POWERFUL FAMILIES of Renaissance Italy

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At the time of Alexander VI's papacy, Italy was ruled by several types of government: territorial overlords called signori, marquises (counts appointed by regional bishops or the German emperor), dukes, princes, and kings - as in the case of Naples. The powerful and wealthy Republics of Venice and Florence were oligarchial republics ruled by the doge (military duke) and the signoria (council) respectively. Some 'princes' were technically papal or imperial vassals - often hereditary rulers who received the right (were invested) to own and inherit immovable property and revenue. They owned their lands under two major conditions: 1. They must send annual tribute to the granter, and 2. They must defend and protect the interest of the granter. These interests were sometimes circumvented or abandoned depending on the balance of power in Europe and among the Italian states.

The Kingdom of Italy, when it was a satellite of the Holy Roman Empire under Frederick I (Barbarossa), was ruled by imperial vassals who held northern Italian lands in fief for the Holy Roman Emperor. Gradual changes in the makeup of the Holy Roman Empire led to the deterioration of its control in much of northern Italy and Sicily. Some of these lords and princes gradually asserted their authority and maintained their independence from the Empire. At the same time, they were alternately free, papal, and conquered realms until the Italian Wars (1494-1550s) and later Unification of Italy (1859).

In 1492, many important cities in Renaissance Italy were ruled by hereditary noble families, elites in control of independent communes, republics, and former imperial fiefs that were at war with one another throughout of the 13th and 14th centuries. The borders of 1492 Italy were continually being shaped by some of these powerful ruling dynasties.

House of Este
Visconti-Sforza Coat of Arms
The House of Medici
Coat of Arms - Gonzaga
Dukes of Ferrara
Dukes of Milan
Citizens of Florence
Marquises of Mantua

The House of Orsini
Montefeltro Family Coat of Arms
The House of Aragon (Naples)
The House of Colonna
Lords of Bracciano
Dukes of Urbino
Kings of Naples
Lords of Palestrina

Bentivoglio Coat of Arms
Baglioni Coat of Arms
Malatesta Coat of Arms
Petrucci Coat of Arms (Siena)
Lords of Bologna
The House of Baglioni
Lords of Perugia
The House of Petrucci
Lords of Siena

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The Este, Vicars of Ferrara
The noble Este (denoted as d'Este) Family ruled Ferrara and Modena as vicars of the Holy Roman Empire, and later the Papacy. The dukes gradually asserted and protected their independence from the Empire over the centuries. The Este were culturally refined, wise and capable rulers, and revered by their subjects.

The most famous member of the House of Este is Isabella d'Este, Marchesa of Mantua. She married Francesco II Gonzaga, a powerful condottiero and ruler of a mostly independent city-state in Lombardy. She was known to be a capable diplomat and firm ruler during her husbands many long absences.

Even this highly cultured Renaissance family had their share of brutal inter-family rivalries and murders. In 1505, Lucrezia Borgia's husband, Duke Alfonso I d'Este was very nearly murdered by his own half-brothers Giulio and Ferrante d'Este. Giulio and Ippolito fell in love with Lucrezia's cousin Angela Borgia. Angela preferred Giulio, and later (for many reasons) Ippolito had assassins stab him in both eyes. They were punished by the Duke Alfonso - leading Giulio and the fourth Este brother Ferrante to plot the murder of Alfonso and usurpation of the throne for Ferrante. They did not succeed. Alfonso imprisoned them in the castle dungeons for the rest of their lives.

Lucrezia's son Ercole II married Renée de France, younger daughter of King Louis XII and Anne of Brittany.
Ercole d'Este (Dosso Dossi, c. 1500)
Ercole I d'Este
Isabella d'Este (da Vinci, 1500)
Isabella d'Este (daughter of Ercole)

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The Condottieri Sforza of Milan

The noble House of Sforza had relatively humble origins. Their forefathers were rich rural landowners and successful condottieri, whom alternately fought for Milan, Venice, Naples, against Florence and the Pope. Due to Muzio's military capabilities and success in battle, he was later nicknamed "Sforza," (meaning force) and his descendants took his name. Francesco I Sforza married the only heir to the Milanese duchy, Bianca Maria Sforza. After the Visconti's demise, the short-lived Ambrosian Republic ruled Milan through a few years of warfare and internal unrest. Francesco, as captain general of the Milanese army, was given rule of the city by the signoria. He was able to keep ruling the city and its vast territories without papal investiture due to his popularity and success as a ruler.

