Piombino: A sovereign principality for the Appiani, Ludovisi and Boncompagni

Renaissance Italy is known for its complex political geography, with numerous small duchies and principalities punching above their weight in terms of the generation of political and philosophical ideas and staggeringly beautiful works of art. Mantua, Ferrara, Parma are all well known. There were also several much smaller principalities whose histories are not as known, such as Camerino, Finale or Piombino. The last of these, though miniscule, maintained its autonomy for centuries as an important fortified port on the Tuscan coast, and enjoyed sovereign status all the way up to 1801 when Napoleon incorporated it into his new Italian realms. As perhaps a bit of sweet revenge, it was a component part of the Principality of Piombino, the island of Elba, to which Napoleon was exiled after his defeat in 1814.

the Principality of Piombino

The Principality of Piombino was ruled for most of its history by the Appiani family. In the 17th century, it passed by marriage to a Papal family, the Ludovisi, and then in the 18th century to another Papal family, the Boncompagni—both of these families were originally from Bologna. A subsequent conjoined family, the Ludovisi-Boncompagni outlived the demise of the sovereign principality of Piombino, and continued to be one of the richest and most powerful Roman aristocratic clans in the 19th century, and indeed until the present day. They built enormous palaces in Rome, the most famous today serving as the Embassy of the United States of America. This post will therefore look at these three families and their amazing residences together.

Guarnito d’Appiano, who died in about 1250, was a notary in the Republic of Pisa. His family were probably from the valley of the Era river, a short distance to the southwest, in a place known as Al Piano, which no longer exists. His grandson rose to be captain of the Notary Corporation, and his great-grandson Vanni became a senator of the Pisan Republic, then Chancellor of the Senate of the nearby Republic of Lucca in 1347. Vanni’s son, Jacopo, rose much higher to become the Lord of Pisa in 1392—his multiple marriages match his ascent, from another notary’s daughter to a local noblewoman, and finally to a Colonna then a Malaspina, two of the grandest noble houses in Italy. As Pisa began to crumble in the face of Genoese and Lombard power in the north, Jacopo’s son, Gherardo, sold the lordship of the city in 1399 to the powerful Visconti of Milan and carved out a lordship for himself in the local Pisan port town of Piombino and several offshore islands, including Elba, Montecristo and Pianosa. For the next century, they were not referred to as princes but as ‘sovereign lords’. The Holy Roman Emperor kept at least nominal suzerainty over the territories (as he did for most of northern Italy), and in 1402, named Gherardo a ‘count palatine’ of the Empire, which was a mostly honorary title, but indicated that he was of high noble rank and with ruling powers (palatine, ‘of the palace’) in his estates.

arms of the Appiani family

The port town of Piombino was built on a promontory that juts out into the Tyrrhenian Sea. It had been a port as far back as the ancient Etruscans, who wanted to get to important deposits of iron ore on the nearby island of Elba. Their settlement here became known as Populonia, which gradually lost prominence to its smaller neighbour, Populino, whose name (it is thought) morphed into Piombino. The ancient Etruscan fort of Populonia was replaced by a castle in the 14th century, and guarded the approaches to the small principality from the north.

the castle at Populonia

A few miles around the headland, the town of Piombino outgrew Populonia by the Middle Ages. Both towns and the adjacent islands became part of the Republic of Pisa in the early 12th century. In the town of Piombino, the first residence of the Appiani lords was the Palazzo Appiani, sometimes called the Palazzo Vecchio, which dominated the port. Built over existing dungeons, the palace was constructed in the mid-14th century, but became the seat of offices of the principality when a new residence was built at the Citadella (see below). The building served as a prison in the 19th century, a school in the 20th century, and today houses the Museum of the Sea and the Institute of Marine Science.

former Palazzo Appiani, Piombino, and a view across to Elba

Across a narrow stretch of water (the Piombino Channel), the island of Elba was long known for its mines—the Greeks called it Aethalia (‘smoky’) for the smoke rising from its furnaces. After the Romans it was ruled by successive Germanic lords until it was incorporated into the Pisan Republic in the 11th century. The Pisans fortified it well, with towers like the Torre San Giovanni, to defend it against persistent raids by Saracens and Muslim pirates from the southern Mediterranean.

Torre San Giovanni, Elba

Gherardo d’Appiani was succeeded in the Lordship of Piombino by his son, Jacopo II, then by his daughter, then his younger brother—though the uncle had to take it by force from his niece. Then in 1457, rule passed to an illegitimate son, Jacopo III, who brought in architects to create a new Citadella in Piombino, up on a hill away from the port, within which he built an entire court complex, including a new princely residence, the Palazzo Principesco, a building for court officers and staff, the Palazzo del Corte, a church, stables, and so on. The princely residence was senselessly demolished in 1959 to make way for a private villa; the remaining Palazzo del Corte now houses the Museum of Archaeology.

