TEAM 3: Melissa Winstanley, Zinnia Xu, Brandon Skyles
The Farnese family rose from relative obscurity to Italian prominence in a short few generations, mostly through the success of its most famous member, Alessandro Farnese or Pope Paul III. During Paul III’s long pontificate of fifteen years (1534-1549), the papacy experienced a period of resurgence and revival following the Sack of Rome in 1527, hailed as a renovatio urbis or urban renovation. Paul III initiated large-scale building projects, called the Council of Trent to reconsider Catholicism in light of the Protestant Reformation, and used his power as pope to place his descendants in positions of power, most notably the duchy of Parma and Piacenza. His grandson Alessandro II joined the cardinalate at the age of fifteen, and although he never became pope, his overwhelming generosity, skill as a diplomat, and intelligence made him the most important and best-loved cardinal in Rome. Cardinal Alessandro’s nephew, also named Alessandro, was the most noted Farnese duke of Parma and Piacenza, serving as a military soldier and commander extending Spanish control in Europe. After three centuries of success, the family became extinct in 1731.
I. Family Origins
Although the family was not particularly remarkable until the fifteenth century, the Farneses were landholders from northern Lazio, near Orvieto, from the early twelfth century. They extended their lands and power primarily through military service: Ranuccio the Elder (1390-1450), the first significant Farnese, was a papal military captain. For his support, Ranuccio was rewarded with a position as a senator by Pope Martin V and with extensive feudalities by Pope Eugene IV. Ranuccio also constructed the family tomb on an island in Lake Bolsena, near Orvieto, thereby solidifying Farnese family ties. His children made marriages into distinguished families, including the Colonna, Orsini, and Caetani, signaling a rise of Farnese power.
Alessandro Farnese (1468-1549), grandson of Ranuccio, departed from the paths of his forefathers and pursued a career in the church instead of the military. He went to Rome and received a scholarly humanist education. Alessandro became cardinal at the young age of twenty-five, probably with help from his sister Giulia, the mistress of Pope Alexander VI Borgia. He spent the next forty years as a cardinal, waiting for his chance at the papacy. During that time, he began the advancement of his family with the legitimization of his children by Julius II and Leo X, including Pier Luigi, through whom Cardinal Alessandro II and Duke Alessandro arose. He also began to perpetuate myths about the Farnese family’s origins, exaggerating their military careers and successes and assuming more prestigious ancestors.
Alessandro’s period in the cardinalate was a tumultuous time. He witnessed the pontificates of six popes, as well as invasion by the French, the 1527 Sack of Rome, and stagnation during the reign of Clement VII. He expanded his power with political skill and flexibility, and after two papal elections in which he was defeated (1521 and 1523), his age and experience, as well as his persona as a native Roman – not a foreigner – rewarded him with the papal throne in 1534 at the age of sixty-six. He chose the name Paul, and spent the next fifteen years empowering the papacy and the Farnese family.
II. Pope Paul III
During Pope Paul III’s pontificate, Europe was in the middle of a Christian reform movement known as the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation started in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of All Saints’ Church at Wittenberg. The movement began as an attempt to reform the Catholic Church because its members believed that that the sale of indulgences and other practices of the Catholic Church were ecclesiastic malpractice due to corruption of the Church’s hierarchy. One of the first things Paul III did to address the criticisms posed by the new Protestant churches in Germany was to convene the Council of Trent. The council met for twenty-five sessions over three periods, the first of which was under Pope Paul III. The main purpose of the council was to condemn Protestant heresies, redefine Catholic belief and practice on disputed points, and initiate a Counter-Reformation movement (also known as Catholic Reformation or Catholic Revival). This movement included the proper training of priests and new spiritual movements that focused on a personal relationship with Christ.
Paul III also approved formation of the Jesuit order, a new militant section of the Catholic Church, and allowed them to be ordained as priests, putting Catholic reformers in positions of authority and power. The Jesuits were known colloquially as “God’s marines” and were engaged in evangelization and apostolic ministry: they concentrated on founding schools, sending out missionaries, and stopping the spread of Protestantism.
In 1542, Paul III instituted the Roman Inquisition, a system of tribunals responsible for prosecuting individuals accused of heresy-related crimes such as sorcery, immorality, blasphemy, Judaizing, and witchcraft. This system was also designed to combat the spread of Protestantism in Italy.
Although Paul III attempted to acknowledge and respond to the threat of Protestantism, he also funneled wealth into the pockets of his grandsons. Paul III’s policies were full of contradictions. He tried to claim papal neutrality in the war against France while simultaneously attempting to carve out a Farnese estate in North-Central Italy. By the end of his reign as Pope, these contrasts created mixed feelings about his success as a Pope.