Francesco and Bianca Maria Visconti had eight children: Galeazzo Maria, Ippolita Maria, Filippo Maria, Sforza Maria, Ludovico Maria, Ascanio Maria, Elisabetta and Ottaviano.
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Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan
Galeazzo, Duke of Milan in 1466, was assassinated in 1476 (father of Caterina Sforza). Ippolita, married the Duke of Calabria, was a great friend of il Magnifico Lorenzo de Medici. Filippo Maria, Count of Corsica. Sforza Maria, Duke of Bari.Ludivico Maria was later given the Duchy of Bari upon his brother's death in 1479, then was "chosen" as Duke of Milan after his nephew Gian Galeazzo's untimely death. Ascanio Maria was a powerful Cardinal of the Roman Church, Vice-Chancellor of the Curia under Pope Alexander VI.

The Duchy of Milan made up almost all of modern Northwest Italy. It became a subject state of France after it fell during the Italian Wars led by the King of France, Louis XII. It later came under control of the Holy Roman Empire during the reign of Charles V after his victory in the Battle of Pavia.
Ludovico Maria Sforza Il Moro," Duke of Milan

Ludovico Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan

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The Medici, First Citizens of Florence

Members of the merchant-class Medici family of Florence are also called "The Godfathers of the Renaissance." The Medici bank was the most profitable bank in Europe during the Renaissance. The maker of the family fortunes was Giovanni di Bicci de Medici, and his son Cosimo de Medici became the first citizen of the city. He spent 600,000 florins on beautifying Florence and was patron of artists such as Donatello and Fra Lippi. The Medici created a partnership with the Catholic Church. When the Church was split due to the Western Schism, the Medici backed Pope John XXIII and subsequently became the Papal Bankers. Cosimo's grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492) was a keeper of the peace in Italy, spreading his influence across the Peninsula so that it enjoyed a decade of relative peace. He was also a patron of the arts, with such people as Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci flooding his courts.
Lorenzo (the Megnificent) de Medici

Lorenzo de Medici
Pope Leo X (Giovanni de Medici, 1475-1521, Papacy from 1513-1521) was known for his extravagant lifestyle. He once had a boy painted in gold from head to toe parading down the streets of Florence. It was to imply the "return of the Golden Age under Medici Rule" The boy later died as a result of probably lead poison from the gold paint. Pope Clement VII (Giulio de Medici, 1478-1534, Papacy from 1522-1234) took a black slave girl as his mistress. Their child Alessandro became Europe's first black Head of State when he was made Duke of Florence in 1530. Alessandro was assassinated by his cousin Lorenzaccio (Bad Lorenzo) de Medici.

It was under the reign of Leo X that Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses that sparked the growing movement later known as the Protestant Reformation.
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Leo reportedly said, "God has seen fit to give us the Papacy, now let us enjoy it." Pope Leo X (Giovanni de Medici)

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The Gonzaga, Imperial Vicars of Mantua

The noble family of Gonzaga ruled Mantua as marquises (Marchesi in Italian), which was one administrative rank below Duke. The first Gonzaga rulers of Mantua were podestas - high ranking government officials - who were later elected as Captains of the People as protectors of the city's defense.

Their 14th century Ghibelline ties to the Holy Roman Empire (as vassals ruling on the behalf of the Emperor) effectively left the city and its territory independent of the major powers in Italy.

The first Marquis, Gian Francesco I and his wife Paola Malatesta, arranged the advantageous marriage of the emperor's niece (some sources list her as his granddaughter) Barbara of Brandenburg to their son Ludovico III Gonzaga.
Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua

Gian Francesco II Gonzaga
(known as Francesco)
Their son and successor to the lordship, Federico I married the daughter of Duke Albert III of Bavaria, Margaret of Bavaria. Their children were: Chiara, Francesco II (above at right), Sigismondo, Elisabetta (right), Maddalena, and Giovanni.

Chiara married a Bourbon duke, their son was the famous Charles III, Duke of Bourbon who commanded the imperial troops during the Sack of Rome (1527).
Francesco married Isabella d'Este, later to be known as "the first lady of the world." Elisabetta married Guidobaldo, later the Duke of Urbino.