The remains of the Citadella today (the yellow is the Palazzo del Corte)

Jacopo III’s sons expanded the family influence considerably. Jacopo IV was a prominent condottiero, a soldier for hire, mostly leading armies of the king of Naples, but also the armies of Ferrara, Siena and Florence. Late in life he was back in service of Naples, now ruled by Spain, which brought him into a closer alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor (Maximilian) who named him Prince of the Empire in 1509. His younger brother Gherardo was briefly Count of Corsica (1486-88), and their youngest brother Belisario established a cadet branch of lords of Valle, based in the castle of Follonica around the corner on the Tuscan coast. All three married daughters of the highest Italian lords: a Piccolomini of Amalfi, a Pico della Mirandola, and a Sforza; their sister married a Medici. The lords of Valle became marchesi in 1552, briefly staked a claim to rule in Piombino in 1603 on the extinction of the senior line, then became extinct themselves in 1654.

From 1509, therefore the members of the Appiani family were referred to as princes, though technically their domain remained a sovereign lordship, not a principality (ie, the rank was attached to the dynasty, not the place). Jacopo V ruled Piombino as a Renaissance prince, collecting artists and art in his miniature court. He continued his father’s alliance with Naples, and married a daughter of one of the illegitimate royal lines (Mariana d’Aragona), but from 1514, he began to shift his policies more towards Florence, marrying as his second wife a Ridolfi, niece of Pope Leo X (Giovanni de’ Medici), then a Salviati (another niece).  

Jacopo V Appiani, Lord of Piombino

When Jacopo V died in 1545, his son was a child, so his widow, Elena Salviati, ruled as regent. Her close family ties to the Medici family notwithstanding, her rule clashed with the designs of her cousin Duke Cosimo I. Cosimo was establishing himself as Duke of Florence from 1537, and wanted to expand his control of the Tuscan coast—in 1548, the Emperor Charles V ceded Piombino and its islands to Cosimo in return for a sizable cash donation (it’s always so good to be a Medici!). Suddenly dispossessed and betrayed, Elena and little Jacopo VI fled to Genoa and tried to persuade the maritime republic to retake their territory by force. Finally in 1557, meeting the Emperor in person, Elena convinced him to return her son’s lordship, though the strategic island of Elba was divided up, with Cosimo retaining some parts, and the Emperor gaining rights to garrison a fortress as part of his new strangely named Italian territory, the Stato dei Presidi (‘the state of garrisons’), which he would rule as king of Spain. On Elba, the old Appiani port town of Porto Longone now became a Spanish garrison (and was much later renamed Porto Azzuro), while the Medici built a new city, Portoferraio, in the 1550s (today Elba’s main town).  In Piombino itself, Cosimo had also built a new fortress, the Cassero Pisano, which now returned to Appiani control.

Piombino and the Stato dei Presidi
Piombino in the 17th century

Jacopo VI had only daughters, so he left the lordship of Piombino to his illegitimate son, Alessandro, who proved to be very unpopular with the local elites and he was murdered after only four years in 1589. Philip II, King of Spain, as ruler of the Stato dei Presidi, stepped in to sort out the culprit and the succession, and agreed that the lordship should pass to Alessandro’s young son, Jacopo VII, even though there were some fully legitimate cousins. These established cadet branches that persisted into the 18th century—the lords of Cortemiglia and Cocconato—and even branches that persist today—the counts of Castelletto Uzzone and themarchesi of Baselica. Most of these estates are not in Tuscany, but in Piedmont, and these branches of the Appiani family became courtiers of the dukes of Savoy and kings of Sardinia.

Back in 1589, Jacopo VII, only 8, was governed by his mother, Isabella de Mendoza di Binasco (a Milanese noblewoman originally from a Spanish house), and her lover Don Felice d’Aragona (a Neapolitan nobleman serving as commander of the Spanish garrison in the Presidi). Philip II conducted a trial, and although Felice was found guilty in 1595 and sentenced to life imprisonment, no one believed the accusations that Isabella herself was responsible for her husband Alessandro’s murder. So confident of her innocence, and seeing her popularity, Emperor Rudolf II raised the lordship of Piombino formally to a principality, in 1594 (with a subsidiary title, Marchese of Populonia). But the reign of this first Prince of Piombino was not long, and in 1603, he died.

His sister Isabella d’Appiano thus became 2nd Princess of Piombino, though not without a fight from Cosimo II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who wanted to expand his position on the Tuscan coast. The Emperor governed the territory himself at first, but by 1611 agreed to recognise Isabella as sovereign princess. She had married first her cousin, Jorge Mendoza di Binasco; then in 1622 she married someone more of her stature, Paolo Giordano II Orsini, the Duke of Bracciano. She went to live mostly in Bracciano or in Rome, and Piombino was left to local governors.

