SEE ALSO The Borgias Home I The Italian City-States I The Powerful Families of Renaissance Italy I Foreign Relations I History of the Papacy I Discussion Forum I 15th Century Italy

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The Papal States

The Papal States were composed of six regions: Rome, the Campagna, the Patrimony of St. Peter, Umbria, the Marche, and Romagna. Each major region of the Papal States had large fortified cities that dominated the surrounding territory. These city-states were ruled in fief, or held by signori: barons, counts, and local lords from the nobility, commonly called papal vicars. Most of the semi-independent cities were ruled by a politically powerful family that owed allegiance to the papacy. Many of these local rulers were eliminated in the fifteenth century during the pontificate of Alexander VI. At this time Cesare Borgia carved out for himself the duchy of Romagna by removing various local families from power (for example the Montefeltro dukes of Urbino). Julius II later brought many of these territories under direct papal rule, allowing some families to return to power (for example his nephew and adopted heir to Urbino, Francesco Maria della Rovere).

Old St Peter's Basilica
The Papal States began as a large collection of private properties and revenues owned by the early Church. Many of these acquisitions were donated by Roman patricians and wealthy nobility after converting to Christianity. The donations and revenues from these lands went to support the functions of monasteries, churches, and clergy, and to a great extent, to help the poor and destitute. According to medieval scholastics, the Donation of Constantine (disputed for centuries and proven a forgery by Lorenzo Valla in the late 15th c) purportedly added vast sections of land to the papal territories. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, there was no centralized local authority to resist the various Lombard and Frankish invasions from the north, or to prevent central Italy from being absorbed by the Byzantine Empire centered at Constantinople. Local bishops (bishoprics and sees) and later the popes were given control of land and cities as part of an attempt to localize law and defense. Series of various lad grants such as the Donation of Pepin (754-56) increased the land mass exponentially over the centuries. The original St Peter's Basilica was built in the 4th century over the historical site of the Circus of Nero. Legend states that several helical, solomonic columns were taken from Solomon's temple by Constantine and brought to Rome to adorn the altar of "Old" St Peter's. Some scholars think they were taken from a non-Christian Greek temple due to the origin of the marble material itself.

Centralization of Papal Authority

Charlemagne being crowned by Pope Leo III In 754 AD Pope Stephen II anointed Pepin the Short King of the Franks, the first king of the Carolingian family to rule France. In return for Stephen's support, Pepin apparently gave the Pope the lands in Italy which the Lombards had taken from the Byzantine Empire. In 800 AD Charlemagne, King of the Franks invaded northern Italy and was crowned Imperator Agustus - and King of the Romans - Augustus Romanorum by Pope Leo III. This completed the action of legalizing the pope's rule over the States of the Church (Holy See). While in power, Charlemagne added large expanses of territory to the papal lands. These lands would become the Papal States and would be the basis of the Papacy's temporal power for the next eleven centuries.

The legality of theses donations was central to the struggle between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy for hegemony and power in Italy, especially in northern Italy, called the Guelph and Ghibelline Conflict.

During the Guelph and Ghibelline struggle that lasted intermittently throughout the Middle Ages (1100-1400), papal territory shifted again and again, with the eventual consolidation of the Papal States by the early 15th century. Around 1450, Rome was being brought out of her most insignificant era. The popes were creating a new city before the Roman's very eyes. From this point on, the Vatican would be ruled exclusively by Italians (with the exception of Pope Adrian who was elected after Alexander's death in 1503) from this point all the way to Pope John Paul XXIII. They were building a new capitol of Christendom, and it was going to take a lot of gold to do this. The papal lands were poulated by unruly lords, threatened by Naples to its south and Venice to its north. For the temporal power of the pope to have any meaning, a stron leader was needed.

“This [papal state] was no modern state yet [c. 1400], no equivalent to the contemporary strong monarchies of France or England. Force of tradition and forceful possession counted more than written deeds of donation.”

- D.S Chambers, Popes, Cardinals & War: The Military Church in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe, (2006)
p. xv - writing about the Medieval Papal States c. 1400-1500.