The Gonzagas ruled Mantua with a firm hand and contributed to its cultural flowering during the Renaissance.
Elisabetta Gonzaga (Raphael, 1506)

Elisabetta Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino (sister of Francesco)

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The Montefeltro Family of Urbino

The city was alternately a Ghibelline and Guelph city. The ancient family has ruled Urbino since 1267, as imperial officials - podestàs - of the city. First the city and its territories were ruled by pro-papal lords, then again independent. 1353 marks the time from which the Montefeltro permanently owed its alleigance to the papacy, as Pope Innocent VI (from Avignon) was consolidating the fragmented and war-torn states of the church.

Urbino once more came under the control of the Holy See. Nolfo's grandson, Antonio (1377-1403), took advantage of the rebellion of the Marche and Umbria against the Holy See (1375) to restore his authority in Urbino.
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Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza
Duke and Duchess of Urbino

Guidantonio (1403-1443) was appointed ruler of the Duchy of Spoleto by Pope Martin V (1419) and carried on war against Braccio da Montone with varying fortune. His son, Oddo Antonio, was assassinated after only a few months in power. The Urbinese then offered the lordship to Federico III (1444-1482), the illegitimate son of Guidantonio, a pupil of Vittorino da Feltre's school and a lover of art. Under him Urbino became a cultural center of the Renaissance. He was a successful condottiero in the wars against the Malatesta for control of Rimini, the pope, René of Anjou, and Florence for neighboring lands. Pope Sixtus IV conferred on him the title of Duke of Urbino (1474).

The benevolent rule of Federico's son Guidobaldo was forever marred by the conquests of Cesare Borgia.
Guidobaldo da Montefeltro

Guidobaldo da Montefeltro
Duke of Urbino

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The Aragonese Kings of Naples

The Kingdom of Naples was ruled by the royal House of Aragon (between 1442 - 1501), denoted in Italy by the surname d'Aragona. The royal family derives from the House of Trastamara, the ruling family of Aragon, Castle, and Leon. The most famous members are the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. They would battle France for possession of Naples during the Borgia period.

The Neapolitan House of Aragon derived from the first Aragonese king of Naples - Alfonso V "the Magnanimous." Known in Neapolitan monarch lists as Alfonso I, King of Naples, he was also king of the "Crown" of Aragon, which included the kingdom of Aragon proper (roughly northeastern Spain), Valencia, Majorca, Sardina, Corsica, and Sicily. He conquered Naples in 1442.
Ferrante I, King of Naples
Ferdinand of Aragon (Ferrante I) King of Naples

Alfonso's Spanish lands were ruled by his brother John II of Aragon, which were later willed to him. When Alfonso died, his illegitimate son Ferdinand I/ Ferrante - pictured above at above right received Naples and Sicily. Ferrante ruled Naples long and with a firm hand against numerous baronial uprisings, clashes with the papacy, and threat of French invasion. His son Alfonso II of Naples (Duke of Calabria), pictured at right, succeeded him as King of Naples in 1494. he ruled for one year before abdicating and leaving the throne to his young son Ferdinand II of Naples (Ferrantino).

Ferdinand II of Aragon (King of Spain) and Ferrante I (King of Naples) were cousins - Ferdinand's father was John II of Aragon, and Ferrante's father was John's brother, Alfonso (V) "the Magnanimous."
Alfonso II of Aragon, King of Naples

Alfonso II of Aragon, Duke of Calabria and briefly King of Naples

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The Orsini, Powerful Roman Barons

The Orsini Family is one of the most celebrated princely families in Medieval Italy and Renaissance Rome. The family has a number of popes (Celestine III, Nicholas III, and Benedict XIII), thirty-four cardinals, and scores of condottieri. One of the most famous was Gentile Virginio Orsini, head of the Bracciano branch of the family.

The Orsini were traditional enemies of the Colonna family, who also produced numerous popes, cardinals, and condottieri. The Orsini owned mnay fine and well-fortified castles in Lazio and around Rome. The biggest is Bracciano (on Lake Bracciano outside of Rome), Avezzano (Abruzzi), Nerola (near Rome), Sant'Angelo Romano (near Rome), Soriano nel Cimino (Viterbo), and Vasanello (Viterbo)
Gentile Virginio Orsini, Lord of Bracciano

Gentile Virginio Orsini, Lord of Bracciano
(c. 1434 – 8 January 1497)
The Orsini married into nearly every noble house in central and southern Italy. For example, Lorenzo de Medici was married to a Roman Orsini (of the Monterotondo line) to enhance his family's prestige (they were considered upstarts); she brought an enormous dowry to Florence. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Orsini was also of this line. The Orsini were closely alligned with the Kingdom of Naples, and were powerful feudal lords "barons" in and around Naples as well as Rome. Taranto was a seat of Orsini power when it was given to the southern line of the family after the defeat of Queen Joanna II of Naples.
Clarice Orsini

Clarice Orsini, daughter of Jacopo (Lord of Bracciano)

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The Colonna, Powerful Roman Barons

The Colonna family was a powerful noble papal family (Guelph) of Medieval Italy and Renaissance Rome, supplying one pope and many other leaders. Their family is notable for their bitter feud with the Orsini (above) family over influence in Rome until it was stopped by Papal Bull in 1511.

