John Hunt is an assistant professor of History at Utah Valley University and currently a fellow at Harvard’s Villa I Tatti Center in Florence. He is the author of The Vacant See in Early Modern Rome: A Social History of the Papal Interregnum (Leiden: 2016), as well as several articles on various aspects of Roman society in the early modern era that include gambling on papal elections, rumor and the dissemination of news, and male violence. His article, “Carriages, Violence, and Masculinity in Early Modern Rome,” won the I Tatti Prize for Essay by a Junior Scholar of 2014. His current project is about gaming, sociability, and street life in early modern Italy.
Kristen and Cathleen: Thank you, John, for a fascinating article! We had no idea carriages had such an exciting history! To get started, could you give us a sense of what these carriages looked like? Are we talking stagecoaches or maybe Disney princess?
John: Definitely more extravagant Cinderella than plain stagecoach. Just like Julian Munby’s depiction of the state carriages of Elizabeth I of England, the carriages of the elites in Baroque Rome were “Wardrobes on Wheels,” in that they had to be ostentatious in their use of rich ornamentation, so necessary on the conveyance of magnificence and power in the “Teatro del Mondo.” Few carriages from the seventeenth century survive intact (the Museu Nacional dos Coches in Lisbon has a carriage used by Philip III of Spain). Therefore, historians must rely on contemporary prints of festivities as well as written accounts for descriptions of carriages from the period. Most carriages of the elite were lower to the ground and less tall than stagecoaches. Moreover, they were gilded with gold and silver, used velvet and brocade for the curtains, and accoutered the horses’ manes and tails with silk ribbons. The coachmen as well as the pages and grooms that accompanied the carriage were dressed in the ambassador’s or nobleman’s livery. All these elements together could run the cost of tens of thousands of scudi (gold coins) for one carriage, not including the pay of servants, the horses and their upkeep, and the construction of places to park carriages. Finally, by the seventeenth century, keep in mind most ambassadors, cardinals, and noblemen kept at least three or four carriages (although a few of these would be less ornate vehicles used for travel in the countryside).
Kristen and Cathleen: How did the carriage become so popular and move away from its initial status as transportation for women?
John: Noblewomen, ladies, and even courtesans (although papal decrees forbade the latter from doing so) never stopped riding in carriages throughout the early modern era. The great transformation occurred when men, both noblemen and ecclesiastics, began using carriages in the late sixteenth century. It took a while for two reasons. First, most noblemen and gentlemen preferred to ride horses as a way of displaying martial prowess and masculinity. Second, even mild popes such as Pius IV and Gregory XIII inveighed against their use by men, especially cardinals. Only with the reign of Sixtus V did popes give up their moral war against the luxurious carriage. By this time, members of the Roman elite recognized that the carriage was an ideal status symbol, much akin to owning an urban palace and a country villa. Some might also point out this happily coincided with the papacy’s “taming” of the rambunctious Roman Barony, but as my article shows the carriages themselves often provoked a great deal of violence over precedence and etiquette (often tied to political issues). By the early years of the seventeenth century, resident ambassadors and cardinals at the papal court found it necessary not only to ride in carriages during quotidian outings but also to incorporate them into courtly ritual. As I argue in the article, the carriage has become a mobile extension of the casa (both in the sense of the family and of its physical habitation in the city) and, for ambassadors, the state.
Kristen and Cathleen: How did you get started working on carriages and diplomacy?
John: My research broadly focuses on street life in early modern Rome and Italy. This includes how early modern people navigated the city and how they used urban spaces for a variety of social and cultural activities. In the course of doing research on my book, The Vacant See in Early Modern Rome, I became interested in how foreign powers, particularly the kingdoms of France and Spain, made their presence felt in the streets of Rome, beyond the court and the conclave, where scholars generally located diplomatic influence. In following the line of research I discovered how important the carriage was to ambassadors resident in Rome, particularly in the seventeenth century. By then many of the arguments, brawls, and street battles over precedence involved the ambassadorial carriages and their entourages.
Kristen and Cathleen: Your article talks about ambassadors using their carriages to battle for precedence in the streets of Rome. What sorts of sources do you use to trace these events and their results?
