The papal nobility are the aristocracy of the Holy See, composed of persons holding titles bestowed by the Pope. From the Middle Ages into the nineteenth century, the papacy held direct temporal power in the Papal States, and many titles of papal nobility were derived from fiefs with territorial privileges attached. During this time, the Pope also bestowed ancient civic titles such as patrician. Today, the Pope still exercises authority to grant titles with territorial designations, although these are purely nominal and the privileges enjoyed by the holders pertain to styles of address and heraldry. Additionally, the Pope grants personal and familial titles that carry no territorial designation. Their titles being merely honorific, the modern papal nobility includes descendants of ancient Roman families as well as important Catholics from many different countries. Within the hierarchy of the Church, cardinals and other prelates are considered analogous to secular aristocracy.
The Roman heritage of the papacy accounts for many of its traditions regarding ranks of nobility. As temporal ruler of the city of Rome, the Pope awarded civic titles of classical origin such as Patrician and Summus Senator. The Roman title of Dux originally applied to a military leader. During the Byzantine period, it came to refer to the military governor of a certain district appointed by the Exarch. The Duchies of Rome, Perugia and Pentapolis were established in this context. In the hands of the Lombards and Franks, the Duchy continued as an important military and administrative region, but the Duke also assumed religious, judicial and economic powers and ruled with greater independence. The Lombard Duchies of Spoleto and Benevento existed within the future lands of the Papal States. Under the Carolingian empire, the County (also derived from a Roman precedent; Comes, Comitatus), was instituted as the basic jurisdictional unit centered on a fortified town or castle. The march or mark, ruled by a marquis (or "march count") was a border territory with defensive significance. The status of Count Palatine also emerged for high officers of the Imperial household. Key to the military organization of the Lombards and Franks was the free association between the local military leader and the warrior caste - hence the Germanic origin of the title of Baron. As feudalism developed the old Byzantine, Lombard, and Frankish structures were worked into a hierarchy, and the old military and administrative offices became hereditary titles with fiefs attached.
By the year 900, Frankish power in Italy had dissipated. the Popes assumed direct control in the Patrimony of St. Peter rather than creating intermediate feudatories. However, the Roman baronial families exerted enormous control. The Counts of Tusculum held enormous influence over the papacy for a period, installing several of their own family members. Up through the Renaissance, the papacy was intermittently threatened by the violent struggle between the noble families.
The late middle ages were marked by a rivalry between the Guelphs and Ghibellines - the parties favoring Pope and Emperor, respectively - that broiled in the cities of Northern Italy. The free communes in the papal territory and the imperial Kingdom of Italy alike began to exert their independence and appoint their own civic leaders. In 1144, a Commune of Rome was briefly declared by before being suppressed with imperial assistance. Papal power was retained, but the Popes frequently fled Rome for the safety of Orvieto, Perugia and Viterbo. Between 1309 and 1377, the Curia was resident at Avignon in the French county of Venaissin. The instability of the communes gradually gave way to the stabilizing influence of the podesta or signoria. Gradually, magnates of certain powerful families (such as the Ordelaffi, the Manfredi, the Scaligeri, the Malatesti, the Da Polenta, the Bentivoglio, the d'Este, and the Da Montefeltro) began to establish hereditary lordships and expand their power to neighboring towns. During the Papal exile, Cardinal Gil de Albornoz was commissioned by Innocent VI to subdue the independent states.
When the Pope returned to Italy at the end of the fourteenth century, he had to either overthrow or force the submission of the lords of the cities of Emilia-Romagna, Le Marche and Umbria. Meanwhile, the Medici of Florence and other noble families set their sights on the papacy as a means of aggrandizing themselves and establishing dynastic goals through marriage, diplomacy and ennoblement. Cesare Borgia, notably ousted many of the lords of Le Marche and established himself as the Duke of Romagna before being overthrown by his father's successor Julius II. Julius managed to marry his nephew, Giovanni Della Rovere, to the heiress of the Duchy of Urbino. Paul III created the Duchy of Parma out of conquered territory for the Farnese. Prominent families could purchase curial offices for their sons and regularly did, hoping that the son would rise through Church ranks to become a bishop cardinal, or even Pope, from which position they could dispense further titles and positions of authority to other family members. Popes commonly elevated members of prominent families to the position of cardinal, especially second and third sons who would not otherwise inherit hereditary titles and lands. Popes also elevated their own family members – especially nephews – to the special position of cardinal-nephew. The period from the 15th to the 18th century was famous for papal nepotism. Bourgeois families found themselves, sometimes within only one or two generations, elevated to the Roman nobility when a relative was elected to the papal throne. Modern Italy is dotted with the fruits of their success – various family palazzi remain standing today as a testament to their sometimes meteoric rise to power.
