king through the lens of his experiences. Although this was interesting, particularly in the context of Ippolito’s attempt to acquire a coveted position as a cardinal, it was really the juxtaposition of this with the details of everyday life which I found the most interesting.
The only criticism I have is that the story ends fairly abruptly. I’m not sure why this is – perhaps the archive did not cover a later period in Ippolito’s life – but it was a shame. For example, there is no explanation as to what happened to Ippolito in later life. We know that he eventually became a cardinal, but we are left somewhat in the dark as to Ippolito’s eventual fate. This is, however, a minor criticism and I would otherwise recommend this book as a little window into everyday, albeit affluent, Renaissance life.