Important noble family of Rome, leader of the Guelfs, the supporters of the papacy in the long struggle against the empire and the Ghibellines from the twelfth to the sixteenth century. The Orsini, Colonna, savelli, and Conti were among the oldest Roman families. These four families had the greatest prestige in the centuries after 1100; the Orsini and Colonna gradually became the leaders and outlived the Savelli and Conti. All depended on legends and tradition to some extent for their early history. One Orsini legend told of a widow in Flanders whose son was nursed by a domestic bear; this boy, Orso (bear), who gave the family its name, arrived in Rome c. 425 and was given land in Umbria. The Orsini claimed relationship with two medieval popes, stephen ii and St. paul i, and with 17 other saints and blessed persons who lived between 222 and 1330, among them the brothers SS. john and Paul, martyred in 362, St. benedict, and his sister St. Scholastica.
Bl. John Orsini, b. Rome, 1032; d. Trogir (Yugoslavia), 1110–11 (feast, Nov. 14). Before 1073 he was sent with others by Pope Alexander II to prevent a schism in Trogir. Orsini became bishop there in 1100 and kept the see united with Rome. His interest in both the spiritual and civic welfare of the city was recognized by his being declared its patron.
Anti-Ghibelline Activity. The years from c. 1100 to 1562 were of high importance for the papacy-Orsini alliance. Pitted against them were the empire and the colonna. Often the cries resounded in Rome: "Orsi and Holy Church," "The People and Colonna" (see guelfs and ghibellines). From 1144 to 1280 the prestige of the Orsini increased and was higher than that of the Colonna. The first of the Orsini cardinals became Pope celestine iii (1191–98), and he rewarded the family with fiefs for their assistance in defeating the Colonna. From a few villages the possessions of both families had grown to a dozen or more in the thirteenth century, requiring the maintenance of more retainers. Then in 1241 Senator Matteo Rosso Orsini (d. 1246) inflicted a severe defeat on the Colonna. Their houses were destroyed and their fortified mausoleum of Augustus was captured, and Matteo remained powerful in Rome (1241–43). One of his sons, Giovanni Gaetano, became cardinal and later Pope nicholas iii (1277–80). But between 1288 and 1431 the Orsini during three periods were forced to play a secondary role while their rivals dominated the city. First, Pope nicholas iv (1288–92), who had been bishop of Palestrina, the principal Colonna possession, favored the Colonna. They exercised great influence over him; then having become bolder, they dared to challenge Pope boniface viii. The Orsini assisted Boniface in capturing Palestrina, and several Colonna fled to France; but the triumph of the Orsini lasted only until 1303, when Sciarra and Stefano Colonna returned to Rome and were powers there for about 25 years. They made a truce with the Orsini in 1306, but fighting broke out again, and the Orsini achieved no important gains except for a brief interval after Sciarra left Rome in 1328. However, the family did not lose prestige. During the avignon papacy and the western schism (1305–1417) eight members were created cardinals. In the fourteenth century the Orsini added to their holdings Bracciano, a most valued possession for 300 years and the seat of the major branch of the family until it became extinct. With the election of a Colonna as Pope martin v (1417–31), the Colonna family again became powerful. Alarmed by the position of their rival, the Orsini persuaded Martin's successor, Pope eugene iv, to curb the Colonna and helped to destroy Palestrina. Again in the pontificate of sixtus iv, the Orsini family assisted papal troops in defeating the Colonna (1481–84). There were other evidences of the importance of the Orsini: they contracted marriages in 1444 and 1487 with two future kings of Naples, Ferdinand of Aragon and Frederick of Aragon; in 1469, with Lorenzo de' medici; and in 1488, with his son Piero. During these years the Orsini built the great castle at Bracciano.
Cesare borgia's defeat of the Colonna seemed a victory for the Orsini; then he turned on them, and they too lost possessions. Pope julius ii (1503–13) restored properties to both families and brought about a brief reconciliation between them. There were times between 1523 and 1557 when the Orsini were overshadowed or defeated by the Colonna, and the Guelf cause seemed lost. The Ghibellines did not succeed, however, in overthrowing or limiting the temporal power of the papacy. The Orsini and other Guelfs were on the winning side, and they were rewarded for their support. In 1560 Pius IV promoted the Bracciano branch to the rank of duke and bestowed the honor of being one of the two princes in attendance at the papal throne. The Colonna was the other. Another service of the Orsini to the Church was the governing of the states of the church, Orsini bishops and laymen performing the required duties.
