- A Renaissance Baron and His Possessions: Paolo Giordano I Orsini, Duke of Bracciano by Barbara Furlotti
This very thorough, very careful, and handsomely professional work of scholarship handily bridges several confluent streams of scholarship. On one level, it is the life of a famous, or perhaps infamous, Roman baron, long known to novelists [End Page 271] and playwrights as the Orsini duke who first assassinated, by proxy, Isabella, his estranged Medici wife, and then fastened on a beautiful woman, Vittoria Accoramboni, who had an unfortunate impediment, a husband, whom the baron then also contrived to kill. Paolo Giordano eventually did wed his new beloved, and at the end did his very best, when he wrote his will, to set her up as a proper Orsini widow. No sooner was he gone, however, than other Orsini lords had her killed, to secure the succession for the son of the dead Medici wife.
This is history as soap opera, perhaps, but these turbulent doings—though Furlotti recounts them—are not at all the book’s main subject. The other currents Furlotti has bridged belong to art history, for she is interested in how prominent collectors came to own, use, understand, deploy, monitor, and enjoy the fine works with which they ornamented their homes and lives. She treats Paolo Giordano not as the heart-struck thug he may have been, but as a canny, strategic collector, keen to marshal, display, lend, pawn, borrow, give, and catalogue his immense collection of fine objects, be they paintings, tapestries, hangings, clothes, weapons, statues, jewels, coaches, table-ware, or furniture. So the book explores the history of patronage, of brokerage and collecting, and of material culture, to offer a very comprehensive picture of how handsome things were connected to the social politics of high-noble life in the second half of the sixteenth century. However slovenly Paolo Giordano Orsini may have been in love, marriage, or parenthood, he was an attentive and assertive master of his patrimony.
Paolo Giordano’s career, as duke and as patron of the arts, coincided with a great change in what it meant to be a Roman baron. Born in 1541, he came of age in the later 1550s, just as the Counter Reformation began to gel. As an Orsini, he belonged to one of the two greatest of the several magnate families in the papal state; the Colonna were the other. In the later Middle Ages and early Renaissance, these two and the other few great families had been strong enough to shake the papacy itself. With their vast lands and armed retainers, they warred on one another and sometimes menaced Rome. From mid-century, however, the popes worked ever harder to trim their powers and to reduce all barons from feudal potentates to courtiers. It was a classic domestication, on the same pattern as, eventually, almost everywhere in Western Europe, as Renaissance went Baroque. As this change happened, competition shifted from the battlefield to the field of display and agonistic consumption and largess. And, as has long been known, the switch was deadly for the old Roman magnates, as it compelled them to live far beyond their means, forcing them into crushing debt and impelling them to intermarry with a rising curial nobility of hangers-on and kinfolk who flocked to Rome with each new pope. Paolo Giordano did have military ambitions; he fought at Lepanto, though obscurely, but little glory came his way, and the war he waged was all in the new model, in state service, rather than by his means and for his political ends.
That larger picture is not new; Jean Delumeau spelled it out clearly in his classic Vie économique et sociale de Rome (Rome: 1957Rome: 1959). Furlotti’s splendid contribution is to show exactly how the competition played out by tracking the household management of Orsini treasures. She has mined surviving inventories, several of which she publishes here in the original language, as [End Page 272] long appendices, and she has tracked Orsini management of goods...