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One of the most ancient and distinguished families of the Roman nobility, whose members often played an important rôle in the history of Italy, particularly in that of Rome and of the Papal States.

The Roman or principal line of the family, from which branched off a series of collateral lines as time went on, may be traced back into the early middle Ages, and a legendary ancestry goes back even as far as early Roman times. The Roman line, as well as its branches, had large possessions in Italy and were the rulers of numerous and important dominions, fortified towns, and strongholds. In Rome, the Orsini were the hereditary enemies of the equally distinguished Colonna : in the great medieval conflict between papacy and empire, the latter were for the most part on the side of the emperor and the leaders of the Ghibelline party, while the Orsini were ordinarily champions of the papacy and leaders of the Guelph party. The Orsini gave three popes to the Church -- Celestine III, Nicholas III, and Benedict XIII -- as well as many cardinals and numerous bishops and prelates. Other members of the family distinguished themselves in political history as warriors or statesmen, and others again won renown in the fields of art and science. The wars between the Orsini and Colonna form an important part of the medieval history of Rome and of Central Italy. Forming as they did a part of the conflicts waged by the emperors in Italy, they influenced in a very prominent manner the general historical development of that time.


Among the cardinals of the Orsini family who were distinguished in the history of the Church , as well as in ecclesiastico-political history, the following are especially worthy of mention:--

(1) MATTEO ROSSO ORSINI, nephew of Cardinal Gaetano Orsini (later Pope Nicholas III ), created a cardinal by Urban IV in December, 1262; d. 4 Sept., 1305 (according to some authorities, 1306). As legate for the provinces of the Patrimony of Peter and of the Marches, he fought against Peter de Vico , who, in the name of Manfred, invaded the papal territory with German mercenaries. Soon after the elevation of his uncle, Nicholas III, to the papal throne (1277), he was named by this pope archpriest of the Vatican Basilica, rector of the great Hospital of the Holy Ghost in Vatican territory, and cardinal protector of the Franciscan Order. After the death of Nicholas III (1280), the cardinals assembled in Viterbo for the election of his successor, but, owing to party dissensions, many months passed before a decision was reached. The party which inclined towards the French, and which had the support of Charles of Anjou, King of Naples, himself present in Viterbo, wished to elect an exponent of the policy of France, and chose as their candidate the French Cardinal Simon. However, the two cardinals Orsini, Matteo Rosso and Giordano, the latter a brother of the deceased pope, Nicholas III, energetically opposed this choice. As neither party could command the necessary majority, no election resulted. In February, 1281, the French party resolved to have recourse to a bold stroke. At the instigation of the marshal of the conclave, Annibaldi, who was at variance with the Orsini, citizens from Viterbo suddenly attacked the anti-French cardinals, and took prisoners the two Orsini, carrying them away from the conclave and holding them in custody. The candidate of the French party was now elected pope under the name of Martin IV (22 February, 1281), whereupon Giordano was released, and afterwards Matteo Rosso. The instigator of the attack was excommunicated and the city of Viterbo placed under an interdict. When the news of the capture of the two Cardinals Orsini was received in Rome, great confusion ensued. Their relatives were driven from the city by the adherents of the Annibaldi, but were later recalled by Martin IV, with whom the Cardinals Orsini had become reconciled. During the conflict between Boniface VIII and Philip the Fair of France, it was Cardinal Matteo who, having remained faithful to the persecuted pontiff, brought Boniface back to Rome after the attack of Anagni (1303). Cardinal Matteo attended the numerous conclaves held between 1254 and 1305, there being no less than thirteen. He died in Perugia in 1305 or 1306. His body was later transferred to Rome, where it lies in the Orsini Chapel in St. Peter's .

