Most tourist visits to Rome include a stop at the Villa Borghese. The name evokes elegance and the splendour of the Baroque Age—the art gallery contained within holds some of the genuine treasures of the Renaissance art world. Visitors may not realise this was once the private residence and gardens of one of the leading aristocratic families of Rome. First laid out in the early years of the 17th century, the gardens of the Villa Borghese, the most extensive built in Rome since Antiquity, are still the third largest public park in Rome (80 hectares). Remodelled in the early 19th century along the lines of the ‘English garden’, they were given to the city of Rome and opened to the public in 1903. The famous Spanish Steps leads up to the park and to the Villa which now houses the Galleria Borghese and other buildings, including the Villa Medici, Vila Giulia and the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, a zoo, and sports buildings that were built to host equestrian events at the 1960 Summer Olympics. The Gardens of the Villa Borghese are an integral part of the cultural landscape of Rome; they have been painted, described in poetry, and depicted musically in Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome tone poem from 1924.
The Borghese are still today one of Rome’s, and Italy’s, most prominent aristocratic families. Like most of the Roman princely clans, their pre-eminence derived from one of their members being elevated to the throne of Saint Peter. Some of the families of the papal aristocracy included more than one pope, but the Borghese had only one, Paul V, and one tremendously influential cardinal-nephew, Scipione. Also like many papal families, their origins were not in Rome itself. This family originally came from Siena, in Tuscany. The progenitor is usually given as a 13th-century wool merchant, Tiezzo da Monticiano, whose nephew Borghese gave his name to the family. Two centuries later, one of these merchants, Agostino Borghese, rose to prominence as a soldier in the wars between Siena and Florence—the competition between these cities was not only over local control of the growing wealth and industry of Tuscany, but was part of a much bigger struggle for influence in Italy between the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. Clever families like the Borghese could play off this rivalry and, if done right, obtain rewards from both sides. Agostino was first created a hereditary count of the Empire in 1432, then in 1458 was elevated to count palatine of the Lateran, an honorary position in papal service.
Agostino’s sons and grandsons continued to move between the worlds of trade and politics in both Siena and Rome, then his great-grandson, Count Marcantonio moved his family to Rome, as the ambassador from Siena to the Holy See in 1537. Shifting employers, he became a legal official within the papal government in the 1540s-50s, and ultimately papal governor of the cities of Ravenna and Orvieto. His shift in focus can also be seen in his two marriages: the first in 1531, to a Sienese patrician’s daughter, Aurelia Bargagli, then in 1548 to Flaminia degli Astalli, a Roman noblewoman. The eldest son from this second marriage would become Pope Paul V.
Camillo Borghese (1552-1621) studied law like his father, and entered papal service in the 1570s, quickly rising in the hierarchy until he was appointed vice-legate to Bologna, 1588, nuncio to Spain, 1595, and cardinal, 1596. As cardinal he filled the key administrative positions of secretary of the Roman Inquisition and vicar of the bishop of Rome. In the conclave of 1605, Borghese was found to be a good compromise candidate between the rival factions of French and Spanish cardinals, and was elected Pope Paul V. The nearly two decades of his papacy were important for the Catholic Reformation, reinforcing the authority of the Church, and in particular supporting the memory of previous reformers through canonisation: Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, Aloysius Gonzaga, Teresa de Avila, Carlo Borromeo and Philippo Neri were all made saints in this period (though several canonisations were completed only the year after Paul’s death by Gregory XV). The Borghese papacy is perhaps better known, however, for its policy of restoring the grandeur of the papal capital city—in particular, through the completion of the Basilica of St. Peter. Paul V commissioned Carlo Maderno to finally complete the massive building by constructing a monumental façade, and, not suffering from an overabundance of humility, ensured that the construction bore the inscription IN HONOREM PRINCIPIS APOST PAVLVS V BVRGHESIVS ROMANVS PONT MAX AN MDCXII PONT VII (‘In honour of the Prince of Apostles, Paul V Borghese, a Roman, Supreme Pontiff, in the year 1612, the seventh of his pontificate’).
