The ancient Roman families allied to the papal court are less powerful than they once were but are still a force, says Edward Pentin
taly may be a republic, but it’s still a young republic, and the royalty and aristoc racy of its past continue to run through its veins. One of the happy consequences of this is that princes and princesses still live in Rome and, if you live here long enough, you’ll probably run into a few of them.
But this has little to do with the House of Savoy, the monarchy that ruled Italy when it was briefly a kingdom and which was exiled from 1946 to 2003. Rather, it’s because of an older Italian aristocracy, one which for centuries has been allied to popes and which was the ruling class when the Church had papal states.
Italians distinguished between these two sets of Roman nobility, which were divided along political lines, as aristocrazìa bianca (white nobility, linked to the House of Savoy and the new national state), and aristocrazìa nera (black nobility, who were faithful to the pope).
Until the Sixties, the black nobility had numerous, hereditary ceremonial duties in the Apostolic Palace, holding important positions such as aresciallo del Conclave (Marshall of the Conclave), the Foriere Maggiore (Quartermaster Major of the Apostolic Palace), and Maestro del Sacro Ospizio (Master of the Sacred Hospice). Around 80 of these families survive today, but only one office now rests with the black nobility: that of Principe ssistente al Soglio (Prince Assistant to the Papal Throne) which is the highest of them all.
These Roman princes and dukes are as genuine as any others: they constitute a definite nobiliary body and have special ceremonial privileges, such as a canopied credence, decorated with their arms in the main hall of their palaces. Their homes also have a papal throne room.
They are called “black nobility” for simple and noble historical reasons rather than for anything sinister. They sided with the papacy under Pope Pius IX when, in 1870, the Kingdom of Italy overthrew the papal states. For the next 59 years, until the Lateran Treaty of 1929 which reconciled the Church with the Italian state, the Pope considered himself to be a prisoner in the Vatican – a position of protest against accepting the authority of the Italian government.
It was then that those noble families allied to the Pope became known as black nobility, black being the colour of priestly dress. These families refused to appear in the royal court or hold court offices, and they kept the doors of their palazzi closed in mourning in protest against the Pope’s confinement.
Now the political divisions between white and black nobility have vanished. But, when speaking of the black nobility these days, one is still referring to high Roman aristocracy, traditionally connected to the papal court and holding office within it.
Some of the most prominent families still living today are the Colonna, Pallavicini, Orsini, Pacelli, Massimo, Borghese and Ruspoli. A number of these black nobility families begat popes, the Pacellis and Borgheses being among the most famous. Furthermore, among these families are the Marquesses of the Baldacchino, families who have the title of marquis but the rank and ceremonial privileges of Roman princes. These are the marquises Sacchetti, Patrizi, Serlupi, Costaguti, Theodoli and the counts Soderini.
Although the black nobility have no privileges today, their rank in Italian society is still generally recognised, and many family palazzi and villas continue to have all the trappings of their history. Quite a few of the Roman princes and dukes, for instance, still have the throne room for when popes would visit. But they are not the families they once were, and only an estimated 20 per cent are wealthy, while 40 per cent are relatively poor.
Although the Colonnas still have the magnificent Palazzo Colonna near Piazza Venezia, the Orsinis and many others have long lost their villas, palazzi and castles. Those that still have them tend to rent them out for special events to earn extra income. One family, I’m told, practically died out and fell on hard times. Now, however, they can be seen running an electrical shop in Rome.
In fact, the fortunes of the black nobility have been steadily declining for 150 years, starting with the adoption of the Napoleonic inheritance laws and abolition of primogeniture of the 1860s, and then accelerating in recent years.
“Many of them have ordinary jobs, especially in the professions,” explains Bettoja whose family have run the Bettoja hotel chain in Rome since the 19th century. “Some of them still have enough city property to live on, but very few – almost none – can live in the sort of style that they enjoyed even as recently the Fifties and Sixties.” Yet many continue to carry out traditional duties, undertaking voluntary work with charitable organisations such as the Order of Malta, the Red Cross and Caritas. Great emphasis is put on the importance of such duties and failure to carry them out can result in exclusion.
“There are a lot of duties that you must do and, as long as you continue to function and do these duties that serve Rome correctly and do them well, then you’ve done your duty,” says Princess Johnine Colonna, an American who married into the Colonna family. “If you don’t, you’ll be more or less dismissed. You will no longer command respect.” However, no longer having butlers and servants makes carrying out those duties more challenging.
The black nobility was dealt a particularly severe blow in 1969 when Paul VI’s papal bull Pontificalis Domus practically made them redundant. His decision was, understandably, not well received by the families, mainly because of the discourteous way in which it was handled. Bettoja puts the decision down to “political correctness” and Paul VI being influenced by the French intellectual fashions of the Fifties.
It also brought about other unforeseen negative effects: an increase in Vatican expenses (most of the black nobility would fulfil their courtly duties – which also had a practical side – for free), and a growth in clericalism (the Court had a strong lay presence whose members came from all classes of society).
Perhaps as a consequence, most members of the black nobility no longer see their inherited status as anything particularly special, except in a historical sense. Even members of a family as renowned as Borghese believes its old status has long passed.
“There still exists the privilege of history that nobody can erase like the Borghese name on the facade of St Peter’s Basilica, or what many Borghese princes, the Pope or cardinals did for the city, for the country, for Europe,” explains Princess Alessandra Borghese, a writer and papal biographer. “But often history is not a privilege. It’s something that is made of men and women who lived in that particular time.” Yet whether highly favoured or marginalised, wealthy or poor, the families add plenty of colour to Italian life. Princess Colonna’s story is particularly compelling. Born Johnine Avery in California, she married into the Colonna family in 1991 while working in Rome. But before that, she’d worked four years as Bob Hope’s straight girl in Hollywood and was crowned Miss World USA in 1968. She says her beauty pageant experience prepared her well for becoming a real princess.
“I was told how to behave, how I could dress, whom I could speak with and what I was allowed to say for a number of years of my life before I even met my husband,” she explains.
Many of the black nobility continue to live by these agreed forms of behaviour –which partly explains why they maintain strict levels of privacy, hardly ever give interviews, and certainly never air family matters in public.
Generally, Italian society still values the Roman nobility in spite of the country being a republic and its occasional flashes of Communist fervour. And even in the Church, despite the reforms of the Sixties, the black nobility is not totally defunct.
“It’s there, but you see, there’s been a proletarianisation of the clergy and also eventually the prelates, so they’re more ignorant; they don’t see these things,” laments Bettoja.
But he insists that although the black nobility might not be “within the mental horizons” of priests and bishops of the Roman Curia, “they still have a role”.