(2) NAPOLEONE ORSINI, son of Rinaldo, a brother of Pope Nicholas III, b. 1263; d. at Avignon, 24 March, 1342. In his youth he embraced the ecclesiastical state, was appointed papal chaplain by Honorius IV (1285-7), was created Cardinal Deacon of S. Adriano by Nicholas IV in May, 1288, and later, under Clement V was named archpriest of St. Peter's. Commissioned by Pope Boniface VIII, he brought Orvieto back to its submission to the Holy See, shortly after which the pope named him legate for Umbria, Spoleto, and the Curia on 27 May, 1300, returning, however, on 28 May, 1301. During this time he had to combat various enemies of the Roman Church , and recovered the city of Gubbio for the pope. He was entrusted with his second papal legation by Clement V. Leaving Avignon, which was at that time the residence of the Curia, he set out on 8 March, 1306, for the Papal States with the commission to make peace between the parties which were everywhere at variance, and to bring back the various states of the Roman Church to their allegiance to the pope. This mission occupied more than three years, terminating on 12 June, 1309. Cardinal Napoleone played an important part during the political disturbances of the time. At first an opponent of the Colonna and their ambitions, he later became a promoter of French policy and entered into close relations with the French rulers. At the election of Clement V and John XXII he exercised a decisive influence, but subsequently became an enemy of the latter. He upheld the Franciscan Spirituals, and espoused the cause of King Louis of Bavaria against the pope. A cardinal for fifty-four years, he took part in the election of seven popes ( Celestine V to Clement VI ), on at least three of whom he placed the tiara. He is also known as an author, having written a biography of St. Clare of Montefalco.

(3) GIAN GAETANO ORSINI, prothonotary Apostolic, raised to the cardinalate by Pope John XXII in December, 1316; d. 1339 (or, according to some sources, 27 August, 1335). In 1326 he was sent to Italy as papal legate for certain lands belonging to the Papal States, and remained there until 1334. He endeavoured, though with little success, to bring back several rebellious states and vassals to their allegiance to the Apostolic See , excommunicated the obstinate Castruccio of Lucca and Bishop Guido Tarlato of Arezzo, as both supported the Visconti of Milan in their conflict against the pope, and, after the coronation of King Louis the Bavarian in Rome in 1327, placed that city under an interdict. After the departure of the excommunicated emperor, the legate entered Rome with the army of King Robert of Naples, whereupon the people once more agreed to recognize the suzerainty of the pope. John XXII , however, refused to sanction the war undertaken by the cardinal legate against the Colonna, and ordered him to return to Tuscany. In November, 1328, he opened a campaign against the cities of Corneto and Viterbo, which submitted to the pope in the following year. The years between 1334 and his death he passed in Avignon.

(4) MATTEO ORSINI, d. probably on 18 August, 1340. He entered the Dominican Order, completed the full course of theology, obtained the Degree of Master, and taught theology at Paris, Florence, and Rome. He won great distinction by his zeal for the spread of the order, and was appointed provincial of the Roman province in 1322. In this capacity he became a member of the embassy deputed by the Romans to invite John XXII to transfer his residence to the Eternal City. On 20 October, 1326, the pope named him Bishop of Girgenti (Sicily), but shortly after (15 June, 1327) transferred him to the archiepiscopal See of Liponto (Manfredonia, Southern Italy ), made him Cardinal-Priest of S. Giovanni e Paolo on 18 December, 1327, and Cardinal-Bishop of Sabina on 18 December, 1338. He continued in various ways to promote the welfare of the Dominican Order, richly endowing the Convent of St. Dominic in Bologna.

(5) GIACOMO ORSINI, created cardinal-deacon by Gregory XI on 30 May, 1371, d. at Vicovaro or at Tagliacozzo, 1379. He was distinguished for his knowledge of the law. Appointed papal legate in Siena in 1376, he was a strong supporter of Gregory XI. In the conclave of 1378, he espoused the cause of Urban VI, but later attached himself to the antipope Clement VII.

(6) PONCELLO ORSINI, Bishop of Aversa (Southern Italy ) from 19 June, 1370, d. 2 February, 1395. He was created cardinal-priest with the title of St. Clement at the great consistory convoked by Urban VI on 28 September, 1378. He became papal legate, and at first worked zealously for the interests of Urban VI after the outbreak of the schism. Later, however, repelled by the impetuous procedure of the pope, he secretly left the Curia and took up his abode upon his own possessions. At the conclave of 1389, he was a candidate for the papacy. The new pope, Boniface IX , appointed him to important ecclesiastical offices, and he exercised great influence upon the Curia until his death.