Like most Renaissance popes, Paul V was swift to elevate his family through offices and land grants. You never knew how brief your time in the papal throne was going to be, so it was imperative to act fast. His two brothers were both given huge estates in the rich agricultural lands north of the city (known as the Roman Campagna), and both elevated to noble titles: Giovanni Battista was named Prince of Vivaro (1609), and governor of the Borgo and Castle of Sant’Angelo (the principal papal centres in Rome besides the Quirinal Palace); and Francesco, was appointed Duke of Rignano (1607), and general of the papal armies. A Borghese cousin, also named Camillo, was named archbishop of their home town of Siena in 1607. But as far as papal nepotism goes, the real star was the Pope’s sister’s son, Scipione Caffarelli, who took the name Borghese, and became the ‘Cardinal-Nephew’ (cardinal nipote), the recognised head of the papal government. But Cardinal Borghese was more well known for his lavish parties, bordering on scandalous, and his skill and taste as a collector of antiquities and Renaissance masters. He was notorious for heaping favours on attractive young men, including one he allegedly had promoted to the cardinalate, Stefano Pignatelli. It was Scipione who built the Villa Borghese on the Pincian Hill, and laid out its gardens. He was a patron of Caravaggio and Bernini (two of my very favourite artists), and became one of the greatest collectors of art in Europe. His collections form the core of the Galleria Borghese in his former pleasure palace.
One of the key features of the Roman aristocracy, of course, is that popes and cardinals do not have sons (at least legitimate ones), so their wealth and power are channelled into nephews. In this case, everything went to Giovanni Battista’s son, Marcantonio II, 2nd prince of Vivaro in 1609, and 1st prince of Sulmona in 1610. Sulmona was not a papal fief, but was granted by the King of Spain as a favour to the pope, whose favour he was attempting to court. Located in the northern part of the Kingdom of Naples, the Abruzzo, it had been one of the earliest principalities created on the peninsula by the Habsburg kings, in 1526. The new prince was also created a Grandee of Spain and Knight of the Order of Calatrava. Closer to Rome, Marcantonio was loaded down with even more titles and estates: Principe di Sant’Angelo, Principe di San Polo, Duca di Monte Compatri, Duca di Palombara, Duca di Poggio Nativo, and several other fiefs with titles of marquis, count or baron. Much of these were paid for by the enormous dowry he received upon his marriage to Camilla Orsini, heiress of one of the oldest and most powerful families in Rome. As part of Paul V’s foreign policy, his nephew Marcantonio had at first been proposed as a groom for princesses—a daughter of Henry IV of France, or a daughter of the Grand Duke of Tuscany—but in the end, an Orsini marriage tied the Borghese forever to the top ranks of the Roman aristocracy. To further solidify the dynasty’s long-term presence in Rome, Paul V also built the stunning Pauline Chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to serve as the dynastic crypt, which is still does today.
And of course they would need a centre of operations for the living, so the Pope also gave his nephew a sumptuous palazzo near the Campo Marzio, the Palazzo Borghese. Situated on the northern edge of the ancient centre of the city, near the river, the Palazzo had been purchased in 1604 and enlarged by Cardinal Camillo before he became pope, then given to his brothers; it was developed further in the later 17th century, and its new interior courtyard has been described as amongst the most spectacular anywhere. Other palaces were built nearby to house other members of the family, and the square was ultimately named for the family, Piazza Borghese. Most of the family’s great artworks were kept here until transferred to the Villa Borghese up on the hill. In more recent times, the Palazzo Borghese has hosted (since the 1920s) the exclusive aristocratic club, Circolo della caccia on the piano nobile, and the embassy of Spain.
Marcantonio’s son, Paolo, would also make a spectacular marriage (in 1638), to another great heiress, Olimpia Aldobrandini, 3rd Principessa di Meldola, 2nd Principessa di Rossano. The Aldobrandini were originally from Florence, and had been elevated into the Roman aristocracy by the election of Pope Clement VIII (Paul V’s predecessor). Meldola was a large estate in the Romagna (one of the main provinces of the Papal States), while Rossano, like Sulmona, was a principality created by the king of Spain in Calabria. Like so many papal families, the Borghese were now connected to both the Papal States and to the Kingdom of Naples. But aside from these two important feudal properties, Meldola and Rossano, much of the Aldobrandini fortune passed to other families (through Olimpia’s second marriage, to a Pamphili), and the Borghese would have to wait until the middle of the 18th century, and the outcome of lengthy lawsuits, to recoup their expected inheritance.