In 1297 the Colonna family, who had owned Praeneste (by then called Palestrina) from the eleventh century as a fief, revolted from the pope. In the following year the town was taken by Papal forces, razed to the ground and salted by order of Pope Boniface VIII. In 1437 the rebuilt city was captured by the Papal general Giovanni Vitelleschi and once more utterly destroyed at the command of Pope Eugenius IV.
It was rebuilt once more and fortified by Stefano Colonna in 1448. It was again sacked in 1527, and occupied by the Duke of Alba, in 1556. (Wikipedia)
Prospero Colonna (Paolo Giovio c. 1478)

Prospero Colonna
Prospero, who had joined Cardinal Giluiano della Rovere's party, was imprisoned in Castel Sant'Angelo by Pope Alexander VI. Once freed, he was soon imprisoned again for his allegiance to Charles VIII of France during his invasion of Italy in 1494. Prospero Colonna had an important role in the Spanish victory at Cerignola (1503), which gave Spain the keys to Naples. After Alexander VI's death, he was also able to take back his territories in the Lazio.

Other important members of the Colonna family are famous noblewoman and poet Vittoria Colonna, (friend of Michelangelo), Marcantonio and Fabrizio Colonna (successful condottieri).

Portrait of Vittoria Colonna, 1540s

Vittoria Colonna

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The Noble Bentivoglio of Bologna

The Bentivoglio ruled the important Romagna city and environs of Bologna from 1401 until 1506. They were a princely family allegedly descended from Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (through one of his illegitimate sons - Enzio, King of Sicily). During the Guelph and Ghibelline conflicts (14th century) they overthrew rival factions for control of the city with the helkp of heir powerful allies, the Visconti. The Bentivoglio held power on and off for the next twenty-five years when finally the family received the fief of Castel Bolognese, a fortified city not far from Bologna.

Giovanni II at right ruled with his strong-willed wife Ginevra Sforza. Together they had eleven children and married many of them into the nobility of Central Italy.
Giovanni II Bentivoglio, Ruler of Bologna

Giovanni Bentivoglio

Giovanni I, who ruled from 1401 to 1402.

Annibale I, murdered in 1443.

Sante I (1426-1463); ruled from 1443-1463.

Giovanni II (1443-1508); ruled from 1463 until he was expelled by Pope Julius II in 1506.

Annibale II reentered the city in 1511 with the help of the French and ruled for a year, and was later assassinated.
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Ginevra Sforza

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The Baglioni Family of Perugia

The Baglioni were successful and wealthy condottieri who exercise rule over the city of Perugia from the 1420s. Gian Paolo Baglioni (1470-1520) fought against Cesare Borgia on behalf of the Varano family in an attempt to regain Camerino in 1500. After contracting with Venice then the pope, In 1520 he was accused of an attempted assassination in Rome. Baglioni was imprisoned in Castel Sant'Angelo and beheaded.

The Baglioni had always fought with the Oddi family for the rule of Perugia in the region of Umbria. They rose to power in the 13th century. They amassed a fortune from the money earned from their condottieri ventures. Each Baglioni had their own palaces in the best part of town and built towers to show off their wealth. Murders, violence and rivalry as commonplace under Baglioni rule, either with the challenging Oddi family or with each other. They massacred the family in 1482 and 1484.
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The Deposition of Christ
(by Raphael) Pala Baglioni

In 1500, at a wedding celebration, half of the Baglioni killed the other half. It was called the Red Wedding and now is what the Baglioni is famous for. The massacre caused many acts of vengeance within the Baglioni family. Gian Paolo Baglioni served under Cesare Borgia as a condottieri. He was one of those generals not killed at Senigallia by Cesare. Later he fought for the great powers of Italy, including Pope Julius II, Venice. They fell from power in the 17th century, selling their power and titles.