In 1628, Philip IV of Spain took over Piombino, and governed it directly until 1634, when he granted it (and at least the nominal title over Elba) to Isabella’s daughter, Polissena Mendoza, and her husband Niccolò Ludovisi (who paid the Emperor a million florins for formal investment of the fief). Their son Gregorio only lived a few years, so the blood descent from Appiani to Ludovisi was actually broken, and Piombino and its territories continued in the Ludovisi line only through donation to children of his third wife, Costanza Pamphilj. Isabella d’Appiani, Duchess of Bracciano, lived on until 1661, but was no longer part of this story. Instead we need to turn to the city of Bologna and the family of Ludovisi.

arms of the Ludovisi family

Bologna is one of the major towns that grew up along the ancient Via Aemilia, a Roman road that gave its name to the province, Emilia. It was a booming centre of trade in the Middle Ages and the birthplace of the first European university. While papal authority was being established in neighbouring Romagna, many of the cities of Emilia governed themselves as republics which then usually developed into lordships. In the 1300s and 1400s there was a lot of back and forth between independence, domination from Rome, or foreign rule, and there were periods when one family dominated as lords, notably the Bentivoglio, from 1401 to 1512. After this, Bologna became firmly part of the Papal States, governed directly by Rome. Amongst the secondary families jostling for power in the later 15th century were the Ludovisi, who frequently served the city in various capacities like members of the Council of Elders. Girolamo Ludovisi rose to be a senator and Gonfalonier of Bologna—the latter one of the key communal offices. This clashed with the hold on power of the Bentivoglio, and they had him assassinated in 1511.

Bologna in the 16th century

His son Niccolò later reclaimed the family status be serving as a senator, and then boosted it by acquiring the lordship of Samoggia, just outside of Bologna. His nephew Pompeo did the same. It was Pompeo’s 3rd son, Alessandro (1554-1623) who then propelled the family into Italy’s highest ranks, as one of the most nepotistic—in the shortest amount of time—papacies in the history of the Church. Not that this was particularly unusual or frowned upon—it was expected that you would enrich your family—but it was the speed that astonished even contemporaries. Young Alessandro Ludovisi studied law at the University of Bologna, and soon obtained important offices within the papal government, and swiftly rose through the ranks to become Vicegerent of Rome in 1597 and Auditor of the Rota in 1599—two of the most senior posts within the administration of the Church. Appointed archbishop of his hometown of Bologna in 1612, then Cardinal in 1616, he was finally elected pope, as Gregory XV, in 1621.

Gregory XV with the cardinal-nephew, Ludovico Ludovisi

Almost immediately, Pope Gregory brought his brother Orazio to Rome, appointed him commander of the papal armies, and married his daughter Ippolita into one of the great Roman families, the Aldobrandini. He purchased for him two dukedoms, Fiano from the Sforza, and Zagarolo from the Colonna—both estates in the countryside surrounding Rome, Fiano to the northeast and Zagarolo to the southeast. And naturally, Gregory immediately appointed Orazio’s son, Ludovico, as a cardinal.

Cardinal Ludovico wasn’t the last new cardinal however; in just two and half years, Gregory XV elevated eleven cardinals, and most of these reflected his chief political aim in his papacy: the re-assertion of a strong alliance between Rome and Spain. Two Spanish cardinals were promoted, as was the then pro-Spanish Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu (though in 1622 he was already in the process of switching sides to a more anti-Spanish position). Some cardinals caps were sent to reward friends, such as the Boncompagni from back home in Bologna, or new Roman allies the Aldobrandini. The Pope also aimed to expand influence in Spanish-governed Naples, by arranging an engagement of his other nephew, Niccolò, to the heiress of one of the grandest Neapolitan families, the Gesualdo princes of Venosa.

Like many papal nephews, Cardinal Ludovico became his uncle’s powerful right-hand man in papal government. He swiftly was named his uncle’s successor as archbishop of Bologna, and was named Camerlengo of the Church (basically the head of the papal household). He built or remodelled several churches in Rome, including the Church of Sant’Ignazio Loyola, which became the family sepulchre (and the site of the magnificent tomb for Gregory XV).

the tomb of Pope Gregory XV

Ludovico also became a great patron of painters and writers, and a collector of antiquities. He built the Villa Ludovisi on the Pincian Hill, north and east of the centre of Rome, next to the other major villa and gardens being developed around the same time, the Villa Borghese. Located just outside the ancient city walls, the gardens of the Villa Ludovisi were extensive and later described as some of the loveliest in Italy. The estate had several smaller buildings too, notably the Casino dell’Aurora, named for the fresco of the Dawn painted by Guercino on one of its ceilings. This small ‘garden cottage’ had been built by the estate’s previous owner, Cardinal del Monte, and was remodelled by Ludovisi in the 1620s-30s. The main Villa itself was built fairly quickly in the 1620s and soon housed one of the best collections of antiquities and newly commissioned art in Rome. Some of its statues survive in the grounds of the US Embassy, which occupies an expanded Villa Ludovisi, renamed Palazzo Margherita in the early 20th century, to which we will return below.

the main building in the Villa Ludovisi
the gardens of the Villa Ludovisi, with the Casino dell’Aurora at left, and the old city walls at the top