Inheriting all of his family’s vast wealth in 1717, Marcantonio III, 3rd Prince of Sulmona, was able to play host to princes and prelates, attracting the attention of the Emperor himself, Charles VI, who appointed him Viceroy of Naples in 1721. His pro-Habsburg position was adopted in part to secure the restoration of his Neapolitan properties (especially Rossano), which had been confiscated from his father for supporting the Bourbons during the War of Spanish Succession. His Roman origins helped smooth over political tensions between Naples and Rome, but in the end he was replaced by an Austrian, one of the Emperor’s favourites. In the next generation, the Borghese were lured back into support of the Bourbons, once more in charge in Naples after 1735, and their head, Prince Camillo Borghese, was created a Grandee of Spain, 1739, and a Knight of the Order of San Gennaro in 1740. They of course maintained ties to the Papacy, with Cardinal Francesco acting as Prefect of the Papal Palace, while sisters reinforced marital links with both Roman families (Odeschalchi and Pamphili) and Neapolitan families (Caraffa). This was continued in the subsequent generation as well, with the eldest son, Marcantonio IV, serving as a Senator of Rome; the second son Paolo taking on the Aldobrandini inheritance (and recognised as Prince in his own right, 1777); the third son, Cardinal Scipione, becoming Prefect of the Papal Household and Camerlengo of the Sacred College; and a fourth son, acting as ambassador of Spain to the court of Berlin. Marcantonio also married well, to yet another heiress, this time from the powerful Florentine Salviati family, and he made use of his wife’s large dowry to improve the gardens of the Villa Borghese in the 1770s-80s, remodelling them along the lines of the fashionable English garden style, and opening the Villa itself as a public museum, one of the first of its kind.
When the explosive energy of the French Revolution expanded into Italy in the late 1790s, the elderly Prince Marcantonio IV was a tepid supporter, but his sons, Camillo and Francesco, both embraced the movement fully, joining the revolutionary armies of Napoleon, and putting their faith fervently in the his ideals for the reinvigoration of Italy. Both brothers fought with Napoleon across Europe, but followed somewhat different paths. Camillo married Pauline Bonaparte in 1803, was created a Prince of the French Empire, 1805, and Sovereign Duke of Guastalla in 1806 (a tiny state in the Po Valley formerly held by the Gonzagas of Mantua). Both he and Francesco (known as Prince Aldobrandini, the family’s secundogeniture) rose through the ranks of the French armies, Camillo in particular making a name for himself by encouraging the Poles to rise up against their Russian overlords, and as a reward, being named Governor-General of the departments of France on the ‘far side’ (from a Parisian perspective) of the Alps (‘les départements-au-delà des Alpes’) in 1808.
Prince Camillo ruled from Turin as a virtual sovereign, though he did it alone, as by this point his marriage to Pauline was in name only. Camillo also agreed (under pressure) to sell a number of the Borghese treasures, notably the collections of ancient sculpture, to the Louvre in Paris. The famous (though somewhat scandalous at the time) Canova sculpture of the Emperor’s sister, however, remained in Italy.
Camillo’s younger brother Francesco also married into Napoleon’s intimate circle, to one of Empress Josephine’s chief ladies-in-waiting, Adèle de la Rochefoucauld, and was named Brigadier General and First Equerry of the Emperor in 1811. When the Empire fell in 1814, Prince Camillo submitted swiftly to the Allies in Piedmont, and retired to his palace in Florence (the former Palazzo Salviati, now called the Palazzo Borghese), while Pauline remained in the Palazzo Borghese in Rome. Prince Francesco remained in France, and continued to serve in the now royalist army until he retired in 1830. He succeed his childless older brother in 1832, and, having been formally re-confirmed in his Roman titles by the Pope in 1831, began to purchase even more properties from Italian families who had not done so well under Napoleon: the principality of Nettuno, on the coast south of Rome, and the dukedom of Bomarzo, in the hills of northern Lazio.
