Farnese, House of

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Farnese, House of

During the Renaissance the Farnese, a family of military men and landholders, acquired a duchy* in northern Italy and became a great princely house. In the 1400s Farnese military commanders gained fame in the service of Venice, Florence, and the papacy*. The family also was known for its patronage* of the arts, contributing splendid buildings in Parma and Rome.

The fortunes of the Farnese family improved sharply in 1534 with the election of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese as Pope Paul III. The new pope used his influence to secure important positions for members of his family. Three of his grandsons became cardinals of the church, and a fourth held the office of prefect* of Rome. His son Pier Luigi was named commander in chief of papal troops. Then in 1545 Pope Paul III took church lands to form the duchy of Parma and Piacenza for his family, an action that caused some controversy. Pier Luigi became the first duke.

The Farnese acquired political power, wealth, and prestige through territorial gain as well as marriage alliances arranged by Pope Paul. One of the most important of these alliances was the marriage of his grandson Ottavio to the daughter of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor*. Another important match linked the pope's grandson Orazio and a daughter of French king Henry II.

Among the grandsons of Paul III, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese stands out. Named vice-chancellor of the church while still a teenager, he later became one of the richest cardinals. A shrewd and successful diplomat, Alessandro is remembered primarily as a great art collector and generous patron of the arts. He oversaw the completion of the magnificent Farnese palace in Rome and the building of many churches.

Alessandro's brother Ottavio, duke of Parma and Piacenza from 1547 to 1586, worked hard to preserve the duchy. After the death of Paul III, Ottavio became dependent on the king of Spain, his wife's half-brother. Ottavio's son Alessandro grew up in Spain and gained fame as a military leader for Spain in the wars of Dutch independence. Ranuccio, Ottavio's grandson, ruled Parma from 1592 to 1622. During his long reign Ranuccio constructed massive monuments to the Farnese, including a huge ducal palace in Parma, founded the University of Parma, and brought about an absolutist* state.

The Farnese always sought first to maintain power in the duchy of Parma and Piacenza. Their close alliance with Spain in the 1500s gave way in the 1600s to more complex relations with the Holy Roman Empire, France, and the Italian states. The family line in Parma and Piacenza came to an end in the early 1700s, and the duchy passed through inheritance to the Bourbon family and dynasty of Spain.

(See alsoItaly; Palaces and Townhouses; Popes and Papacy. )

* duchy

territory ruled by a duke or duchess

* papacy

office and authority of the pope

* patronage

support or financial sponsorship

* prefect

chief administrative official

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806

* absolutist

refers to complete control by a single ruler