(7) TOMMASO, of the line of the Counts of Manupello, raised to the cardinalate (1381) by Urban VI ; d. 10 July, 1390. He was sent by the pope as legate to the Patrimony of the Marches, where Prince Rinaldo Orsini of Aquila and Tagliacozzo had seized the cities of Urbino and Spoleto in addition to other territory. The legate declared war against him and won back for the pope the cities of Narni, Ameli, Terni, and later also Viterbo. His conduct towards the Papal Vicar of Viterbo brought upon himself the disfavour of the pope, who imprisoned him in the fortress of Amelia, but later granted him his liberty. On the occasion of the conspiracy of several of the cardinals against Urban, Cardinal Orsini remained loyal to the pope. His relations were intimate with Urban's successor, Boniface IX, during whose pontificate he died.

(8) GIORDANO ORSINI, a very distinguished personality in the College of Cardinals in the first three decades of the fifteenth century, d. at Petricoli, 29 July, 1438. After a thorough and comprehensive training, he became Auditor of the Rota, and in February, 1400, was raised by Boniface IX to the Archiepiscopal See of Naples. On 12 June, 1405, Innocent VII made him a member of the College of Cardinals, at first with the title of St. Martino of Monti, and later with that of S. Lorenzo in Damaso. In 1412 he was appointed Cardinal-Bishop of Albano, and in 1431 Cardinal-Bishop of Sabina. He participated in the election of Gregory XII (1406), but later, with several other cardinals, renounced allegiance to the pope, against whom he published a tract. He assisted at the Council of Pisa , and took part in the election of the Pisan pope, Alexander V (1409), and of his successor John XXIII (Balthasar Cossa). The latter sent him as envoy to Spain, later appointing him papal legate to the Marches, in which position he was equally distinguished for his ability and prudence. He assisted zealously at the Council of Constance, and took part in the election of Martin V (1417). He was sent by this pope as legate to England and France, in company with Cardinal Filastre, to make peace between the two countries. He was also selected for the difficult embassy to Bohemia and the neighboring countries (1426), where he was to combat the Hussite heresy. On this occasion he took with him as his secretary the future cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa. Upon his return, the pope entrusted to him another difficult task, namely the visitation and reform of the churches and ecclesiastical institutions of Rome. In the conclave of 1431 Eugene IV was elected pope. A close friendship existed between him and Giordano, and the latter supported him loyally and energetically during all the trying conditions of the time. With two other cardinals, Giordano was commissioned to proceed against the usurpers of ecclesiastical possessions in Italy, after which he was delegated by the pope to attend the Council of Basle, where he exerted every effort to uphold the rights of the pope against the schismatic element in the council. We are indebted to him for a diary of this council. Later, as papal legate, he journeyed with Cardinal Conti to Siena to meet Emperor Sigismund on his way to Rome to receive the imperial crown. A man of wide culture, Giordano took an active part in the literary life of his time. Numerous and valuable manuscripts were the result of his journeyings as legate, and these he willed to St. Peter's in Rome (cf. the catalogue of manuscripts in Cancellieri, "De secretariis basilicæ Vaticanæ", II, Rome, 1786, pp. 906-14). An Augustinian monastery was founded by him in Bracciano. He died dean of the College of Cardinals, and was buried in St. Peter's in a chapel founded and richly endowed by him.

(9) LATINO ORSINI, likewise of the Roman branch of the family and the owner of rich possessions, b. 1411; d. 11 August, 1477. He entered the ranks of the Roman clergy as a youth, became subdeacon, and as early as 10 March, 1438, was raised to the Episcopal See of Conza in Southern Italy. Transferred from this see to that of Trani (Southern Italy ) on 8 June, 1439, he remained archbishop of the latter after his elevation to the cardinalate by Nicholas V on 20 December, 1448. On 4 December, 1454, the Archbishopric of Bari was conferred upon him, which made it possible for him to take up his residence in Rome, the See of Trani being given to his brother, John Orsini, Abbot of Farfa. Paul II appointed him legate for the Marches. Sixtus IV, for whose election in 1471 Cardinal Latino had worked energetically, named him camerlengo of the College of Cardinals, granted him in 1472 the Archdiocese of Taranto, which he governed by proxy, and, in addition, placed him at the head of the government of the Papal States . He was also appointed commander-in-chief of the papal fleet in the war against the Turks, and, acting for the pope, crowned Ferdinand King of Naples. He founded in Rome the monastery of S. Salvatore in Lauro, which he richly endowed and in which he established the canons regular, donating to it also numerous manuscripts. In the last years of his life he became deeply religious, though he had been worldly in his youth, leaving a natural son named Paul, whom, with the consent of the pope, he made heir of his vast possessions.

