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Orsini Archives: A Glimpse into Life in Early Modern Italy

Drawing detail of Italian hill town Maltefalco.The Orsini papers in the Department of Special Collections at UCLA's Charles E. Young Research Library constitute a significant portion of the private archive of one the oldest and most prominent families in Italian history. The 540 boxes of documents, dating from 1300 to 1950, were acquired in 1964 but until recently had remained largely uncatalogued. In September 2005, the Department embarked on a two-year cataloguing project which will not only make the archive more accessible to scholars, but also reunite it – in a virtual manner – with the remainder of the Orsini archive, housed in the Archivio Storico Capitolino in Rome. This will be accomplished by making the databases of the two collections mutually searchable.

The Orsini rose to power in the late twelfth and thirteenth century in Rome, as a few families filled the gap created by the struggle between a weakened papacy and a fledgling communal government. During that time the family acquired scores of feudal lands in the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples. Over the next centuries, the Orsini’s private armies and enormous wealth made them crucial players in the complicated power-game of Italian politics. Pope Pius II—a staunch supporter of the Orsini—declared that an attack on the Orsini was an attack on his own person, and the Medici sought political and social advancement through the marriages of both Lorenzo il Magnifico and his son Piero, to Orsini women—alliances which their compatriots decried as a betrayal of their Florentine roots. Although the 16th century saw the beginning of their gradual decline, the Orsini remained a pre-eminent family in Rome’s political and religious life until the late 18th century, producing three popes, twenty-eight cardinals and thirty-three senators of Rome.Document detail from the UCLA Orsini archives.

The Orsini papers are a window into the family’s public and private life over the centuries, and especially from 1500 and 1800. Much of the material concerns the administration of Orsini properties and of the religious institutions with which they were connected. It includes records of purchase and sale, leases, inventories, plans, accounts and correspondence. One item of exceptional interest in this category is the 1353 registerof properties in Abruzzo owned by Napoleone Orsini and his wife Maria de Sulliaco. It records not only the castles, churches, houses and lands in their fiefs, but also the taxes owed by each of their individual inhabitants, offering a demographic and economic snapshot of the area in the mid-fourteenth century.

The collection’s dowries, fideicommissi and wills, both of Orsini family members and of their subjects, attest to the complicated business of administering a vast and powerful family, and reveal the concerns in life and death of the ordinary people living in their feudal properties. Records of court cases preserve arguments and testimonies in litigations whose subjects range from rights of succession to murder, theft and rebellion. Accounts of their interactions with foreign courts, memoranda and private letters illustrate the family’s activities in Italy and abroad, and also reveal the human side of their interactions. For instance, in one letter Pius IV warmly forgives Paolo Giordano Orsini for not having come to see him.Drawing detail of Italian hill town Monteflavio.

Whether the pope’s reassurance is to be taken at face value or contains a veiled chiding, it offers a glimpse into the everyday expression of such politically charged relationships. Collectively, the documents touch on a wide array of issues connected to the family, including their political and economic strategies, social questions of identity, continuity of the family, attitudes to work, investments and administration of patrimony, and their architectural commissions.

By facilitating access to the Orsini papers, the Department of Special Collections hopes to encourage scholars to take full advantage of this exceptionally rich store of primary material. The project was made possible by a gift from the Steinmetz Family Foundation, and is being directed by art historian Guendalina Ajello, who has worked extensively in the Orsini archives in Los Angeles and Rome for her dissertation research at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.

Selected maps, plans, and documents are presented online by the UCLA Digital Library providing access to a selection of 132 images of maps, plans, and other documents from the Orsini Family Papers at UCLA. These documents have been scanned at high resolution and can be magnified by the user in order to examine precise textual and graphic details in the original.

A conference on the Orsini family, co-sponsored by CMRS, was held at UCLA February 1-3, 2007.

 

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