John: Even though I have used a lot of judicial trials and criminal records in other research projects, I found that these sources really did not exist for elites and their carriages. Elites were typically above the law. In most cases, coachmen and the pages serving in ambassadorial cortèges are the types of people that can be found in these kinds of records. Therefore I rely mostly on private handwritten newsletters (the avvisi), printed accounts of ambassadorial entries, and private diaries. The diary of the beleaguered Governor of Rome, Giovanni Battista Spada, has proven exceptionally useful. Spada, as the chief magistrate of Rome’s criminal tribunal from 1635 to 1643, kept a running account of all the trouble caused by ambassadors and their carriages.
Kristen and Cathleen: Your article mentions closing the carriage curtains as a deliberate act. How did the opening or closing of carriage curtains play into these battles for precedence?
John: Seventeenth-century courtesy books addressed the arrival of the carriage on the ritual landscape of Rome, a city that had developed a system of ceremonial precedence for elites, especially for the ambassadors and agents of the Catholic powers of Europe and Italy. Etiquette required the ambassadors further down the political and ritual pecking order to give precedence to those of a higher rank upon meeting them in streets. This meant stopping the carriage before the ambassador of greater political worth, opening the curtain, and greeting him as he passed. Failure to perform this ritual correctly was seen as an intentional affront, and indeed, many ambassador sought to dishonor their political rivals by not opening the curtain upon meeting another ambassador. As I mentioned in the article for RSJ, the most famous incident of this occurred between the Taddeo Barberini, the lay nephew of Urban VIII, and the Venetian ambassador, who refused to recognize the elevation of Barberini to Prefect of Rome.
Kristen and Cathleen: Is there any evidence about how the less elite citizens of Rome regarded this jockeying for power via carriage? Was it ever a spectator sport to watch ambassadors square off in their carriages or were encounters not quite so deliberate?
John: Less elite members were probably awed by the spectacle of sumptuous carriages and the large entourages that accompanied them. At the same time they cast a wary eye towards carriages since commoners who failed to get out of the way of moving carriages often suffered serious injury and even death. Moreover, pages armed with clubs preceded the carriages of ambassadors, cardinals, and nobles to clear the path for their masters.
The carriages themselves, rather than the brawls and disputes, more likely caught the attention of the city, both among its elite and non-elite inhabitants. The owners of carriages intentionally rode out in the streets (andare a spasso), specifically to be seen by a citywide audience in order to show off their refined taste and magnificence. Certain areas were considered the best places to perform the “theater” of the carriage, namely Piazza Navona and the via del Corso, the wide street that ran from Piazza del Popolo to Piazza Venezia. Ritual occasions, such as Carnival and the papal possesso, were also times to show off in a carriage. So although elite Romans intentionally performed in their carriages, and part of this performance included deliberate assaults on the honor of rivals, the resulting street battles were something the populace at large sought to stay clear of, best to watch from the safety of their homes.
Kristen and Cathleen: Finally, any particularly juicy carriage stories that you weren’t able to fit into your article but want to share?
John: I can think of a few but one of the most salacious events involving carriages in Rome took place on the first night of Carnival in 1637. On Saturday, February 14, papal constables stopped a rented carriage on the wide via del Corso that contained the courtesan, Checca Buffone, and a servant of the ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire. Both were masked, along with several other unnamed men in the carriage. Papal decrees forbade courtesans and prostitutes from riding in carriages throughout the city. These decrees were difficult to enforce; however, during Carnival season and other festive moments in the year papal police made concerted efforts to repress the activity. It is clear that the bargello wanted to make an example of Checca; she was jailed as punishment for her transgression. Fearing the dishonor that would result from such a public action, the Imperial ambassador and the Cardinal Protector of Germany (Maurice of Savoy) issued petitions to the Governor of Rome, Giovanni Battista Spada, to save Checca. In reality the ambassador and the Cardinal of Savoy were more interested in preserving the reputation of the Holy Roman Empire in Rome. This can be seen by the Governor’s response, which also reveals how carriages had become an extension of diplomatic reputation. Spada told the ambassador and his allies that Checca’s punishment would continue as scheduled “since the woman did not go under the ambassador’s name, nor was she in his carriage.” Yet, the matter did not stop there. Several days later, on Giovedi Grasso (Fat Thursday) armed pages and grooms of the Savoyard cardinal attacked the carriage of Sebastiano Antinori, a gentleman in the service of the cardinal-nephew Antonio Barberni, as he made his way to watch the famous horse races that took place on the Corso. Savoy evidently blamed the Francophile Barberini for the action against Checca and the subsequent tarnishing of the Empire’s reputation.
Kristen and Cathleen: Thank you so much for answering our questions. We look forward to reading your work in the future!