The Romans and people of central Italy found their leader - in the Spanish cardinal Rodrigo Borgia - Pope Alexander VI. By the end of the reign of Pope Julius II, the increasing wealth, growth in power of the papacy, and strength of its alliances had propelled the office of pope into the upper ranks of international prestige. The political aspect of the papal office effectively made it an elective monarchy with sovereign power over Rome and its territories - vast swathes of Umbria, Romagna, Marche, Campagna, and the Patrimony of St Peter - all of central Italy.

Major Cities of the Papal States, 1500

Rome: (Lazio) Papal States - North Central Italy
In the middle ages, though only five percent of its original size at the height of the Roman Empire, Rome was still regarded as a sacred and holy city. As sovereign ruler of the vast territory surrounding Rome (Campagna region) and the Patrimony of St Peter, all civil and sacred administration of these regions came under the jurisdiction of the pope, (the Bishop of Rome) centered at the Vatican.

Bologna: (Romagna)
The largest city of the important Romagna region was ruled by the noble family of Bentivoglio. The city had been virtually independent since 1439. It fell to Pope Julius II in 1506. The Bentivoglio were great patrons of the arts and under this family the city prospered and developed into a true Renaissance city.

Urbino: (Marche) Urbino was an important city and wealthy duchy of the Marche region. It was ruled by the dukes of the House of Montefeltro during the 15th century, and became famous for its civilized and learned court. Control of the duchy fell under the Borgias at the very peak of their quest to create a unified duchy of Romagna for Cesare. It reverted back to the Montefeltro dukes, only to be passed down to the Della Rovere family in 1508 after the death of Guidobaldo.

Other cities of the Romagna Region:

  • Imola - (Riario-Sforza) The city was given to Girolamo Riaro by Pope Sixtus IV and then left to his son Ottaviano after his assassination in 1488. Caterina Sforza ruled the city until Cesare Borgia conquered it. Cesare housed the stolen treasure and valuable goods he pilfered from Urbino in the massive Rocca di Imola.

  • Faenza - (Manfredi) The city was ruled by the beloved Manfredi family for almost two centuries. During the time of Alexander VI, it was ruled by Astorre Manfredi, who was later drowned in the Tiber by the orders of Cesare. The city is famous for its beautiful ceramic wares called majolica and faience.

  • Forlì - (Riario-Sforza) The city was given to Girolamo Riaro by Pope Sixtus IV and then left to his son Ottaviano after his assassination in 1488. Caterina Sforza ruled the city until Cesare conquered it. It was the last time Forli was truly independent.

  • Cesena (Malatesta) The city was ruled by the Malatesta between 1378 and 1465, the city returned to direct Papal control in1465, and was seized by Cesare Borgia in 1500. The city was elevated to capital of his powerful though short-lived Duchy of Romagna.

  • Rimini - (Malatesta) The city was ruled by the Malatesta family from 1239, the city remained under independent rule until 1500 when it was conquered by Cesare Borgia. It fell under Venetian rule until retaken by Pope Julius II and incorporated into the Papal States in 1509.

Other cities of the Marche Region:

  • Pesaro - (Sforza) The Adriatic Coastal was part of the Papal States since the Lombard and Frankish conquests. During the Renaissance it was ruled by the Malatesta (1285-1445), Sforza (1445-1512) and Della Rovere (1513-1631). Under the latter family, who elected it as capital of their duchy, Pesaro lived its most flourishing age. It was Lucrezia Borgia's home after their marriage to Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro. It endured the successive conquests of Cesare Borgia and later Pope Julius II to bring it more firmly under direct papal rule.
  • Senigallia - (Malatesta) The city on the coast of the Adriatic was ruled by the Malatesta until 1455. The lordship was bestowed by Pius II on his nephew Antonio Piccolomini, but the people of the town in 1464 placed themselves anew under the new Pope Paull II, and in 1472 Giacomo Piccolomini failed to seize the city. In 1503, Cesare Borgia carried out a bloody coup at Senigallia, against some of his disloyal supporters. Sixtus IV gave it to the della Roveres, from whom it was transferred to the Medici 1516.