Niccolò Ludovisi’s marriage to Donna Isabella Gesualdo, Princess of Venosa, Countess of Conza, and Lady of Gesualdo, could not be consummated right away, as she was only 11 when they were betrothed. Already princess in her own right (since the death of her father in a hunting accident in1613, followed by the death of her grandfather only a month later), she brought the immense wealth of this old Neapolitan aristocratic clan to the now already greatly enriched Ludovisi family. Venosa, Conza and Gesualdo are all situated in the hilly uplands of Campania, east of the city of Naples. The Gesualdo family’s most famous prince is Carlo (Isabella’s grandfather), known as one of most fascinating composers of late Renaissance music (and committer of a crime of passion against his own wife). But as a princely house, they will have their own separate blog post.

Niccolò Ludovisi as Prince of Piombino

Princess Isabella did not live for very long. She died after only two years of actual marriage, and left behind a daughter, Lavinia (I suppose technically the next Princess of Venosa), who died age 5. Niccolò married a second time, in 1632, to Polissena Mendoza, also known as Appiani, the Princess of Piombino from above. She lived another ten years, but also bore only one son, a child named Gregorio, who also soon died. Finally, Niccolò’s third marriage was to a Roman aristocrat, Costanza Pamphilj, a daughter of the infamously powerful Roman matron, Olimpia Maidalchini, and thus a niece of Pope Innocent X, who would rule Rome from 1644 to 1655. Thus connected to the next family in power, the new Prince of Venosa and Prince of Piombino by marriage thus did not lose his position in Rome after his papal uncle’s death (as others in a similar position did), but continued to climb the social and political ladder: by 1645 he was appointed commander of the papal fleet that was sent to Crete against the Turks; and in the 1660s he was appointed viceroy of two Spanish kingdoms, Aragon then Sardinia. He was made a Knight of the Golden Fleece in 1657, signifying his family’s arrival at the top of the noble hierarchy in Habsburg Europe. But probably the cleverest manoeuvre was keeping both the Gesualdo and the Appiani properties within the Ludovisi family, since none of his surviving children were born from these first two marriages. In part he did this through paying off the King of Spain, who had occupied the Principality of Piombino, about a million florins. He was not just an absentee landlord to his southern dominions, focusing on the town of Gesualdo in particular, to develop a new model baroque city with public fountains and squares, new churches and convents, and a monumental new town gate.

A new chuch and fountain built in Gesualdo by Prince Niccolò Ludovisi

The Ludovisi story then goes rather downhill rather quickly. Niccolò’s son, Prince Giovanni Battista ran into financial troubles, and in 1668 sold the duchy of Zagarolo to the Rospigliosi family, and in 1690 the duchy of Fiano to the Ottoboni. His first marriage, to Maria de Moncada d’Aytona, continued the trend of solidifying links with Spain, while his second marriage was to a Neapolitan, Anna Arduino, in her youth already a celebrated painter and writer. When the Prince died, in 1699, she became regent of Piombino for her infant son, Niccolò II, then both she and the child died in Spring 1700.

Anna Arduino, Princess of Piombino

Two of Giovanni Battista’s sisters remained. The elder was a cloistered nun, born Olimpia Ludovisi (named for her famed grandmother), but known in religion as Sister Anna Maria. Despite the objections of her younger sister, Ippolita, she insisted on governing the principality of Piombino, and the family’s other extensive properties, from within her convent at the Tor de’ Specchi in Rome. She also had to fight off legal challenges from distant relations of the old Appiani family, who pressed their claims to Piombino. After a ‘reign’ of only 8 months, she too died, in November 1700.

Ippolita Ludovisi thus became the next sovereign princess of Piombino, princess of Venosa, lady of Elba, lady of Gesualdo, and so on. A document from the time gives the extent of her titles and authority: “heiress of the sovereign principality of Piombino and Elba, with a right to vote in the Imperial Diet [ie, Princess of the Empire], the right to use a golden royal crown, coin money, create nobles and notaries that have validity throughout the Empire, and to create knights by delegation of Imperial power. … [She also brought as her dowry] the principality of Venosa, with forty castles, invested with the status of Grandee of Spain, along with the marquisate of Populonia and the county of Conza.” As such a prominent aristocrat in Tuscany, Rome and Naples, she was practically an Italian queen, and was named to a position of honour in late 1714 to escort Princess Elisabetta Farnese from Parma to Madrid for her marriage to Philip V, King of Spain. While she did visit Piombino sometimes, residing in the citadel, she mostly ruled her territories through deputies, and remained in Rome, in the Villa Ludovisi or at her husband’s chief country residence at the Isola del Liri in the Duchy of Sora. Her husband, since 1682, was Don Gregorio Boncompagni, Duke of Sora, so we need to return to Bologna to look at his family’s rise.

