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In the early eleventh century, the Barberini family settled in Florentine territory of Val d’Elsa (Elsa Valley). Their family named derived their surname from the Castel of Barbarino. Before they were known as the Barberinis, their surname was Tafani, which literally translates into “the Horsefly.” This insect graced their family crest until Pope Urban VIII’s (Maffeo Barberini) changed it to the bee, which was a much more honorable choice because it was believed to represent wisdom. Early in the family’s history they gained wealth and prominence through the sale of textiles and intermarriage with other noble merchant families in Florence.
One of the first prominent members of the Barberini family was Francesco di Antonio Barberini. He was responsible for building the family’s Florentine palace at Santa Croce. Francesco di Antonio did a particularly astute job at building up the family textile business. He organized trade with the eastern cities of Rangusa (also known of Dubrovnik, located in southern Croatia) and Ancona (located on the north-eastern coast of the Italian peninsula). Francesco di Antonio even opened a branch of the family business near Istanbul, in the town of Pera.
The early political years of the Barberini were marked with conflict with another famously powerful Italian family, the Medicis. In the 16th century the Medicis were the most powerful family in Florence. This was the result of the Medicis overthrowing the Republic of Florence and installing themselves as rulers in 1530. The Barberini’s helped in the defense of the city, putting them in bad favor with the Medicis. As a result of this, Francesco’s two sons were forced to leave the city. Nicolo went to Ancona, while Antonio fled to Rome. However, this quarrel would follow Antonio to Rome as he was stabbed at the hands of the Medici in the streets of Rome in 1559.
Before Antonio’s death however, he summoned his nephew Francesco di Carlo Barberini (1528-1600) to Rome in 1555. Francesco di Carlo quickly associated himself with the church and rose in prominence at similar speed. He was given the clerical rank of monsignor (one below a cardinal) and the titles of papal treasurer and the apostolic protonary, an important legal position. He used these titles to accumulate huge sums of wealth for his family. He was also active in promoting the clerical career of his nephew Maffeo Barberini, to whom he would bequeath his wealth through circumventing traditional church processes. Maffeo would then use this wealth and status to his advantage, eventually being elected as Pope, taking the title of Urban VIII.
II. Pope Urban VIII
Born in 1568 in Florence, Maffeo Barberini grew up in the home of his wealthy uncle Monsignor Francesco di Carlo Barberini. He attended a Jesuit college, graduating in 1588 with a law degree. Monsignor Francesco utilized his riches to advance Maffeo’s ecclesiastical career, leading him to become papal legate of Bologna from 1611-1614, and the bishop of Spoleto. He left his position as bishop in 1617 when he realized his destiny to hold a career in the papal courts.
When Pope Gregory XV Ludovisi died in 1623, the cardinals were split between choosing between two different papal nephews for the new papacy. After days of debating within the conclave, the heat of the Roman summer began to take its toll. Eight out of the 54 cardinals died from malaria, and the cardinals knew they urgently needed to elect a new pope. Out of compromise, they settled for Maffeo. Only 53 of the 54 votes were counted, so Maffeo demanded a revote, and won again. Elected twice, Maffeo Barberini became Pope Urban VIII at the “young” age of 55.
Pope Urban loved the arts. He changed the Barberini horsefly emblem to a bee, based on a stanza in Horace’s Odes, and also added Apollo’s sun and laurel to his crest to represent the wisdom of Christ. A lover of expensive extravagance, he commissioned over 10,000 Barberini bees painted and engraved all over the Papal States. Throughout his life, he collected valuable paintings and books for the Barberini library, and revamped the old Sforza palace to make the magnificent Palazzo Barberini. The famous artist Gianlorenzo Bernini had the luck to be a close friend of Maffeo Barberini. As pope, Urban put Bernini in charge of myriads of artistic works, like rebuilding the church of Santa Bibiana. Urban was a prolific poet, even writing inscriptions for sculptures such as Bernini’s celebrated Daphne and Apollo. Controversially, the Pope put Bernini in control of revamping the ancient St. Peter’s. The artist took bronze from the portico of the beloved Pantheon to construct the high altar in St. Peter’s, and then attempted to build two bell towers on either side of the Pantheon as recompense. One cracked, leading the people to satirically dub them “the ass-ears of Bernini.”
Urban VIII focused much of his energy on expanding the Papal territories. He convinced the Duke of Urbino to join the Papal States in 1626, and was the last pope to increase the size of the papal realm. Previously, only Jesuits had sent missions abroad, but Urban decided to spread the church to China and Japan. Closer to home, he built the College of the Propagation of the Faith on the Piazza di Spagna. Throughout his career, he was stuck awkwardly compromising in the Thirty Years War between Catholic southern Europe and Protestant northern Europe. As a Catholic he was devoted to the south, but as a friend of France, who supported the Protestants, he was devoted to the north. France even helped Italy’s papacy to gain independence of Spain. Later, Urban disastrously attempted to overtake the duchy of Castro in the first war of Castro, leading to a depletion of the papal fortune and a mortifying strike against the Barberini’s honor. The death of Pope Urban VIII in 1644 occurred in the aftermath of this catastrophic war, and thus the former Maffeo Barberini left our world a rather unpopular man, buried in a tomb behind the high altar of St. Peter’s.
The reign of Pope Urban VIII of the Barberini family was characterized by an extravagant level of nepotism. Urban appointed three of his relatives as cardinals, and piled positions, rank, and wealth upon each. He handed out important roles within the Vatican, the Inquisition, and the Roman Army, as well as roles in foreign diplomacy to his relatives with aplomb.
