Tuesday, April 12, 2022


 John W. O'Malley, Trent (Harvard University Press [Cambridge, MA: 2013]):

By now the ostentatious lifestyle of some of the cardinals had reached absurd standards. In the sixteenth century the average size of a cardinal's household (famiglia) was 100. Even after Trent, Carlo Borromeo, the most famous exemplar of a "reformed" cardinal-bishop, had a household of 150. An inventory of the wardrobe and other possessions of Cardinal Ippolito d'Este (1509-1572) ran 600 pages and listed, for instance, 79 pairs of gloves and over 50 red birettas.

...In an official list compiled in May 1514, the pope's major-domo listed a household staff of 683 persons--244 holding high office, 174 lower officials, and 244 servants. (pp. 37-38)

While the book is worth reading, this particular passage seems to me to betray a very 21st-century American idea of what a famiglia is, where we often assume that a household would consist entirely of maids and butlers. We tend to think of corporate firms as the most efficient forms of organization, which is why all forms of administration tend to approximate the ways of doing things that have become common in corporate firms. In the Renaissance, the innovations that would eventually lead to this way of thinking were only just beginning to be developed. For them, and for everyone before them, the most effective and efficient organization of administering anything was the household (famiglia). Indeed, a lot of things that we outsource to businesses would have been done in the household instead. The Medici Bank did not have a 'corporate headquarters'; it was run by the Medici famiglia. Lorenzo de'Medici would not have had a separate 'office' separate from his household; all of the accountants and secretaries he (or for that matter, anyone in his family) used in the running of the bank were part of his famiglia. The same is true for royal governments, which is why many of the older positions of governmental authority have household names like 'Grand Cupbearer' and 'Keeper of the Wardrobe'. Sometimes they would be something like the real cupbearer or real keeper of the clothes and armor given additional duties; later they would be people who were given the honorary position in the household, with a whole set of duties of its own, while someone else did the literal work the title suggests. Governments were run on a household model.

In saying that the average cardinal's famiglia had 100 people, then, we have to keep in mind that this would have included not just personal, house, grounds, and stable staff, but also all administrative staff and paid advisors.  The famiglia of a bishop would include everyone who worked directly under the bishop. For instance, by my estimate, the employees of the modern-day Diocese of Austin who would plausibly have been counted in the Renaissance as part of the episcopal  famiglia is somewhere around 50 at least, and may be as much as 100 (for an archdiocese of a large metropolitan area like Chicago or New York it would number considerably more than a thousand). And this is more interesting in that we live in the Age of Machines, in which electricity, plumbing, and petroleum allow us to automate things that would originally have had to be supervised by human beings. A cardinal would have had to maintain a stable with groomsmen to care for the horses 24/7, so that he could do the travel and send the messages that the curial work of a cardinal might require, and if he didn't have someone who specialized in actually driving a carriage for extended distances and bad weather, it would mean that he was very hard up. We make the Bishop of Austin drive himself everywhere in a machine that only needs to be maintained occasionally, so there is no need for continual maintenance. A cardinal would continually have to receive guests (including messengers from other people whom he would have to put up), in a house with no electricity, no plumbing, and no sewer, and thus every area of life which these things automate would have to be overseen by what we would call a hospitality staff.  A hundred people is not very ostentatious, particularly if that were the average. Cardinals by the nature of their position would have a relatively large administrative staff.

For a not-entirely-fair comparison, the people who would be included in the famiglia of the President of the United States if the President were a Renaissance magistrate is around 1500 people at least, and perhaps even approaches twice that, depending on exactly where one draws the line. 'The White House' is just our name for the Presidential famiglia, although there are federal employees who don't literally work in Executive Mansion who would also be part of the famiglia, like the staffs at Camp David and the Presidential Guesthouse, and everyone whose job involves maintaining and flying the presidential plane. And, again, this is in the Age of Machines, where many things are automated that in the Renaissance would have had to be directly overseen by someone.

Or to take a different point of comparison. Highclere, the real-life Downton Abbey when it is not being used to film Downton Abbey, is mostly structured as a self-maintaining estate, and therefore does not have a large administrative staff the way a government household would; it has a somewhat variable staff of about 60 to 150. (The upper end of this is about what it takes just to maintain Camp David for the President; it is on the high side for administering something like Highclere, and largely due to the fact that it is going through an unusually prosperous and busy time because of tourism.)

Now, of course, the reason why the Papal Household had expanded so massively over the Renaissance is that the demands on the papacy expanded. This is not to say that the expansions were efficient or that there was no frivolous expansion (both we know to be often false); but the governing principle in even imprudent expansion of the papal household would not be ostentation but administrative bloat. The closest analogy would be modern universities, whose administrations have exploded in size, sometimes to handle demand, sometimes to handle new administrative requirements, sometimes to expand services, sometimes because administrators think that the solution to problems is to hire more administrators, and sometimes because employing more administrators is a way to tell everyone that you are a profitable and prestigious university.

So household size is not a very good indicator of ostentation. Cardinal d'Este's wardrobe is a better one, although the Renaissance is a transitional period in which modern banking is beginning but the wardrobe is still a common form of savings account -- clothing being relatively easy to buy, easy to store, easy to transport, easy to track if stolen, people would sink money into it for a rainy day, and all you would have to do is make sure that it was properly stored away from wet and moths. Cardinal d'Este was the younger brother of the Duke of Ferrara, one of the wealthiest Italian families, so it is very unsurprising that he has a large savings that he can draw on at any time. The better sign of ostentation would not be whether you had nice clothes, but whether you wore very nice clothes in the ordinary wear-and-tear of everyday life, rather than keeping them carefully locked away for the very most important occasions or some rainy day when the budget is tight. Cardinal d'Este's everyday clothes, like those of a modern-day Wall Street financier or, for that matter, a Senator, would have been considerably nicer than most people's special-occasion clothes.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.