Ippolita Ludovisi, Princess of Piombino

The Boncompagni were present in Bolognese history a bit earlier than the Ludovisi—the 14th century—but were less prominent at first. One family legend says that they originally came to Italy as part of the entourage, indeed as ‘good companions’, of Emperor Otto II in 980. A marriage in the late 15th century to a local noblewoman, Angela Marescalchi, raised the status of Cristoforo Boncompagni, and he set about constructing a new family palace in the heart of Bologna. The Palazzo Boncompagni was built in the 1540s, right next to the Cathedral. It remained the family’s centre of operations in their hometown for the next four centuries, then was sold at the end of the 19th century to the Benelli family. Their descendants have recently renovated the palace and opened it in 2022 as a museum, in particular commemorating the 450th anniversary of the election of Pope Gregory XIII in 1572.

Palazzo Boncompagni in Bologna

This pope, born Ugo Boncompagni (1502-1585), was the fourth son of Cristoforo and Angela. He studied law in Bologna, then taught there (with eminent students including Reginald Pole), and had a long career in the legal administration of the Church in Rome. Named a cardinal in 1565 and papal legate to Spain, he became close to Philip II who then promoted his candidacy in the papal elections of 1572. He reigned as pope for 13 years.

Gregory XIII

Pope Gregory XIII left an interestingly behind a mixed reputation. On the one hand he was a progressive, supporting Tridentine reforms and new religious orders like the Discalced Carmelites and the Oratorians, and even gave his name to the rationalisation of the calendar (the Gregorian Calendar was adopted by many countries in 1582, though many, including Protestant countries like England, clung to the Julian calendar for more than a century). He was a founder of colleges under Jesuit supervision, like the Collegio Romano and the English College in Rome. On the other hand, Gregory had a more reactionary side, and was devoted to the more severe militant Catholicism of Philip II’s Spain, supporting English Catholics’ attempts to unseat Elizabeth I, and applauding the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France.

The Pope’s brother, with the fantastic name of Boncompagno Boncompagni, became a Senator of Bologna, and provided three healthy sons for whom the new Pope could start to construct a papal dynasty. The eldest, Cristoforo, became archbishop of Ravenna and legate (or governor) of the Romagna, while the youngest, Filippo, became a cardinal and the papal representative in Venice.

arms of the Boncompagni family

But the Pope also had his own son, from an affair in Bologna way back in the 1540s, so he didn’t need to be so ‘nepotistic’. Giacomo Boncompagni was named castellan of the papal fortress of Sant’Angelo in Rome and Gonfalonier of the Church (ie, leader of its armies). Philip II helped solidify the Spanish-Papal alliance by appointing the Pope’s son captain-general of Spanish troops in the Duchy of Milan. Wishing to create a sovereign principality for his family, Gregory purchased the Duchy of Sora for his son in 1579 from the Della Rovere family, for 100,000 scudi. Soon he augmented it with the purchase of the nearby county of Aquino, from the Avalos family, for 240,000 scudi.

Giacomo Boncompagni, 1st Duke of Sora

The Duchy of Sora is an interesting case of a semi-sovereign micro-state which has been mostly forgotten. The town and surrounding region lies in the borderlands between Lazio (papal territory) and Campania (Neapolitan territory), and on the edge of the mountains that separate Campania from the Abruzzi, the more rugged province of the Kingdom of Naples on the eastern coast of the Italian peninsula. An autonomous dukedom was first constructed in 1443 by the king of Naples, as a buffer state with the Papacy, and given to his vassals, the Cantelmi family. They were run out 20 years later, Sora temporarily annexed by the Papacy, then restored to Neapolitan suzerainty, augmented with the neighbouring duchy of Arce, and given in 1472, as a compromise, to the Della Rovere family (the family of the pope at the time, Sixtus IV). Its capital was the town of Sora, on the River Liri.

central Italy, showing Piombino in red and Sora in light green

Never fully sovereign, the dukes of Sora did maintain their own army, minted their own coins, etc. Giacomo Boncompagni focused his attentions on embellishing the town with new buildings and gardens, and promoted local industry, notably in textiles and paper. In Rome he was a patron of musicians including Palestrina. When his father died in 1585, he was, as expected, stripped of his papal offices, and instead took up more fully his role as commander of the armies in Spanish Milan. His wife, Costanza Sforza, stayed in Sora to govern their small principality.

Their son, Gregorio, named for his grandfather, was the next Duke of Sora, and started a career as a soldier in Naples, marrying the daughter of the Viceroy, but died young, in 1628. His son, Giacomo II, also went to Naples to study and launch his military career, but also died young, in 1636. Happily there were other sons to carry on the family legacy: uncle Francesco did well under the Ludovisi pontificate of Gregory XV and was named cardinal in 1621, legate in Perugia, then in 1631, archbishop of Naples; youngest brother Girolamo became archbishop of Bologna, 1651, cardinal, 1664, and majordomo to Pope Alexander VII.

