Via Media

I finally finished reading this book, while waiting at the DMV or whatever they call it here (I actually don’t mind experiences like that – the DMV is the great leveler. Everyone’s there, because you can’t have your nanny go get your driver’s license on your behalf. I sat next to a Latina who was talking to someone on her cel phone about the hurricane, and, as a former South Florida resident, with great energy about why Miami is, in her view, such a horrible place to live – don’t take your purse, she said, if you go out. Don’t wear any jewelry. They won’t come back with you. The little family sitting across from me was a married couple and their three extremely well-behaved children. They were earth Mama and Daddy, in Birkenstocks, long hair (both of them), and she in some t-shirt proclaiming she’d climbed some height in Australia. As I said, the children were so sweet and they seemed so content with each other that it was a delight to sit there and (secretly) contemplate one more happy family, in a time when all you hear about is the unhappiness.)

So anyway, I finished the book, which is about the daily life and times of Ippolito d’Este, a 16th century nobleman and prince of the Church, researched from the quite complete ledger of purchases, expenditures, travels and even gambling debts, not to speak of letters, left behind and discovered by the author:

It fell to Mary Hollingsworth, a British student of the Renaissance, to "stumble upon" this archive during an unplanned stay in Modena. She immediately recognized the importance of Ippolito’s papers, from which she has fashioned this exceptionally interesting book. Not so much a conventional biography as a study of daily life in the court of a 16th-century Italian prince, it is the result of scrupulous research (including, of course, the translation of handwritten Renaissance Italian) and meticulous collation of an immense amount of material. Hollingsworth’s narrative is seamless and her prose agreeable, though one wishes her publisher had taken the trouble to Americanize some of the Anglicisms to which she is (understandably) prone.

The real protagonist of Hollingworth’s tale is not Ippolito but the household over which he presided. While still in his twenties, Ippolito was the supreme authority in a household to which the word "extended" quite literally applies…

Well, it’s sort of interesting, until you get past the first 50 pages and get the routine: The guy had A LOT of stuff and his managers were VERY BUSY taking care of him and BUYING HIS STUFF. There’s plenty of family context, but not nearly enough religious context because the average reader will certainly be puzzled that a man who was a Cardinal and held two Archbishoprics by the 1530’s wasn’t ordained a priest until 1564. That merits much more explanation than a sentence about the "secular Renaissance Church."

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