Orsini Cardinals. A study of the Orsini cardinals is another way of measuring the importance of the family to the Church. It was natural for the popes to reward their allies; accordingly, the Orsini had more cardinals than the Colonna did during the centuries of conflict; between 1144 and 1562, there were 22 Orsini and only 11 Colonna cardinals. Several times there were two or three Orsini in the college of cardinals at the same time; only twice were there two Colonna. The Orsini had a pope and three cardinals before the first Colonna was created cardinal in 1192 or 1193, and even then the Colonna had to share his honor with an Orsini simultaneously created cardinal. During the Avignon papacy and the Western Schism, eight Orsini and only four Colonna became cardinals. None of the Orsini cardinals was ever so independent as Cardinals Giacomo and Pietro Colonna in Pope Boniface VIII's pontificate, or so aggressive as Cardinal Pompeo Colonna in Pope Clement VII's pontificate. There were two Orsini popes before a Colonna was elected pope, and Martin V proved to be the only Colonna ever to achieve that honor. After the Guelf-Ghibelline conflict became passé c. 1562 and before 1789, another Orsini became Pope benedict xiii; twelve Colonna but only five Orsini became cardinals. The Orsini cardinals (the first date indicates appointment) included Giacinto, 1144, who later became Pope Celestine III; Giordano, 1145 (d. 1165); Pietro, 1181 (d.1181); Bobone, 1182 (d. 1189); perhaps another Bobone, 1192 or 1193; Giovanni Gaetano, 1244, later Pope Nicholas III; Matteo Rosso, 1261–63? (d. 1305); Giordano, 1278 (d. 1287), brother of Nicholas III; Latino Frangipane Malabranca, 1278 (d. 1294), nephew of Nicholas III;
Napoleone, 1288 (d. 1342), another nephew of Nicholas III. Matteo Rosso was the grandson of Senator Matteo Rosso; he participated in 13 election conclaves, including the one that elected his uncle, Pope NicholasIII. He supported Pope Boniface VIII and opposed the French influence that lured the papacy to Avignon. Latino was a student in Paris and prior of the Dominican friary in Rome. Popes Martin IV, Honorius IV, and Nicholas IV consulted him on important questions; Dominican writers call him blessed. Napoleone also studied in Paris. He restored Orvieto and Gubbio to papal obedience under Boniface VIII. In contrast with his cousin Cardinal Matteo Rosso, he worked for the election of Pope clement v, the first pope in Avignon. Philip IV of France gave him a pension.
The fourteenth century numbered other Orsini cardinals, including Francesco, 1295 (d. 1312); Gian Gaetano, or Giovanni, 1316 (d. 1335), a legate in several provinces, opposed the Ghibellines who invited Emperor Louis IV the Bavarian to Rome, withdrew from Rome, and then brought Rome back to papal obedience after Louis's departure—Pope john xxii did not approve of the cardinal's war against the Colonna and ordered him to return to Tuscany. Matteo, 1327 (d. 1340), a nephew of Cardinal Gian Gaetano, a Dominican who taught in Florence, Rome, and Paris (Dominicans call him blessed); Rinaldo, 1350 (d. 1374); Giacomo, or Jacopo, 1371 (d. 1379); Poncello, 1378 (d. 1395); Tommaso, 1379? (d. 1390); and Raimondello, 1381, marked the latter half of the turbulent century. Giordano, 1405 (d.1438), attended the councils of pisa and constance; served as legate in France, England, Hungary-Bohemia for Pope Martin V; visited churches and religious houses in Rome to reform abuses; and as legate at basel supported Pope Eugene IV. Latino, 1448 (d. 1477), was pious and well educated in law; in 1472 he commanded the fleet against the Turks; during an illness Pope Sixtus IV and the college of cardinals visited him; he established a library that was destroyed in the sacking of Rome, 1527. Giambattista, 1483 (d. 1503); Franciotto, 1517 (d. 1533?); and Flavio, 1565 (d. 1581), spanned the sixteenth century. Alessandro, 1615 (d. 1626), spent his youth in Florence at the court of Ferdinand I, his maternal grandfather; served as legate in Ravenna, where he relieved distress during a time of poor harvests and paid peasants for their losses during the delay of court procedures; in Rome he was the patron of G. galilei, engaged in many charitable works, and led an ascetical life. Virginio, 1641 (d. 1676), who gave up his right of inheritance as the firstborn son in order to be a religious, became a knight of malta and won reknown in war against the Turks. Vincenzo Maria (his name in the Dominican Order), 1672, later became Pope Benedict XIII. Domenico, 1743 (d. 1789), a great nephew of Benedict XIII, was made a grandee of Spain by Charles III and served as Ferdinand IV's ambassador from Naples to Rome.
Conclusion. A present-day map of Rome reflects the importance of the family in four place names, three of them streets. One of the streets refers to a palace on Monte Giordano, the site of the Taverna palace today. A few years after the Savelli family became extinct, the Orsini purchased their palace (1717) at the theater of Marcellus. Later it was sold, but it is still called the Orsini palace. In 1834 Pope Gregory XVI confirmed the honor of being princes in attendance at papal functions as the exclusive right of the Orsini and Colonna families. (Special circumstances have on occasion modified this declaration.) It has been exercised by both families into the twentieth century.
Bibliography: p. litta et al., Famiglie celebri italiane, 14 v. (Milan 1819–1923) v. 10. g. moroni, Dizionario de erudizione storico-ecclesiastica, 103 v. in 53 (Venice 1840–61) 27:147; 49:145–172; 55:233–243. l. pastor, The History of the Popes From the Close of the Middle Ages, 40 v. (London-St. Louis 1938–61) 1:293–297; 4:379–384; 5:247–248; 6:125–127, 218; 9: 275–276. l. cÀllari, I palazzi di Roma (3d ed. Rome 1944). g. b. colonna, Gli Orsini (Milan 1955). f. bock, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 7:1241–44.
[m. l. shay]
Orsini, Pier Francesco, Duke of Bomarzo
Journal of Garden History, i/4 (Jan.–Mar. 1984), whole issue;