A Family Enterprise: The Curial Career of Federico IV Borromeo (1617-1673)

This project is funded through the “Doc.CH” scheme of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).



This project reconstructs the career of cardinal Federico IV Borromeo (1617-1673) by placing it in the broader context of the reproductive strategies of his Milanese family.

In studying curial careers in seventeenth-century Rome, historians of diplomacy and the nobility have both stressed the centrality of what could be dubbed the “family administration” and is best described as the administering of secular and ecclesiastical affairs with the support and often to the benefit of the office-holder’s family. Drawing on exceptional source material, including Borromeo’s extensive correspondence with his mother and several brothers, this project seeks to elucidate the inner workings of one such family enterprise. Building on a long tradition of research on social networks centered on the court of Rome, the study places particular emphasis on the role of gendered cultural and social capital in the Borromeos’ venture. Specifically, the dissertation probes how male and female, celibate and noncelibate family members contributed to Borromeo’s success by playing distinct, yet complementary gendered social roles.

The aims are twofold. On the one hand, the project seeks to reconstruct the logic behind an understudied mode of aristocratic rule. Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of capital is used to make sense of what Catherine Fletcher and Jennifer Mara DeSilva have called the surprising “willingness of entire families to contribute to the success of one member’s venture” underpinning the early modern “family administration.” In particular, Bourdieu’s notion of “symbolic labor” is used to suggest that office-holding enabled families like the Borromeos to convert material capital into the ultimate marker of social distinction in court society: symbolic power.

On the other hand, the project also seeks to show how this familial politics became increasingly contested at mid-century and how the Borromeos reacted to the advent of a new, more bureaucratic conception of office-holding. Using Bourdieu’s concept of field, the project examines Borromeo’s precarious position at the intersection of multiple spheres, which overlapped and sometimes clashed with each other. Building on recent research on conflicting norms in the early modern period, the project probes how Borromeo and other members of his family tried to reconcile the rival interests of the papacy, the king of Spain, and their family.

As a microhistorical study of one exemplary curial career, A Family Enterprise addresses a number of historiographical concerns.  A case study of one Milanese office-holder in the court of Rome, the project makes a contribution not only to the study of the function of the papacy among the early modern Italian nobility but the latter’s attempts to pit the pontiff against his major worldly contender in the peninsula: the king of Spain. As such, this study promises to complicate our understanding of papal-Spanish rule in the Italian peninsula. Specifically, it sheds new light on the apogee and crisis of an understudied mode of aristocratic rule—the “family administration”—and, by extension, such fundamental historical processes as bureaucratization and state-formation in Baroque Italy.

Federico Borromeo, Jr. (1617-1673)