In the Papal states, Paul III also helped initiate a period of resurgence and revival (following the Sack of Rome) known as the urban renovation, renovatio urbis, by constructing many large-scale building projects and rebuilding entire cities. In 1536, Paul decided to move the ancient statue of Marcus Aurelius to the Capitoline piazza, the sight of his summer palace as well as the historic civic center of Rome. He ordered Michelangelo to design a pedestal for the statue, and subsequently a new piazza to surround it. Although this project was not completed in his lifetime, it adequately expresses the ambitiousness of urban planning during the Farnese pontificate.
Paul III appointed Michelangelo as the head of the Fabbrica of St. Peter’s, the office in charge of the construction of the basilica, and confirmed the commission for Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Paul III also ordered the construction of the papal audience hall and a fortified wall around the Vatican palace to protect against any possible subsequent attacks. All this reconstruction was intended to revive the city after the Sack of Rome. Paul III’s interest in the remains of Ancient Rome led to the revival of the office of the Commissioner of Antiquities, whose job was to protect ancient monuments. However, due to the massive need for building materials during this time, the office was unable to protect the monuments from being pillaged. Paul III, despite what appeared to be good intentions, ended up doing more destruction and harm to the ancient monuments when he gave the Fabbrica of St. Peter a monopoly on the profits of despoiling ancient buildings. Much of the destruction we see in the Roman Forum today was from Pope Paul’s men during the sixteenth century and not barbarians during the dark ages.
In 1549, Pope Paul III died, but not before placing his children and grandchildren into the European aristocracy.
III. Duchy to Decline: The Fall of House Farnese
If ever there was a time when the Catholic Church needed a leader, it was at the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation and after the 1527 Sack of Rome. Whether or not the leadership of Pope Paul III was outstanding, he was certainly remembered for getting the job done. Through his leadership, the Catholic Church reasserted its power and authority and was able to launch a Counter Reformation. After his death, however, Paul III left many unfinished projects. The first and foremost was repairing what would be centuries of damage to the Church’s success by Protestantism. But Paul III also left the papacy without fully ensuring the Farnese family’s legacy and political status. Pope Paul had worked for nearly ten years to secure the duchy of Castro for his ill-mannered and unscrupulous illegitimate son, Pierluigi Farnese, in addition to the duchy of Parma-Piacenza. Pierluigi, the black sheep, certainly left something to be desired: he was rumored to be a homosexual who raped and murdered a bishop. He was even rumored to be depicted as the “lost soul” in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. Unfortunately for him and fortunately for the Farnese, Pierluigi died in 1547 shortly before Pope Paul III.
After the passing of the one and only Farnese pope, the family was left with two main patriarchs: Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, grandson of Pope Paul III, and Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma-Piacenza and nephew of Cardinal Alessandro. Both the Cardinal and the Duke became important international political figures and helped preserve a legacy for the Farnese family and the papacy of Paul III. From the beginning of his career, Cardinal Alessandro was one of the most important and influential cardinals, occupying a position of power similar to that of a prime minister to Pope Paul III. This position would later become known as cardinale nipote, or cardinal nephew/grandson. He also continued Paul III’s precedent for church leadership by seeing the end of the Council of Trent and continued reforms in the Church.
Cardinal Alessandro was well-liked and philanthropic. This worked to his advantage during the papacy of Julius III Del Monte, when his diplomatic skills helped alleviate growing pressure on the family to cede their holdings as nobles. Eventually, intermarriage between the illegitimate daughter of Emperor Charles V and Ottavio Farnese created a blood bond that protected the Farnese from papal interference. By 1556, Phillip II of Spain had assumed the throne and cast a watchful but friendly eye over the Farnese duchy. In Rome, Cardinal Alessandro promoted the Farnese family through generous donations and the acquisition or development of properties such as Villa Chigi, Farnese Gardens, and, of course, Palazzo Farnese. He also funded the building of Il Gesù, the flagship church of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuit religious order approved by Paul III as a means to fight the Protestant Reformation). At his passing in 1589, the whole city of Rome participated in the funeral services due his status as a prominent civic figure and his financial contributions to the lay people.
Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma-Pacienza and Castro, was also an important leader during the latter half of the 16th century. He became an important military leader for Phillip II of Spain (who was his uncle through his mother, the illegitimate daughter of Charles V). Leading military campaigns throughout Europe, he was noted for his efforts in the Netherlands and Turkey. He died three years after Cardinal Alessandro in 1592. This worked in the favor of Phillip II, who had become worried about Duke Alessandro’s political ambitions.
After the more influential Farnese passed away at the end of the 16th century, the last of the Farnese dynasty died in 1731. Most of the family left Rome in the 17th century, bringing their art collections with them. The last resident of Palazzo Farnese died in 1642, and the last Farnese cardinal died in 1668.
Gamrath, Helge. Farnese: Pomp, Power and Politics in Renaissance Italy. Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2007.
Majanlahti, Anthony. “The Farnese.” The Families Who Made Rome: A History and a Guide. London: Chatto & Windus, 2005.
Williams, George L. Papal Genealogy: The Families and Descendants of the Popes. Jefferson: McFarland, 1998. 76.