Barberini – a recipe for immortality
Initially, the coat of arms of the Tuscany-based Tafani family depicted tabanus sudeticus, commonly known as dark giant horseflies. Believing the name and the elements of the coat of arms to be less than nobilitating in time both were abandoned and a new name was taken from the name of the Tuscan seat of the family – Barberino Vald’Elsa, while the common flies were changed to noble bees. The origins of the family date back to the XI century, but it was not until the XVII century that this rather inconspicuous noble family became a significant player in the city on the Tiber and then became very wealthy as well. This was contributed to by its greatest representative – initially papal nuncio in France, later cardinal, Maffeo Barberini. Connections with the French court helped to elevate him to the papal throne in 1623 and to a large extent influenced the politics of his pontificate for the next twenty-one years. The new, relatively young and energetic pope, who took on the name of Urban VIII, was accompanied in his management of the State of the Church by numerous nepots, relatives and friends, who assumed significant positions, in this way gaining equally significant incomes. One of the pope’s brothers, Antonio Marcello, who led a life of a humble monk, acquired the title of cardinal, while the other – Carlo, became a Gonfalonier of the Church and the general of papal armies, as well as governor of the Borgo district. The mantle of cardinal was also given to two of Carlo’s sons: Francesco Barberini, who also assumed the post of Superintendent of the ecclesiastical state, as well as Antonio Barberini. Both the nephews were also granted profitable positions of Vice-Chancellor and Camerlengo. The third of the pope’s nephews was also given an important role. After all, the most important element of the dynastical policy of almost each and every successor of St. Peter was to guarantee himself a successor who would represent the same surname and the same family. Since two cardinals were not able to ensure it, the task of providing a male heir fell on the shoulders of Taddeo Barberini. In 1627 the pope bestowed him with the title of Prince of Palestrina, to be soon followed by his marriage to Anna of the Colonna family – the Princess of Paliano, a representative of the greatest family in Rome. In this way the Barberinis ensured themselves high social status and significance among the Roman elites. After the death of his father Carlo (1630), Taddeo took over all his functions and appanages as well as the post of Prefect of Rome. The nouveau riche Barberinis who were treated as upstarts in Rome had to offer a lot to the family of Anna Colonna in order for them to agree to the marriage and even then it was with its nose turned up. The pope assigned rather large sums to the newlyweds and proposed the title of cardinal to Anna’s brother as well as transferring two of Anna’s sisters to convents under the care of the Barberinis.
As years passed, and the pontificate of Urban VIII was long indeed, the family became a true financial potentate. From appanages received thanks to the functions held and papal grants, the Barberinis bought land, castles, duchies, and titles. If it was necessary the even resorted to war, which emptied the papal treasury and ravaged the lands of the State of the Church, in order to obtain the Duchy of Castro as their own. The conflict which lasted two years (1642-1644), turned out to be a military and financial fiasco and in addition a method to defraud money from the papal treasury by the cardinal-nephews – Antonio and Taddeo. At the same time in order to obtain the appropriate sums for widespread expenses, they did not shy away from increasing already existing taxes or levying new ones on the populace of the State of the Church.
The money was also needed to finance the pope’s numerous artistic projects, as he was an exceptional person with humanistic interests, who looked favorably upon artists, writers and erudites – a veritable pope of the arts, who also dabbled in poetry himself. He greatly valued the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, whom he basically claimed as his own during his pontificate, entrusting him with his most important foundations. He willingly spent time in the company of Galileo, supporting his scientific endeavors, right until 1633, when he condemned him to house arrest. The pope’s interests were shared by all his nephews – admirers of theatre, books and the arts. Artistic patronage was their greatest achievement and consumed a large portion of their time and income. They spared no expense for collecting rare manuscripts, they put on spectacles in Palazzo Barberini and the theatre created there, they supported scientific research. They were generous protectors and funders, thanks to whom musicians, writers and all kinds of researchers flocked to Rome, looking for commissions, but also for inspiration, upon which they could count in the court of the Barberinis. They in turn wanted to create a new era – a golden age of art and science and in this way to be remembered by later generations.
