Princes of the Renaissance: The Hidden Power Behind an Artistic Revolution

Written by Hollingsworth Mary
Review by Susan Lowell

This gorgeous illustrated book tells many wonderful stories. Its main characters are “princes” in the broad sense of powerful rulers, as Machiavelli and Queen Elizabeth I used it. Many princes were female, though unlike Elizabeth, they usually acted as deputies or regents for barons, dukes, and kings.

Hollingsworth’s convincing argument is that these lesser lords and ladies had a greater effect than is often supposed on the development of humanism, art, architecture, scholarship, and literature. In this small city-state world (Mantua, Milan, Ferrara, Verona, Padua, Modena, Naples) princes were usually condottieri, or professional soldiers, who sold their services wherever they could in the constantly shifting alliances of the time. But enough of them also became important patrons of the arts to make their lovely city-states well worth a visit to this day.

This is the story of bastards and mistresses, mercenaries and murderers, great artists and sycophantic courtiers. It includes three-year-old brides, eight-year-old archbishops, and teenagers showered with cardinals’ hats like red sports cars. Their lives were sometimes violent, sometimes luxurious, but rarely long. Blood went hand in hand with beauty, and family power was the supreme goal. War was endemic; marriage was a political move; and princely boys (soldiers) and girls (child bearers) were chess pieces. Illegitimacy wasn’t a major handicap: bastards were still family, even—or especially—if the pope was their papa.

Hollingsworth, a noted Renaissance historian, is the author of previous work on the Medici and the Borgias, and she possesses the great gift of clarity in thought and word. She makes this intricate web of family relationships and political shenanigans both comprehensible and entertaining.