  • Camerino - (Varano) The hilltop city was ruled by the Varano family for three centuries. The city was conquered by Cesare Borgia in 1502, and he slaughtered the Duke Giulio Cesare Varano and his sons. The Ducal Palace (built by Varano) was one of the finest in Italy, with over 40 rooms and stables for 95 horses. Today it houses the Faculty of Jurisprudence of the University of Camerino. Cesare also had a castle built here in 1503 called La Rocca di Borgia.

  • Ancona - (Montefeltro) The coastal city was ruled by an oligarchic republic until 1348, when it was taken by the Malatesta. It was fought over and ruled alternately by the Malatesta and Montefeltro during the 14th and 15th centuries.

Other cities of the Umbria Region:

  • Perugia - (Baglioni) The city was fought over by the Oddi and Baglioni families in a violent feud that ended in victory for the Baglioni. Perugia was a violent city, filled with crime. Although the Baglioni had no legal power in Perugia, they ruled like tyrants and fought amongst themselves, assassinating their own family members.

  • Città di Castello - (Vitelli) Under Pope Martin V in 1420, it was taken by the condottiero Braccio da Montone. Later Niccolò Vitelli, aided by Florence and Milan, became absolute ruler or tiranno. Antonio da Sangallo the Younger built an extensive palace for the Vitelli family. In 1474, Sixtus IV sent his nephew, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere (later Julius II); after fruitless negotiations he laid siege to the city, but Vitelli did not surrender until he learned that the command of the army had been given to Duke Federico III da Montefeltro. The following year Vitelli tried unsuccessfully to recapture the city; fear of Cesare Borgia induced him to desist, since Cesare Borgia had his father strangled and Città di Castello added to the papal possessions.

  • Spoleto - (Direct Papal Rule) In the 15th century, Spoleto was ruled directly by the Holy See. Previously it had been the Duchy of Spoleto, created by the Lombard rulers around 570 AD. In 774 it was absorbed by the Holy Roman Empire after being ruled by Matilida of Tuscany. After wars and razing by Frederick Barbarossa in 1155, it was subject to the violent factional struggles between the Guelphs and Ghibellines.

  • Orvieto - (Direct Papal Rule) Orvieto was an important city in the papal lands that served as a fortress for the pope in times of crisis. It has an underground city of passages and tunnels leading out, which noble families used in times of seige. Orvieto is also famous for its beautiful Gothic cathedral, begun in the 1200s.

Other cities of the Lazio Region:

  • Bracciano - (Orsini) Bracciano is a small town near Rome that had been the stronghold of the powerful Orsini family for centuries. In the early 15th century, the Colonna Pope Martin V confirmed the fief of Bracciano in the Orsini family branch of Tagliacozzo. Under this powerful family the city developed into a flourishing town, famous in the whole of Italy for its castle - the imposing hilltop Castello Orsini-Odescalchi. In 1494 Charles VIII of France and his troops marching against Rome stopped at Bracciano. This act led to the excommunication of the Orsini by Pope Alexander VI (under the pretext of treason).

  • Palestrina - (Colonna) Palestrina is an ancient city a short way from Rome, famous for the 2nd century BC ruins of the Roman temple of Fortuna Primigenia. The temple complex housed a sanctuary and an Oracle. The Colonna held the city in fief for the pope from the 11th century. They revolted in 1297 and were repelled, and the city was razed by pope Boniface VIII. 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.

  • Viterbo - (Direct Papal Rule) Viterbo, situated 80 km (60 miles) north of Rome, was also directly ruled by the pope, and was a very important stronghold during the late middle ages. It was also used as a retreat in times of trouble. Today it is one of the most well-preserved medieval cities in italy, with many Lombard-era and Romanesque buildings remaining in good repair.

  • Civitavecchia - (Direct Papal Rule) Civitavecchia "ancient town" is a harbor and coastal town on the Tyrrhenian Sea about 80 miles northwest of Rome. It is a strategic area known as the Port of Rome, which still does heavy cruise and ferry traffic today.

Sources/For Further Reading


History of Italy (Francesco Guicciardini)
The Prince (Niccolo Macchiavelli)

Power & Imagination: City-States in Renaissance Italy (Lauro Martines)
The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Jacob Burckhardt)
The Papal States (Wikipedia Article)
Later Medieval Europe, (Waley & Denley)
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