Visible proof of the significance of the family was the family palace (Palazzo Barberini), built on a scale unknown to Rome at that time, where today the art collections gathered by the Barberinis are located (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica). This museum cannot be overlooked not only due to its imposing art gallery. After we walk through the whole building, on which the greatest artists of that time worked, including Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini, we see the outstanding paintings and the decorated with frescos vaults of the plethora of rooms inhabited by three of the pope’s nephews, a real surprise awaits us in the last chamber. A spectacular vision, a true dream of power spreads right in front of our eyes, or more precisely above our heads. In the Grand Salon (Salone Grande) of truly royal proportions, on the level of second floor, the painting Triumph of Divine Providence by Pietro da Cortona, spreads across the vault, being nothing more than the glory of the Barberini family, which thanks to divine providence was elevated to the heavens.
In time the megalomania of the family, but also the criticism of the pope’s fiscal policy became stronger and stronger. The alliance of the Barberinis with France also raised discontent. And the reason was not the financial benefits of the nepots received from the monasteries entrusted to them by the French king, or the pro-French politics of the pope. This would not have been anything special, as popes for centuries had not been free of pressure, either from the king of France or from the king of Spain, if Europe hadn’t entangled itself in a never-ending Thirty-Years War. The situation reached absurd levels at the moment when the ruler of the Papal States, Urban VII, became an ally of French king, supporting protestants, and an enemy of the king of Spain who fought against them.
Finally the last chapter: barbarism. The family, so rapidly climbing up the social ladder and at the same time so greedily multiplying its riches, had many enemies in Rome. It was they, skeptical towards the pope, who supplied the motto, which quickly became very popular in the city: Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini (What the barbarians did not do, the Barberinis did). The Italian words of “Barberini” and “barbari” which suit each other to a tee, related to the accusations against them of using the Colosseum as rock quarry, from which building material was obtained for private foundations and enhancements to St. Peter’s Basilica (San Pietro in Vaticano), as well as the truly barbarian melting down of bronze supporting girders from antique times found in the portico of the Pantheon, in order to put up a giant baldachin in St. Peter’s Basilica.
At the moment of the pope’s death, habitual riots and fights broke out, stirred up by factions unfavorably disposed towards the family, fueled by antagonistic towards the Barberinis allies of Spain and Austria. With fervor, news of the nepots’ embezzlements spread. It was even more appalling due to the fact that at the time of the death of Urban VIII, the papal treasury was virtually empty. Yet the nepots – cardinals Antonio and Francesco Barberini, appearing at the following conclave, were sure of their strength and significance. With reluctance, but not without hope, they accepted the election of their former protégée Giovanni Battista Pamphilj, who took on the name of Innocent X, as the Bishop of Rome. As it turned out the new pontifex maximus, meticulously summed up the family’s earnings, acquired during the pontificate of Urban VIII, estimating them to equal the unimaginable until then sum of 105 million scudos. Initially he even began an investigation against the malpractices of the papal nephews, confiscated their estates, took away their church offices and appanages. All three of them left Rome, looking for shelter at the French court for fear of being imprisoned. However, when it turned out, that the mechanism of multiplying wealth of the Pamphilj family is reminiscent to that of the Barberinis and besides that the precedence of financial persecutions in the face of the current pope departing this earthly vale serves nobody, the investigation was suspended, estates returned, while family members gradually came back to Rome. It was also difficult to force them to return the money which they seized, as the wedding Olimpia Giustiniani – the granddaughter of Olimpia Maidalchini, a close relative and “grey eminence” of pope Innocent X, with Maffeo – the son of Taddeo Barberini and Anna Colonna, was planned. Therefore, the unpleasantness of impoverishment did not affect the Barberinis. Gradually they recovered all their wealth, however the shine of the family slowly faded. This burning fire was maintained solely by Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who after returning to Rome and recovering his functions continued to finance artistic endeavors of protégée artists, contributing to the modernization and construction of churches, among those Santi Luce e Martina near Forum Romanum. Cardinal Antonio Barberini went through a moral renewal and became very religious, while Taddeo had earlier died in France in 1647. Several decades later, in 1738 the male line of the family was extinguished. The family name, coat of arms and estates were transferred to the Colonna family, in this way creating a branch of the Barberini-Colonna family, then in the XIX century to the Saccheti family.
After World War II, the Barberini palace and later other depleted in the meantime collections, were taken over by the Italian government creating the aforementioned art gallery.
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