The second son of this generation, Ugo, 4th duke of Sora, continued the family’s loyalty to Spain and was appointed captain-general of Neapolitan armies in a particularly tricky time, during the anti-Spanish uprisings of the 1640s (and had to deal with republican uprisings of his own in the duchy of Sora). He, and most of his successors, also kept up a presence in Rome, as well as the post, mostly honorific, of senator of Bologna.

Ugo’s son Gregorio II succeeded to the dukedom in 1676, and in 1681, as we have seen, married Ippolita Ludovisi, princess of Piombino and Venosa. His younger brothers carried on the powerful ecclesiastical wing of the family: Francesco was archbishop of Bologna from 1685, while Giacomo succeeded him in the same see in 1690, then was raised to the cardinalate in 1695—he lived to be nearly 80, adding stability to the family’s political and social place in Roman society.

Cardinal Giacomo Boncompagni

Ippolita Ludovisi’s Appiani and Gesualdo inheritance helped the Boncompagni family financially. In their efforts to improve the duchy and city of Sora, and to build a new ducal capital in Isola di Sora (also known as Isola del Liri, so named as it was built on an island between two branches of the river Liri), they had overspent. The new Castello Ducale, replacing an ancient medieval fortress, became their main residence from 1602, on dramatic spot between the twin cascades of the river as it courses through the town. Today known as the Castello Boncompagni-Viscogliosi—the second name for the engineer who bought the abandoned property in the 1920s, whose descendants operate it today as a museum.

The castle and cascade at Isola del Liri

There was also a Ducal Palace in Sora itself, built by the former Della Rovere owners, but it was increasingly neglected once the family relocated to Isola, and after a 1915 earthquake, it was demolished. There is also a Palazzo Boncompagni in Roccasecca, one of the towns of the Duchy of Sora attached to the ancient lordship of Aquino, the birthplace of Tommaso d’Aquino, better known in English as Thomas Aquinas.

Sora in the 17th century
Palazzo Ducale in Sora (right) before its destruction

The new Prince and Princess of Piombino had no sons that survived infancy, so the succession passed to their eldest daughter, Maria Eleonora who, in 1702 married her uncle, Don Antonio Boncompagni. This youngest brother of Gregorio II had struggled for a while to find a place (as a fourth son), but in 1701 he famously foiled an anti-Spanish plot in Naples, so the new king (albeit temporarily), Philip V named him Grand Seneschal of the Kingdom and awarded him with the Order of the Golden Fleece. He also smoothed the transition of sovereignty of Piombino from the Ludovisi to the Boncompagni in 1708. When the Austrians took over as rulers of Naples in 1715, Antonio therefore made a point of making his feelings known by half-heartedly doing homage to the new king of Naples (the Emperor Charles VI) for his fiefs at Venosa and Gesualdo, and for his duchy of Sora, but soon retreated north and refused to be involved in Neapolitan politics. He and his wife re-committed themselves to developing the economy of Sora, as well as the long-neglected islands of the Tuscan archipelago (Elba, Montecristo, Pianosa, Gorgona, Capraia, and Isola del Giglio).

Prince Antonio I
arms of Boncompagni and Ludovisi (with symbols of the papacy in between)

In Rome, the family lived at the Palazzo Sora, near the Piazza Navona. Originally built in the 15th century by the Fieschi family, it was one of the grandest Renaissance palaces in Rome, purchased for Gregory XIII’s son Giacomo in 1579 along with the Duchy of Sora. It became a centre for Boncompagni artistic and political activity in Rome, but by the 19th century, they had ceded it to the Papacy, which turned it into a military barracks by 1830. When the new grand Corso Vittorio Emanuele II was built in the late 1880s, part of the palace was demolished and its façade pushed back. Today owned by the Municipality of Rome, it houses a commercial technical college.

Palazzo Sora, Rome

Antonio and Maria Eleonora’s son, Gaetano, combined the names Boncompagni-Ludovisi, and retook up his family’s commitment to Spanish rule in Naples (restored from 1734), with even greater passion. Where the Boncompagni-Ludovisi lived in Naples is something I have yet to uncover (notes in the comments section, please!). When Prince Carlo di Borbone, son of Philip V of Spain, conquered the Kingdom, he named the Prince of Piombino a field marshal and vicar-general of the province of Abruzzo. He was sent as the first ambassador from an independent Naples to Madrid since the early 16th century. In 1739, Prince Gaetano was appointed Maggiordomo maggiore (head of the household) to the new queen, Maria Amalia of Saxony, and became quite close to her and her faction. This faction tended to be conservative, pious, and increasingly opposed to the reforms being pushed by King Carlo and his ministers. The Prince wanted to set up his son (Antonio II) as an even more important courtier in Naples, so gained approval from the King to transfer the principality of Venosa to him in advance of succession (1746), and obtained for him a post as a gentleman of the chamber. By the mid-1740s, however, Giacomo was falling out with the King of Naples, and made a point of travelling to Madrid in 1746 to do homage to the new King of Spain, Ferdinand VI, as nominal overlord of Piombino—something that caused a minor rift between the courts of Madrid and Naples (as Piombino was technically an Imperial fief, it had never been fully established whether Naples or Spain was the overlord, though both were claimed at different times). This conflict was resolved when the king of Naples succeeded as king of Spain (Carlos III) in 1759 and renounced this claim to suzerainty. In anger, Prince Gaetano retired to Rome and to Sora, where he died in 1777.