The first familial cardinal nominated by Pope Urban VIII was his nephew Francesco Barberini. Francesco studied at the University of Pisa with Barberini family friend Galileo Galilei, and became a cardinal in October 1623, at the age of 26. Francesco was made papal legate to Avignon, and special legate to Paris and Spain. Unfortunately, however, Francesco was not a very skilled negotiator, and his efforts in these roles produced no notable achievements. In 1633, Francesco was given the position of Grand Inquisitor of the Roman Inquisition. He was notably one of only three inquisitors to refuse to condemn Galileo during the trials concerning Copernicanism in Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning Two Chief World Systems. Francesco was a significant patron of the arts, and he was responsible for acquiring the land upon which the Palazzo Barberini was constructed. He amassed a significant library, and contributed to the restoration of a number of churches in various locations.
The second familial cardinal nominated by Pope Urban VIII was his brother Antonio Marcello Barberini, known as Antonio the Elder. Antonio was A devout Capuchin friar, Antonio was appointed cardinal in 1624. He served as Grand Inquisitor of the Roman Inquisition prior to Francesco Barberini, and served as the Vatican Librarian. Antonio was a more capable negotiator than his nephew Francesco, and he successfully managed his position as Bishop of Senigallia. Antonio was most notable for supporting the construction of many churches throughout Rome, including Santa Maria della Concezione.
The third familial cardinal nominated by Pope Urban VIII was his nephew Antonio Barberini, known as Antonio the Younger. Antonio was given legate positions in Urbino (1631) and Avignon (1633), and was later appointed as Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church (1638). Antonio also served as a leader of the Papal Army during the Wars of Castro.
Taddeo Barberini, another of Pope Urban VIII’s nephews, was given significant roles in the secular arena. Between his uncle’s generosity, his wife Anna Colonna’s family prestige, and his father Don Carlo Barberini’s estate, Taddeo found himself immersed in wealth and importance. He was made commander of the Papal Army (despite his apparent lack of skill and experience), and led Urban’s forces in the Wars of Castro. Through his wife’s family, Taddeo was also made the Prince of Palestrina. He also gained the position of Prefect of Rome.
The three nephews, Francesco, Antonio, and Taddeo were fiercely competitive with one another. This led to egregious spending and corruption, which Pope Urban VIII facilitated. After the fall of the Urban papacy, Pope Leo X took critical action against the Barberinis. The nephews had to flee the country in disguise to escape prosecution. At the conclusion of Leo X’s investigation into the Barberini papacy, it was discovered that the extreme nepotism of Pope Urban VIII gave the Barberini family a quantity of wealth some twelve times larger than the annual income of the papacy.
The decline of the Barberini family began with the growing unpopularity of Pope Urban VIII. During his pontificate, he spent much of the papacy treasury on inconsequential thing that did not necessarily benefit the people. For example, at the very beginning of his pontificate, Urban VIII spent an exorbitant amount of money on the baldacchino of St. Peter’s Basilica, which aimed mainly at advancing the papal throne. Additionally, there was a lot of speculation about Urban VIII’s extreme nepotism and his gifting of large amounts of money to his nephews and other relatives. Urban VIII inherited 16 million scudi of debt at the beginning of his pontificate, but by 1640, he had raised the debt to 35 million scudi. Eventually, 80 percent of annual papal income was used for interest repayments.
The final major event during Pope Urban VIII’s pontificate was the War of Castro, which ended up further embarrassing the pope. Some of Urban VIII’s nephews got into a quarrel with Duke Odoardo Farnese who lived in Castro. The angered nephews went to Urban VIII and asked him to punish Odoardo. So, in 1639, Urban VIII banned the export of grain from Castro, which was Odoardo’s major source of income. Since Odoardo had no money left, he could not pay off his debts to the Roman debtors. Thus, the debtors sought Urban VIII to punish Odoardo as well. Finally, in 1641, Urban VIII sent an army to take over Castro. He sent Luigi Mattei to command 12,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry, which completely overwhelmed the city. Once the city was captured, Urban VIII excommunicated Odoardo immediately.
Odoardo, in response, formed an alliance with the Republic of Venice, Modena, and Tuscany to create an army to invade the Papal States. The army was so large that it had the possibility of taking over Rome itself. Urban VIII thus became anxious and began increasing taxes and raising additional forces. During the next two to three years, ongoing fighting led to little result. However, both sides spent significant amounts of money during the war.
Finally, in 1643, the papal forces lost a crucial battle at the Battle of Lagoscuro, and they were forced to surrender. A peace treaty was signed in Ferrera, and Odoardo’s power and status was completely restored. The defeat of the papal forces was a huge disgrace to Urban VIII, as it not only exacerbated his reputation of spending money, but it also signified his military weakness. Pope Urban VIII died a few months after the peace treaty was signed. The people were so enraged that, as soon as he died, they quickly destroyed the bust of Urban VIII on the Capitoline Hill.
The next pope that was elected was Pope Innocent X from the Pamphili family. As soon as he was elected, he began an investigation of the Barberini family to see how much money and land Urban VIII’s nephews received. After the investigation, it was reported that the Barberini family had accumulated an astounding amount of 30 million ducats, around twelve times the annual income of the entire Papal States. After hearing the news, three of the nephews, Antonio the Younger, Francesco, and Taddeo Barberini, quickly and secretly fled Rome for France where they were under the protection of King Louis XIV of France.
After several years, Taddeo’s son ended up marrying the niece of Innocent X, and the runaway nephews were allowed to return to Rome in 1653. However, the Barberini family was never able to return to power like the days during Urban VIII.
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