Click on upper right image for a larger view at right -"Pala Baglioni" depicting family members as figures in the Deposition of Christ (Raphael)
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Adoration of the Child - Detail,(Pinturicchio) Baglioni Chapel, Perugia

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The Malatesta Family of Rimini

The House of Malatesta was an Italian family that ruled Rimini from 1295 until 1500, as well as (in different periods) other lands and towns in Romagna. Malatesta da Veruccio (d. 1312), a Guelph leader, became podestà (chief magistrate) of Rimini in 1239 and made himself sole master of the city after the expulsion of the family's Ghibelline rivals, the Parcitadi, in 1295.

His hunchback son Giovanni Malatesta is chiefly famous because of the 1285 tragedy, recorded in Dante's Inferno, when he killed his wife Francesca da Polenta and his younger brother Paolo, having discovered them in adultery.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Malatesta ruled over a number of papal cities in the Romagna and the Marche, including Pesaro, Fano, Cesena, Fossombrone and Cervia.
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Sigismondo Malatesta
"the Wolf of Rimini"
Several Malatesta were condottieri at the service of various Italian states. The most famous was Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta (above right), who was engaged in conflict with the papacy over territorial claims. His grandson Pandolfo (lower right) took part in the Battle of Fornovo, and later besieged the French garrison at Novara. Pandolfo's violence and murders gained him the hatred of his subjects: in 1497, a failed rape attempt on a young girl spurred a revolt in Rimini, which he could suppress only with Venetian intervention. He escaped another plot in 1498.Two years later,Cesare Borgia invaded Pandolfo's territories and Pope Alexander VI, Cesare's father, excommunicated him. Rimini was finally incorporated in thePapal States in 1528, after the last failed attempt of Pandolfo's son, Sigismondo. (Wikipedia)
Pandolfo IV Malatesta

Pandolfo IV Malatesta
Lord of Rimini 1482–1500

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The Petrucci Family of Siena

Antonio Petrucci led an unsuccessful attempt to seize power from the republican government in 1456. He was forced into exile as a result of the failed coup. The remaining family gradually reinforced their land and wealth, and by the 1480s had considerable influence in Siena once again.

Pandolfo Petrucci, called "il Magnifico" for his extensive patronage of the arts, foundations, and grand civic and religious building projects in Siena. He took power in 1487 by means of a gradual series of civil and military coups. He married Agnese Borghese, daughter of a prominent and wealthy member of the oligarchy. He assumed public offices, and appointed members of his faction to others. Most importantly he had the support of the armed city guard, as their captain he also became the protector of the populace.
Pandolfo Petrucci

Pandolfo Petrucci, Lord of Siena
Cesare Borgia was intent on eliminating the Petrucci, as they were the main obstacle to the conquest of Siena. After the fall ofUrbino (July 1502) it seemed to Cesare's captains that the next action of the Borgia would have been against Perugia and then against Siena and Bologna. The growing fear of Cesare's power and the double dealing of his condottieri (who feared cesare would overrun their cities as well) led to the so-called Maggione Conspiracy, from the name of the castle of Giambattista Orisini, (Cardinal) whose aim was to eliminate il Valentino. By not appearing personally at the conference at La Maggione, Pandolfo Petrucci (being more astute and foresaw the affects of the conspiracy) escaped the clutches of the Borgia and maintained his rule at Perugia.
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Coat of Arms, House of Petrucci


At the time of the Borgia Papacy, the Este ruled the cities and lands of Ferrara, Modena, and Reggio. The Sforza ruled Milan, Pavia, Pesaro, and Caravaggio. The Medici were de facto rulers of Florence and Pisa up until 1492, when they were expelled. The Republic of Florence reverted to rule by the Signoria from 1494-1502. Piero Soderini was elected Gonfaloniere, and effectively ruled Florence until 1512 with the return of the Medici. The Gonzaga ruled Mantua and the Montefeltro ruled Urbino - both families asserted near total independence by 1400. The Kings of Naples descend from Alfonso V the Magnanimous, (brother of King John II of Aragon). The House of Aragon, used as a surname here, will indicate the rulers of Naples and Sicily between 1442 and 1499. The Orsini and Colonna ruled several cities and controlled several fortresses in and around Rome. The Bentivoglio ruled Bologna until 1506. The Baglioni were papal vicars who ruled Perugia, as were the Malatesta of Rimini. The Petrucci of Siena were nobles of the Republic and after 1487 ousted the signoria and ruled as independent lords, much like the Medici of Florence.

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