Coat of arms of the Colonna family and the Orsini family, respectively. Both were black nobility descended from medieval and Renaissance papal families.

The black nobility or black aristocracy (Italian: nobiltà nera, aristocrazia nera) are Roman aristocratic families who sided with the Papacy under Pope Pius IX after the Savoy family-led army of the Kingdom of Italy entered Rome on 20 September 1870, overthrew the Pope and the Papal States, and took over the Quirinal Palace, and any nobles subsequently ennobled by the pope prior to the 1929 Lateran Treaty.[1][2]

For the next 59 years, the pope confined himself to Vatican City and claimed to be a prisoner in the Vatican to avoid the appearance of accepting the authority of the new Italian government and state.[2] Aristocrats who had been ennobled by the pope and were formerly subjects of the Papal States, including the senior members of the papal court, kept the front doors of their palaces in Rome closed to mourn the pope's confinement, which led to their being called the "black nobility".[1]


Pius IX funeral escorted by the noble guard

Despite the relatively recent name, the Black Nobility had existed for centuries, originating in the baronial class of Rome and in the powerful families who moved to Rome to benefit from a family connection to the Vatican. These supported the Popes in the governance of the Papal States and in the administration of the Holy See.[2] Many of the members of Black Noble families also became high-ranking clergy and even Popes. Black Nobility families (in this instance families whose ancestors included Popes) still in existence include notably the Colonna, Massimo, Orsini, Ruspoli, Pallavicini, Theodoli, Sacchetti, Borghese, Odescalchi, and Boncompagni-Ludovisi. Major extinct papal families include the Savelli, Caetani, the Aldobrandini and Conti. Famous members of Black Nobility families include Arnaldo De Rosette, Bishop of Asti, who promulgated a Synod which provided some decrees to regulate and classify the clergy of Lombardy and Piedmont and its composition, with a particular emphasis on the Knights Hospitallers; Eugenio Pacelli, who later became Pope Pius XII; Ernesto Pacelli, an important financier; and Prospero Colonna, mayor of Rome.

Following the conclusion of the Lateran Treaty in 1929, the Black Nobility were given dual citizenship in Italy and Vatican City. Under the provisions of the treaty, noble titles granted by the pope were recognized in the Kingdom of Italy. Many of these families were members of the largely ceremonial Papal Noble Guard; others were foreigners affiliated with the Holy See in various ways. In 1931, Pope Pius XI denied the request of Alfonso XIII of Spain to open the Noble Guard further to nobles from all Catholic countries. In World War II, the Papal Noble Guard protected the Pope alongside the Swiss Guard.[3]

Pope Paul VI abolished many Vatican City positions with the motu proprio document Pontificalis Domus (English: The Papal Household) in 1968. As well as changing the name of the group from Papal Court to Papal Household, many of the positions occupied by the Black Nobility were abolished. According to the motu proprio: "Many of the offices entrusted to members of the Papal Household were deprived of their function, continuing to exist as purely honorary positions, without much correspondence to concrete needs of the times."[4] Many of these positions and the Papal Court itself were still set up for administering the Papal States, which had been lost in 1870. The Black Nobility's perks, such as Vatican City licence plates, were also withdrawn. Some Black Nobles resented these changes. According to diplomat and author Roger Peyrefitte, it was members of the Black Nobility who first told him of the Pope's alleged association with an actor, which eventually led to Peyreffite's public statements and subsequent scandal.[5] In May 1977, some members of the Black Nobility, led by Princess Elvina Pallavicini, started courting traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.[6]

See also


  1. ^ a b Ventresca, Robert A. (2013). Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674067301. Retrieved 20 November 2018.
  2. ^ a b c Klooz, David (2018). Adrift on a Sea of Lies. David Klooz. Retrieved 20 November 2018.
  3. ^ David Alvarez, The Pope's Soldiers: A Military History of the Modern Vatican (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2011), pp. 337
  4. ^ Pontificalis Domus, Introduction.
  5. ^ Leyland, Winston Gay Sunshine Interviews: Volume 2, Gay Sunshine Press 1982, p155
  6. ^ An example of Catholic resistance: Princess Elvina Pallavicini Archived 2022-02-07 at the Wayback Machine, Roberto de Mattei, 14 July 2017


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