As modern statehood emerged and the boundaries between imperial and papal territory solidified, titles of nobility were proliferated as a means of establishing allies and friendly buffer states. The Emperor elevated the Duchies of Milan, Florence, Mantua, and Modena, and the Pope likewise elevated the Duchies of Urbino, Ferrara and Parma. From the late sixteenth century onward, with the papal territory relatively secure, noble families were enriched with the title of Prince, their counties and marquisates were elevated to duchies, and the Medici were even made Grand Dukes of Tuscany by Pius V. Likewise, papal orders of knighthood and personal titles, sometimes attached to positions of honor in the papal household, came into greater use.
The Napoleonic occupation of Rome led to the temporary abolition of noble titles. Upon restitution of sovereignty to the Papal States, Pius VII decided to abolish feudalism, transforming all the titles to honorifics disconnected from territorial privileges. In 1853, Pius IX put an end to the centuries-old duality between the papal nobility and the Roman baronial families by equating the civic patriciate of the city of Rome with the nobility created by the Pope. In 1854 a complete list of Roman princely families was drawn up and entered into the Golden Book of the Capitoline nobility (established by the Urbem Romam constitution of Benedict XIV of 1746). Both the civic nobles and the papal aristocracy thus obtained the title of Patrician.
After the Kingdom of Italy annexed the Papal States and captured Rome in 1870, the new kingdom recognized the existing nobility in its new territory. The pope remained a self-described "prisoner in the Vatican", supported by the so-called "black nobility" of families who remained loyal to the papacy rather than the Italian monarchy. The Lateran Treaty ended this dispute.
On the occasion of the signing of the Lateran Accords of 1929, the Italian government recognized the sovereignty of the Holy See and confirmed the pope's power to grant noble titles. It also recognized the titles granted by the Pope until that date and all future titles as equivalent to the noble titles of the Kingdom of Italy. This rule remained in force until the 1946 abolition of the Italian monarchy. In 1969 the Italian Council of State determined that the provision of the Lateran Treaty concerning the recognition of papal titles that was incorporated into the Italian Constitution was still valid and therefore that their use in Italy was still licit. No provision, however, has been made for their use in Italian passports, identity cards or civil state registries.
Few Pontifical titles, other than personal nobility obtained by individual appointment into the several Pontifical equestrian orders, have been granted since the election of Pope John XXIII in 1958. In 1968, Paul VI reformed the papal court via the apostolic letter Pontificalis Domus, which reorganized the court into the Pontifical Household. At this time he also declared that the papal nobility would no longer be a constituent body in the Pontifical Household.
Although the custom of conferring noble titles such as prince, duke, marquis, count, and baron has since essentially disappeared, Pope John Paul II ennobled several distinguished individuals during his pontificate, as did Pope Benedict XVI, through the Vatican Secretariat of State. John Paul II granted several noble titles to Polish compatriots at the beginning of his pontificate, but quietly and without their being published in the Acts of the Apostolic See.
The popes continue to award knighthoods and other honors, which do not confer titled-nobility status, with the exception of Count of the Sacred Palace of the Lateran.
Historically, papal nobility has included the titles of prince, duke, marquis, count, viscount, baron and knight.
At times, certain rulers paid a type of feudal homage to the papacy (Poland, 991; England, 1213). Inversely, the Pope claimed the authority to create and anoint rulers (Holy Roman Empire, 800, 962, &c.; Sicily, 1059; Kingdom of Aragon, 1204; Latin Empire of Constantinople, 1217; Sicily, 1265), to depose them (Holy Roman Empire, 1076, 1245; Portugal, 1247), to elevate them (Croatia, 925; Hungary, 1001; Sicily, 1130; Portugal, 1179; Tuscany, 1569), and to decide disputes between them (Corsica, 1217; Treaty of Tordesillas, 1493). The Pope also had strong claims to the feudal sovereignty of Naples-Sicily.