Francesco’s three sons were models for how the world of the high aristocracy would look in the nineteenth century—rich, completely cosmopolitan and mostly floating above national borders. This is best seen in their marriages: the eldest, Marcantonio V, 8th Prince of Sulmona, married Lady Gwendoline Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury; Camillo, Prince Aldobrandini, married Princess Marie-Flore von Arenberg (from the Austrian branch of that family); while Scipione, Duke Salviati (a title confirmed by the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1834) married Arabella de FitzJames, daughter of the French duke of FitzJames (a descendant of King James II). from these marriages sprouted the three main lines that continue today: Borghese, Aldobrandini and Salviati. A fourth separate branch was formed when Marcantonio’s third son, Giulio, married the heiress of the house of Torlonia (a Roman family, of French origins) in 1872, and took on their titles as Prince of Fucino (in Abruzzo). Other cadet branches followed as this family tree exploded: the princes of Nettuno, the dukes of Bomarzo (also princes of Sant’Angelo e San Polo), and the Princes of Leonforte. Depending on your reckoning, there are seven extant lines of the House of Borghese (though some of these use the surnames Aldobrandini, Salviati or Torlonia—see separate entries for these families).
In the 20th century, there have been several prominent Borghese princes or princesses. Scipione, 10th Prince of Sulmona, gained international fame by participating in the Peking to Paris automobile race of 1907. He was an avid traveller and published several accounts of journeys in Asia; back home he served as a member of the radical party in the Italian Parliament, 1904-13, interested particularly in agricultural reform.
But reform wasn’t enough to save the precarious family finances (which in part determined the donation of the Villa Borghese to the state in 1903), and most of the lands outside of Rome were sold off by the 1920s. In the difficult decades that followed, many family members supported the rise of fascism in Italy, notably Giacomo Borghese a cousin from the branch of Poggio Nativo, known as the Principe di Leonforte due to his marriage to the heiress of the Sicilian Lanza-Branciforte family in 1927. He was President of the Council of the Province of Rome, 1936, and Governor of the City of Rome, 1939-43. It was Prince Scipione’s nephew, Prince Junio Valerio, who was the family’s most prominent public face, known as ‘The Black Prince’. A prominent naval commander in the 1940s, Junio Valerio later became a leader of the post-war far right movement in Italy, a founder of the Fronte Nazionale in 1967, and leader of an unsuccessful neo-Fascist coup in December 1970.
Sticking to more tried and true methods of family aggrandisement, the Black Prince’s elder brother, Flavio, 12th Prince of Sulmona, made one last spectacular Borghese marriage, in 1927, to Angela Paterno, 7th Princess of Sperlinga dei Manganelli, though which he acquired estates in Sicily and the very grand but somewhat dreary (let’s call it shabby chic) 15th-century Palazzo Manganelli in Catania. Their son Camillo was head of the family until 2011, and their grandson Scipione (b. 1970), is 14th Prince of Sulmona, 9th Prince of Sperlinga, 15th Prince of Rossano, etc. Other prominent members of the dynasty in recent years have come from the cadet branch of Bomarzo, including Princess Marcella, who founded a cosmetics empire in the 1950s (part of Revlon), and her grandson, Lorenzo Borghese, an American reality television star.
Some Borghese properties to visit outside Rome, from north to south:
(images from Wikimedia Commons)
Current titles held in the senior branch: Principe di Sulmona, Principe di Rossano, Principe di Monte Compatri, Principe di Vivaro, Principe di Sperlinga dei Manganelli, Principe di Nettuno, Principe di Sant’Angelo, Principe di San Polo dei Cavalieri, Duca di Palombara, Duca di Canemorto, Duca di Castelchiodato, Duca di Poggio Nativo, Duca di Bomarzo, plus 6 titles of marchese, 2 of count, 1 of baron, and more than 15 titles of signore.