The Price of Artichokes

Nicholas Howe

  • The Cardinal’s Hat: Money, Ambition and Housekeeping in a Renaissance Court by Mary Hollingsworth
    Profile, 320 pp, £8.99, April 2005, ISBN 1 86197 770 0

How excessive was the excess of the past? Scott Fitzgerald may have decided that the very rich are different from you and me, but they live in our own time; so we can begin to comprehend their wealth, even when spent on private jets, triplex penthouses or million-dollar birthday parties. The scales for measuring wealth in the past seem less certain, when the contemporary value of a pound or louis or scudo is difficult to fix except in terms of relatively abstract comparisons. It helps to know that in 16th-century Italy, however, a stable boy could earn five scudi a year, a chief cook 24, and a steward 62, along with some of their meals and other perquisites; and these numbers can be set beside the average annual income of 10,000 or 12,000 scudi of a potentate on the rise such as Ippolito d’Este (1509-72), second son of Alfonso I, Duke of Ferrara, and Lucrezia Borgia. With parents like this, one is not surprised to learn that Ippolito made a good start on the road to wealth and position when he was named archbishop of Milan at the age of nine.

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