Prince Gaetano

Gaetano’s younger brother, Pier Gregorio, was also re-asserting the family’s links back to papal Rome, in marrying an heiress of the Ottoboni family in 1731, and reclaiming the Duchy of Fiano which his family had sold to the Ottoboni a generation before. His son Alessandro, the 2nd Duke of Fiano, was granted the right to bear the surname Boncompagni-Ottoboni. He died in 1780, childless, and the dukedom passed to his brother, a priest, who held it until 1803.

This line of the family resided at the Palazzo Boncompagni-Ottoboni (or the Palazzo Fiano), built in 1738 by Cardinal Ottoboni on the Via del Babuino, one of the spokes that radiates from the Piazza del Populo. In the 1850s it was leased by a banker Antonio Cerasi, so today it is known as the Palazzo Boncompagni-Cerasi. Next door is the Palazzo Boncompagni-Sterbini, built in the 18th century by the Boncompagni family, and later purchased by a member of the Sterbini family. (There is another Palazzo Boncompagni in Rome, but this was built by a Jewish merchant who added Pope Gregory XIII’s surname to his own, Corcos, so it is unrelated to this story.)

Palazzo Boncompagni-Cerasi
Palazzo Boncompagni-Sterbini

Meanwhile, Prince Gaetano’s second son, Ignazio, was continuing to hold down the ecclesiastical side of the family’s interests. A cardinal in 1775, he became papal legate in Bologna in 1780, and tried to implement some of the reform ideas of the Enlightenment, a more rational taxation system, improved agricultural methods, but was opposed by the landed elites, and was recalled by Pius VI to serve as his secretary of state, 1785-89. He died in 1790, just as revolutionary changes were about to sweep the peninsula.

Cardinal Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi

Prince Gaetano’s breach with the Bourbons had weakened the long-term alliance of the princes of Piombino with Spain, and although I doubt either Spain or Naples could do much about it, both Bourbon monarchs stood idly by when Napoleon’s armies marched in and ousted Prince Antonio II from Piombino in 1801 (the British had already occupied Elba in 1796 as a precaution). The King of Naples also forced Antonio to cede sovereignty of the duchy of Sora in 1796. In March 1805, the principality of Piombino was re-constituted and given to Napoleon’s sister Elisa Bonaparte and her husband Felice Baciocchi, augmented in July with the addition of the territories of the former republic of Lucca. In 1809 it was merged with the Grand Duchy of Tuscany when Elisa was given that much grander territory to rule, as a part of the French Empire.

The Principality of Piombino and Lucca, 1805

Marco Boncompagni, of the cadet line of dukes of Fiano, became a general in the papal armies in 1795, and served as a chamberlain in the household of Pope Pius VII, but when Rome was annexed to the French Empire in 1809, he joined in and was named a senator. When the old regime was restored in 1815, he renounced his feudal rights, and died in 1818. His wife, however, Giustiniana Sambiase Sanseverino, suddenly received a feudal windfall in 1830, at the age of 53, when her brother died, and she became the heiress of her family’s vast estates in Calabria in the Kingdom of Naples: the principality of Campana (created in 1696), and the duchy of Crosia. These then passed to her son, Alessandro Boncompagni-Ottoboni, 5th Duke of Fiano, on her death in 1833 (more below).

Marco Boncompagni-Ottoboni, Duke of Fiano

Antonio II, Prince of Piombino and Prince of Venosa had died in 1805, so it was his son, Luigi I Boncompagni-Ludovisi, who tried to recover the family’s most prestigious titles after the fall of Napoleon in 1814. It seemed likely at first, and Napoleon himself was of course given Elba to rule, but after Bonaparte’s escape and second defeat, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 seemed less inclined to have a micro-principality in this region, and Piombino and all of its islands were ceded to Tuscany, with a payment of 800,000 Tuscan francesconi as compensation. He could keep the title, but only as an honour. The same was true for his title duke of Sora, which did not regain its autonomy and was indeed transferred formally from the Kingdom of Naples into the Papal States.

Having lost his country residences at Sora, Prince Luigi acquired the duchy of Monterotondo in 1814. Located just outside the city of Rome, to the northeast, the hilltop castle here had guarded the upper Tiber Valley for centuries. It had been an Orsini castle from the 12th century, then was sold to the Barberini in 1626 (and created a dukedom), then to the Grillo family, 1701. The Boncompagni-Ludovisi princes hosted Garibaldi here in the 1860s when he came to confer with the new Italian government (at that time trying to gain access to Rome). Since 1890 it has been part of the local municipality and today houses various town offices.

