The Path of Pleasantness
Giulia Vidori, University of Oxford, United Kingdom
Ippolito II d’Este (1509–1572), cardinal and prince of Ferrara, played a crucial role in shaping the political and cultural connections between Italy and France. Seen by his contemporaries as staunchly ‘French’, his life rather followed a difficult balance between the political and spatial entities — Rome, Paris, and Ferrara — through which he continuously moved and from which he derived his power. Following his career as cardinal protector of the Valois crown, royal administrator of Siena on behalf of Henry II, and papal legate to France on the eve of the Wars of Religion, this book argues that Ippolito’s apparent diplomatic access ultimately weakened his family’s position in Italy and left it ill-equipped to compete in the changing politics of the peninsula.
Historiography has not taken a particular interest in Ippolito II d’Este, the secondborn son of Duke Alfonso I of Ferrara and Lucrezia Borgia. When mentioned at all, this princely Italian cardinal has usually been framed as one of the most luminous sixteenth-century examples of artistic patronage, lavish lifestyle and clerical corruption. Meanwhile, his own blatant disinterest in pastoral concerns and his thirst for ecclesiastical benefices have sometimes served as a negative comparison to emphasise the new religious and institutional tensions that were changing the Catholic Church for good.
The fact that, for early modern standards, Ippolito had quite a long life — he died at sixty-three — has helped to cast him as somewhat of an anachronistic character, clinging onto a golden age of exterior splendour in which cardinals were more familiar with Castiglione’s Courtesan than with the Bible. Whilst art historians have long recognised the importance of Ippolito’s artistic patronage both in France and in Italy, not much has been made of his life in relation to the broader events of this time. He stood, however, at the very centre of them. Having been destined by his family to join the clergy in order to take up the legacy of his eponymous uncle (whom Castiglione had indeed mentioned as an example of courtly refinement), Ippolito became a cardinal thanks to his brother’s money and to King Francis I’s influence. His close friendship with Francis I, at whose court Ippolito spent many happy years, was pivotal to kickstarting his career as one of the richest cardinals in the Sacred College, as well as to giving him a reputation for being privy to the French monarch’s plans, especially after he became a member of the Conseil du roi. At the same time, his large household became one of the vessels through which people and culture moved between France and Italy, leading some art historians to see the presence of the cardinal’s artistic entourage in France as the main channel through which the Italian Renaissance arrived into the country. Under Henry II’s reign, not only did Ippolito manage to retain the king’s favour when many did not, but he went on to become the cardinal protector of the French crown, one of the monarchy’s candidates to the pontificate, and, for nearly two years, the administrator of French-occupied Siena on behalf of Henry II.
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