(10) GIAMBATTISTA ORSINI, nephew of Latino, d. 22 Feb., 1503. He entered the service of the Curia at an early age, became cameral cleric, canon of St. Peter's, and was elevated to the cardinalate by Sixtus IV in 1483. Innocent VIII conferred upon him in 1491 the Archiepiscopal See of Taranto, which he governed by proxy, and, as papal legate for Romagna, the Marches, and Bologna, he was entrusted with the administration of these provinces of the Ecclesiastical States. In the conclave of 1492, the election of Alexander VI was almost entirely due to him. However, Cardinal Giambattista, together with the head of the House of Orsini, the Duke of Bracciano, having espoused the cause of the Florentines and the French in the Italian wars, was taken prisoner in the Vatican at the command of the pope and thrown into the dungeon of the Castel Sant' Angelo, where he died. The report was current that he had been poisoned by Alexander VI. Other cardinals of the family of Orsini who are worthy of mention because of the active part taken by them either as administrators of the papal states or as legates in other lands are the following:

(11) FLAVIO ORSINI, flourished in the sixteenth century, d. 16 May, 1581. He was created a cardinal in 1565, having been a bishop since 1560, first of the See of Muro and later that of Spoleto. In 1572 he was sent by Gregory XIII as legate to Charles IX of France, principally to support this monarch in his conflict with the Huguenots.

(12) ALESSANDRO ORSINI, belonging to the ducal family of Bracciano, b. 1592; d. 22 August, 1626. He was brought up at the court of the Grand Duke Ferdinand I of Tuscany, and in 1615 created a cardinal by Paul V. As Legate to Ravenna under Gregory XV, he distinguished himself in 1621 by his great charity on the occasion of the outbreak of a malignant pestilence. Upon his return to Rome, he devoted himself to religion and to the practice of an austere asceticism. He even begged permission of the pope to resign the cardinalate and to enter the Jesuit Order, but this was refused. Nevertheless, the pious cardinal always remained closely united to the Jesuits. He was a patron of Galileo.

(13) VIRGINIO ORSINI, likewise of the ducal family of Bracciano, b. 1615; d. 21 August, 1676. He renounced his birthright in his youth, entered the military order of the Knights of Malta, and more than once distinguished himself in the war against the Turks by his reckless bravery. In December, 1641, Urban VIII raised him to the dignity of cardinal, and appointed him Protector of the Polish as well as of the Portuguese Orient. He was commissioned to direct the building of the new fortifications with which Urban VIII enclosed the Leonine City and a quarter of Trastevere, and which are still in existence. In 1675 he became Cardinal Bishop of Frascati, but died the next year, leaving behind him a reputation of a pious, gentle, and benevolent prince of the Church.


In addition to the members of the Orsini family who were prominent as cardinals in the history of the Roman Church, others have gained a place in political history as statesmen, warriors, or patrons of the arts and sciences.

(1) ORSO DI BOBONE, nephew of Pope Celestine III (1191-8) and the first Orsini to hold a conspicuous place in Rome. Under the protection of his uncle, the pope, he was destined to have the principal part in laying the foundation of the dominion, power, and prestige of the Roman Orsini.

His grandchild, (2) MATTEO ROSSO ORSINI, was made senator of Rome by Pope Gregory IX in 1241. In this capacity he took a decided stand against the ventures of Emperor Frederick II in Italy. He was a patron of religious undertakings, a personal friend of St. Francis of Assisi , and a member of that saint's Third Order. While one of the sons of Matteo Rosso, Gian Gaetano, ascended the papal throne as Nicholas III, another, (3) RINALDO, continued the activities of his father in the political field, exerting himself to the utmost to prevent the alliance of Rome with the Hohenstaufen Konradin.