Palazzo Orsini in Monterotondo

In Rome, the family purchased in 1819 the old Palazzo Spada (previously Giustini), right in the heart of the city, on the Via del Corso directly across from the very grand Palazzo Colonna. Renamed the Palazzo Piombino, it was destroyed in 1889 when the city of Rome decided to create a new public space.

Palazzo Piombino (left) before its destruction

Prince Antonio III succeeded his father in 1841. With a loss of political sovereignty, he and his brother Baldassare looked for other ways to pursue their ambitions. Baldassare became a well-known specialist of the history of mathematics and founder of an academic journal for his field; while Antonio engaged in politics of Italian unification. Despite being formally re-incorporated into Rome’s nobility as a ‘principe romano’, as part of the programme of Pius IX to reorganise the Papal aristocracy in 1854, the Prince of Piombino espoused the more liberal politics of the day and only 7 years later joined forces with the movement aiming to create a united Kingdom of Italy, and was named one of its first senators in 1861 in Turin.

Baldassare Boncompagni Ludovisi

His cousin, Marco II, Prince of Campana and 6th Duke of Fiano, also joined the more liberal political movement in Italy, and was also named a senator of the Kingdom of Italy in 1872, two years after the annexation of Rome to the new Kingdom. He died in 1901, leaving only a daughter, whose marriage to Mario Ruspoli, from another Roman princely clan, took the Ottoboni and Sambiase Sanseverino titles into that family in the 20th century.

Marco II Boncompagni Ottoboni, Duke of Fiano, Prince of Campana

Prince Antonio III acquired another rural property in 1861, maybe as he was undoubtedly unwelcome in Rome, on the Via Aurelia, the old Roman road leading north from Rome towards Tuscany. This Palazzo del Chiarone had been a papal customs office since the 16th century, and was thus situated right on the border between Papal and Tuscan territory, close to the coast. This Palazzo Boncompagni was sold at the start of the 20th century.

Antonio III had two sons: the elder, Rodolfo, retained the titles Prince of Piombino and Duke of Sora, confirmed by the Italian monarchy in 1900; the younger, Ignazio, was given the title Prince of Venosa, again confirmed by the King of Italy, in 1901. The latter died in 1913, with no children.

It was Prince Rodolfo who brought about big changes to the family properties in Rome. With the destruction of the grand Palazzo Piombino on the Via del Corso in 1889, Rodolfo decided to reconstruct and enlarge the old Villa Ludovisi up on the Pincian Hill. The old residential building became just a side wing to a new monumental palace, renamed the Palazzo Boncompagni-Ludovisi (or Palazzo Piombino). Only a few years later, however, in 1900, this grand building was sold to the Royal House of Savoy for use as the residence of the Queen Dowager, Margherita di Savoia. She lived there for 26 years and the building took on the new name ‘Palazzo Margherita’. In 1946, the government of the United States purchased the palace for use as its embassy to Italy, which it remains today.

Palazzo Margherita

Meanwhile, the vast gardens surrounding the Villa Ludovisi were carved up into smaller parcels in the 1880s-90s and developed in partnership with the city as residential spaces, grand hotels, and one of the most chic shopping streets in Rome, the Via Veneto. The only building remaining intact from the original Villa Ludovisi was the Villa dell’Aurora (or just Villa Aurora), note above, which became the family’s chief residence in the city.

The Villa Aurora today

The family in the 20th century stayed out of politics, and tended their collections (much of which, the antiquities, was donated to the state in 1901 and is now in the National Museum at the Palazzo Altemps). Rodolfo’s eldest son, Ugo, renounced the succession in 1895 to become a priest, and joined the government of the Catholic Church, rising to the office of Vice-Camerlengo. Rodolfo’s grandson Antonio IV thus became the next Prince of Piombino, and on his death in 1955, was succeeded by Gregorio, who died in 1988.

The prince in most recent decades, Niccolò, gathered together all the varied titles of his triple dynastic inheritance: prince of Piombino, prince of Venosa, prince of the Empire (with the style of ‘serene highness’), Roman prince, duke of Sora and Arce, duke of Monterotondo, as well as grandee of Spain and patrician of a number of cities including Naples and Bologna. Born in 1941, he worked as a chemical engineer then turned his interests later in life to restoring historic buildings and patronising the arts, a passion he shared with his third wife, Rita (who in another lifetime was part of the political whirlwind of Washington DC in the 1980s).

Prince Niccolò Boncompagni Ludovisi and Princess Rita

Following the death of Prince Niccolò in 2018, and in conflict between step-mother and step-sons, Francesco (the current prince), Ignazio and Bante, the Villa Aurora has been placed on the market—the asking price in January 2022 was about 500 million euros, making it the most expensive property in the world, but so far there have been no bids. One of the greatest art treasures in Rome, a ceiling fresco by Caravaggio, awaits a new owner.

[here is an interesting video by the current Princess Dowager about the Villa Aurora: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdEYT-x9iX4 ]

(images from Wikimedia Commons)

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

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