While some titles were traditionally linked to territorial privileges to a fief of the Papal States, others were associated only with privileges of court, notably, Prince Assistant to the Papal Throne.
Within the ecclesiastical hierarchy Cardinals are referred to as Princes of the Church, and are considered analogous to temporal princes within a kingdom. Historically, many popes have designated a member of their family as an official cardinal-nephew. Certain offices of the Curia and the Papal Household carry honorifics, such as the style monsignor.
Just as Catholic monarchs sometimes exercised veto powers in papal elections, bishops and abbots were historically represented in the parliaments or "estates-general" (legislative and consultative assemblies) of many countries. The archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne served as ex officio prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire. Within the Empire, prince-primates, prince-bishops and prince-abbots often held territorial privileges.
Count/Countess is one of the noble titles still granted by the Pope as a mark of personal distinction without any territorial entailment. The holder is styled Count X/Countess X, and may be informally referred to as a papal count/papal countess or, more seldom, as a Roman count/Roman countess. The comital title, which can be for life or hereditary, has been awarded in various forms by popes and Holy Roman Emperors since the Middle Ages, and the pope continued to grant the comital and other noble titles even after 1870, when the Papal States were taken from the pope.
Recipients of such honours included both Italians, especially those close to the papacy (some of whom were/are papal relatives), and prominent non-Italian Catholics, including Irish tenor John McCormack, Irish art historian and politician George Noble Plunkett, American financier George MacDonald, American philanthropist Katherine E. Price, and Rose Kennedy (mother of U.S. president John F. Kennedy). American Francis Augustus MacNutt was a papal marquis and Argentine Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena was a papal marchioness, and in the 1920s, Genevieve and Nicholas Frederic Brady of New York were granted papal dukedoms. Pontifical noble titles, like marquis Silva de Balboa, also as count of Urquijo. Entry motu proprio into Pontifical Equestrian Orders of Chivalry, are in the personal gift of the pope, and the grant of these titles is not recorded in the Acts of The Holy See.
The title "Count of the Sacred Palace of the Lateran" is an honour that is granted ex officio and ad vitam to those who have been created Pontifical Chamberlains (now styled as Gentlemen of His Holiness) as attendants to the Pontifical Court. Additionally, the honour was collectively granted to the Spanish chapters of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, the only purely noble chapters of the order. Their members enjoy several heraldic privileges in addition to the right to use the Comital title. This tradition can be traced back to the Reconquista, in which the Order played an important role. According to heraldic expert Lord Manuel de Mata, the Spanish Members of the Order are allowed to use both the full title of Count of the Sacred Palace of the Lateran as well as just the title of Count before their names. The rights were recorded in the Memorias de la Academia Mallorquina de Estudios Genealógicos and approved by King Alfonso XIII of Spain.
From the sixteenth century forward, strong statehood developed in Italy and vague, overlapping territorial claims were gradually determined and settled through conquest and treaty. Although temporal rule in Italy was theoretically shared with the Holy Roman Emperor, the papacy held most of Lazio, Umbria, Le Marche, and parts of Emilia-Romagna directly from the Carolingian period to the Risorgimento by right of treaty or donation from secular rulers (Donation of Sutri, 728; Donation of Pepin, 756; Otto IV, 1201; Rudolf I, 1278). Within this territory, known as the State of the Church, the pope had authority to dispose of certain hereditary fiefs, notably:
Examples of Italian noble houses of the papacy:
|Noble House||Coat of arms||Current head||Titles|
|House of Aldobrandini||Camillo Aldobrandini||Prince of Meldola and Sarsina|
|House of Barberini||Francesco Barberini||
|House of Borghese||Scipione Virginio Flavio Giacomo Antonio Maria Borghese||Numerous titles|
|House of Borgia||Extinct in 1748||Numerous titles|
|House of Borromeo||Vitaliano XI Borromeo|
|House of Braschi||Giovanni Angelo Theodoli-Braschi|
|House of Chigi||Mario Chigi|
|House of Colonna||Marcantonio Colonna (Paliano line)|
|House of Cybo||Extinct in 1790|
|House of Doria-Pamphili-Landi||Extinct in 2000|
|House of Mattei||Extinct in 1801||Duke of Giove|
|House of Medici||3 cadet branches|
|House of Orsini||Domenico Napoleone Orsini|
|House of Ruspoli||Francesco Ruspoli|