A son of this Rinaldo, (4) MATTEO ORSINI, was twice senator in Rome. His wise and energetic uncle, Nicholas III, to show that papal rule was once more dominant in Rome, deprived King Charles of Anjou of the senatorial dignity, and in 1278 published the decree that thenceforth no foreign emperor or king could become a senator, a Roman being alone eligible for the dignity, and then only with the consent of the pope and for one year. The power of the Orsini was in general much strengthened by this capable pope of their race.

In the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the following were particularly famous as military leaders in the numberless internal wars of Italy ; (5) PAOLO ORSINI, who in the beginning of the fifteenth century fought as condottiere in the service of several popes, was taken prisoner by Ladislas of Naples, again set at liberty, and fell in battle against Braccio da Montone before Perugia on 5 July, 1416.

(6) VIRGINIO ORSINO, Lord of Bracciano, was leader of the forces of Sixtus IV (1471-84) in the war against Ferrara, and victor at the battle of Campo Morto against the Neapolitans (1482). Later, however, he entered the service of Naples to oppose King Charles VIII of France (1483-98); in 1494, however, he took the side of the latter, and was imprisoned on this account. He died on 18 January, 1497, in prison at Naples.

(7) NICCOLO ORSINI, Count of Petigliano, was, at this time, in the service of the Anjous, military leader in the war against Naples, Sixtus IV , Siena, Florence, and Venice. Later, however, he went over with his army to the Venetian standard, and became general-in-chief of the Venetian Republic in the war against the League of Cambrai. He captured Padua, but was defeated in 1509, and died the following year.

Of the members of the Orsini family who flourished during the sixteenth century (8) PAOLO GIORDANO ORSINI is also worthy of mention. Born in 1541, he was created a duke, with the title of Bracciano, by Pope Pius IV (1560). Under Paul IV, he was general of the papal troops in the war against the Turks (1566). His first wife, Isabella Medici, being murdered, he took as his second wife Vittoria Accoramboni, widow of the murdered Francesco Peretti, a nephew of Sixtus V. Accused of murdering the latter, Paolo Giordano was obliged to leave Rome. He died at Salo in 1585.

(9) FULVIO ORSINI was distinguished as a humanist, historian, and archeologist, b. on 11 December, 1529; d. in Rome, 18 May, 1600. He was the natural son probably of Maerbale Orsini of the line of Mugnano. Cast off by his father at the age of nine, he found a refuge among the choir boys of St. John Lateran, and a protector in Canon Gentile Delfini. He applied himself energetically to the study of the ancient languages, published a new edition of Arnobius (Rome, 1583) and of the Septuagint (Rome, 1587), and wrote works dealing with the history of Rome -- "Familiæ Romanæ ex antiquis numismatibus" (Rome, 1577), "Fragmenta historicorum" (Antwerp, 1595), etc. He brought together a large collection of antiquities, and built up a costly library of manuscripts and books, which later became part of the Vatican library (cf. de Nolhac, "La bibliothèque de Fulvio Orsini", Paris, 1887). A woman of the Orsini family likewise played an important political r™le in the seventeenth century: MARIE ANNE, née de la Trémoille, b. 1642. Her first husband was Talleyrand, Prince de Chalais, after whose death she married Flavio Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, who remained loyal to Pope Innocent XI in his difficulties with Louis XIV of France. Marie Anne used her influence with the Curia in the interests of France and of Louis XIV, and in 1701, after the death of her husband, went to Madrid as mistress of the robes to Queen Marie-Louise, who, together with her husband Philip V of Spain, was completely under her influence. She did much to strengthen the throne of these rulers, but, nevertheless, in 1714 when Philip married Elizabeth Farnese, she was dismissed with ingratitude and returned to Rome, where she died on 5 December, 1722 (see Hill, "The Princess Orsini", London, 1899). The ancient family of the Roman Orsini is extinct. The present princes of the family in Rome descend from the Neapolitan line, which may be traced back to Francesco Orsini, Count of Trani and Conversano. In 1463 they became Dukes of Gravina, later (1724) princes of the Empire and Roman princes. The head of the family always enjoys the dignity of assistant at the papal throne. The present head is Filippo Orsini-Gravina-Sarzina, b. 10 December, 1842. Several noble families outside of Italy trace back their descent to the ancient Italian Orsini, as for example the Juvenels des Ursins in France and the Rosenbergs in Austria and Germany.

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