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.

The Ippolito d’Este of The Cardinal’s Hat is a man very much on the make: an ambassador to the court of France under Francis I, a passionate sportsman (real tennis and hunting) and, above all, desperate to be made a cardinal. He is in his mid-twenties, possessed of a splendid income, a strong body and a large network of connections. He is not yet, as Mary Hollingsworth scrupulously notes, the Ippolito who became a great art patron in Rome after his appointment as a cardinal, nor is he ‘the builder of the magnificent Villa d’Este at Tivoli and the benefactor of the musician Palestrina’. He is a self-absorbed, ambitious young man with very few interests or accomplishments that would mark him out as a scion of the cultural Renaissance. Benvenuto Cellini, who claimed Ippolito had an ‘evil nature’, portrayed him as manipulative and untrustworthy, and little in Hollingsworth’s portrait persuades one that Cellini was too far off in his estimate. Why then does Hollingsworth concentrate on those early years of Ippolito’s life, when he was at his least interesting? The answer is simple: the 1530s are the years for which ‘the state archives at Modena contain over 2000 of his letters, as well as many written to him, and over 200 of his account books.’ A gold mine of archival material, especially for a scholar interested in prices, income, forms of patronage and manifestations of conspicuous display.

What on the other hand is one to make of all these numbers? They no more speak for themselves than do written texts, perhaps less so. They need to be interpreted. Knowing that Ippolito’s income was 2000 times greater than his stable boy’s might suggest, for example, a comparison with a contemporary CEO making $100 million whose employees average $50,000. But the equivalence is illusory. The stable boy at 5 scudi a year lived in real misery, especially if he had others to support, while the employee at $50,000 has a certain level of middle-class comfort. More significant, the potentate at 10,000 or 12,000 scudi a year paid no taxes or death duties and was far less bound by laws of bankruptcy, not to mention modern conventions of fiscal probity. It is hard to imagine any free-spending billionaire of our time being allowed to run overdrafts for as long and for as much as Ippolito, who habitually overspent his income.

At one point, Hollingsworth attempts to cross the temporal barrier by telling us that ‘in modern terms, Ippolito wore exquisitely cut suits from Savile Row, his watch was a Rolex and he drove a Porsche.’ The comparison misses the point by relying on brand-names. Ippolito lived in a world where everything was made to order, even the leather-covered wooden crates used by his entourage on their mule journeys between Italy and France. To imagine the scale of Ippolito’s wealth and the energy with which he spent it requires us to imagine a world without instant consumer gratification. Or, perhaps, more accurately, to imagine a world in which the brand-names that conveyed status were the names of artists such as Cellini. To own a salt-cellar or jug and basin by him was something rather different from driving the fashionable car of the moment to your country club.

Hollingsworth begins with ‘a note on money’ that explains the various currencies circulating in 16th-century Italy and France. This is useful in a book that goes on to tell us the price of everything: shoelaces, chickens, embroidered collars, paintings, tapestries, gilded sword-hilts, luxury fabrics by the metre, wine both new and vintage, bed linen, firewood, spices, mules, leather wall-hangings from Spain. In early May, we learn, artichokes in Lyon were five for a scudo; by the end of the month, 15. Either way, that scudo’s-worth of artichokes represented 20 per cent of the stable boy’s annual earnings. Hardly a page passes without some object or commodity being priced and then translated into equivalents. At one point or another, Hollingsworth identifies as being worth one scudo: a whole calf, 12 capons, four kids, a half metre of black velvet, six days’ wages for a master-builder, about 638 logs for the fire, a tip to a street musician who played for Ippolito.

With these relative values in mind, Hollingsworth’s detailed estimate for a single outfit of clothing – shirt, doublet, coat, boots, gloves, but no hat – runs to 96 scudi or, more vividly, four years’ wages for the chief cook. Her inventory of Ippolito’s everyday clothes for 1535 suggests that he would have been able to put together at least ten such outfits, though he might have had to rough it by wearing some of his seven linen shirts twice. All this pricing and inventorying makes The Cardinal’s Hat fascinating reading at times, if only for the voyeuristic pleasure of looking into someone else’s account books and the opportunity to feel superior by asking: what would I do if I lived in the 1530s and had 10,000 a year? Surely not copy Ippolito’s vulgar and careerist spending on his household and wardrobe, or on gifts for those who could help him to get his coveted red hat. Perhaps buy a Bellini or Mantegna or Giorgione? At this point in his life, Ippolito in fact owned ten paintings, none by a great artist and all seemingly genre pieces that would have gone well with the decor of his palace. One imagines some of his religious paintings hanging in public rooms to display his piety, and the two female figures in his bedroom.

Hollingsworth was once an accountant and is now a member of the Material Renaissance Research Project, whose main interest, according to its website, is ‘the comparative prices of different types of goods in Renaissance Italy over both time and place’, along with ‘the gendered nature of Renaissance consumption’ and ‘how social communities of buyers and sellers were formed’. Given which, it is perhaps surprising that The Cardinal’s Hat contains little gender analysis of a sort that might have been illuminating. For instance, if Ippolito’s average outfit cost 96 scudi, what would that of a woman of the French or Ferrarese court have cost? Hollingsworth meticulously details even Ippolito’s winnings and losses at gambling, and the only expenses she is evasive about are the occasional sums paid to ‘women tipped for their favours’ or a woman who ‘accommodated Ippolito’ in some unspecified manner when he was out hunting. Not once, as far as I can recall, does Hollingsworth use a word like ‘whore’ or ‘prostitute’ when she can substitute a euphemism. This is strange in a book that otherwise insists on getting every person’s professional title and responsibilities exactly right, suggesting a reluctance to factor in the cost of pleasure because it had no value as conspicuous display. More typically, she details the expense of a sumptuous banquet of 18 courses with the same fiduciary sobriety as the cost of transporting firewood from Ippolito’s country estates to his town house in Ferrara, or of his winnings at cards from the elite of the French aristocracy. These costs matter because each relates to Ippolito’s public career.

Hollingsworth is rather too literally concerned with ‘the direct relationship between rank and display’, a claim she advances with reference to Alfonso I but which certainly applies to her portrait of his second son. With this approach, every expenditure becomes equally meaningful, every entry in the ledger receives the same degree of scholarly attention. It would be more intriguing to consider, for example, how Ippolito’s winnings and losses at cards might have advanced or hindered his personal ambitions as well as the political aims of his family in Ferrara. Could a gambling loss be a tacit and face-saving form of bribery, especially if it ran to several hundred scudi, as was sometimes the case?

There is troublingly little sense in The Cardinal’s Hat of what it meant to be poor, and more specifically, of what it meant to be one of the poor who worked in the fields and vineyards so that Ippolito could indulge his every material desire from embroidered shirts to a valuable mule (for 80 scudi). Hollingsworth does devote a chapter to the typical agricultural year:

April was a particularly busy time in the stables. The new foals had started to arrive in March, and the covering of the mares that were in season was about to start. Several extra loads of barley were delivered from the granary – some of this was to nourish the weaker foals, but most of it was to strengthen the stallions for their exertions (there was nothing extra for the mares). The covering season lasted until the end of June and meant a lot of extra work for the stable boys.

The extra work was not, I suspect, accompanied by extra bread rations, though the stable boys were tipped at the end of the season with salami and smoked ham. The model for this agricultural year is clearly the device of ‘the labours of the months’ that appeared in medieval books of hours and on cathedral portals. Yet, as Hollingsworth seems not to recognise, those labours were never meant to give an accurate account of an agricultural labourer’s existence. They proclaimed instead the divinely ordained annual cycle that was in large measure responsible for the agricultural surplus that enabled the production of beautiful manuscripts and stone carvings. In Hollingsworth’s book, the ‘labours’ seem too soft-focused to convey anything of the lives and work of those who made Ippolito’s spending possible. In other instances, they are described from the point of view not of labourers but of their overseers, as in this reference to Ippolito’s business agent: ‘October was one of Fiorini’s heaviest months – he took only one day off, a Sunday. He filled in 25 pages of expenditure, and three of income, making this easily the longest month in the ledgers. Moreover, his assistant, Francesco Guberti, was away for ten days overseeing the loading and shipping of wheat from Ippolito’s estates in the Romagna.’

To present the sources of Ippolito’s wealth in this way seems at odds with Hollingsworth’s espousal of a ‘material’ Renaissance, in which the cost of every object is measured to the last penny. Material in this book refers only to the expenditure of the wealthy, not to the wretchedness of the poor. There is nothing even vaguely Marxist or culturally materialist in Hollingsworth: hers is a material history written from above. The choice is defensible because it yields a great deal of intriguing data about the price of things in the 1530s. The paradox, however, is that this can make a reader normally sceptical of Marxist or rigidly materialist historiography into something of a convert to it. For after a few pages the book’s meticulous attention to the cost of everything and the value of nothing comes to seem complicit in the practices it documents.

The largest sum quoted in The Cardinal’s Hat is an estimate for the cost of the war waged by Francis I against Charles V in 1537: 2,500,000 scudi, or the annual wages of 500,000 stable boys or the price of 37,500,000 artichokes in season. That’s real money, and much of it probably went on destroying the material glories of the Renaissance.