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Celebrated family which played an important role in Italy during medieval and Renaissance times

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Colonna, a celebrated family which played an important role in Italy during medieval and Renaissance times, and which still flourishes in several branches in Rome and Naples. It is commonly supposed to have been originally an offshoot of the Counts of Tusculum, deriving the family name from the castle of Colonna situated on a spur of the Alban hills, some five miles from Tusculum. The name makes its first appearance in authentic history in the person of Petrus de Columna, owner of Colonna, Monte Porzio, and Zagarolo, and claimant of Palestrina, whose castles were seized by Paschal II, A.D. 1101, in punishment of his lawless depredations. With the destruction of Tusculum by the Romans in 1191, the name of the ancient counts disappears forever, whilst the Colonna come prominently to the front. From the first their policy was anti-papal and Ghibelline, not so much from love of the emperors as from the desire to maintain towards the popes an attitude of quasi-independence. They exercised plenary jurisdiction over their vassals in matters civil and criminal and frequently contracted alliances with foreign potentates without consulting the wishes or interests of their sovereign. They were in perpetual feud with their Guelph neighbors, in particular with the rival house of the Orsini. They so frequently incurred the papal censures on account of their rebellious conduct, that it became the general but erroneous opinion of the Roman people that the yearly excommunication of the Colonna was one of the main purposes of the Bull “In Coeena Domini”. Nevertheless, members of the family were quite often appointed by friendly pontiffs to high offices of Church and State. Rarely were they without at least one representative in the Sacred College, and at one of the most critical junctures in the annals of the Church, the election to the papacy of Cardinal Odo Colonna, Martin V, put an end to the disastrous Western Schism. Twice in the course of its history this powerful house was threatened with annihilation (see Pope Boniface VIII; Pope Alexander VI), but on both occasions the restoration of its members was as speedy as their fall.

The long line of Colonnese cardinals was opened in 1192, when Giovanni the Elder was created CardinalPriest of S. Prisca by Celestine III. He was made Bishop of Sabina by Innocent III, and was employed on important legations to Germany, Spain, Sicily, and France. He was the powerful friend of St. Francis, and was largely instrumental in obtaining from the pope the approval of the Franciscan Rule. He is remembered at Amalfi for his munificence in building and endowing a spacious hospital. He died at Rome, 1209. Three years later Pope Innocent elevated to the cardinalate a nephew of the cardinal, known as Giovanni the Younger, CardinalPriest of S. Prassede. He was sent to the Orient as legate in 1217 and returned to Rome in 1222 bringing with him the Pillar of the Scourging, which remains to the present day in the chapel he built for it in his titular church. He also built and endowed two hospitals near the Lateran for the relief of the poor and of pilgrims. In 1240, after a futile attempt to reconcile Pope Gregory IX and Frederick II, the cardinal, as head of his family, together with the other Ghibellines of Rome, went over to the emperor and openly rebelled against the Holy See. He died in 1245. Matthew Paris (ad. an. 1244) describes him as “a vessel filled with pride and insolence; who, as he was the most illustrious and powerful in secular possessions of all the cardinals, was the most efficacious author and fosterer of discord between the emperor and the pope”.

As a punishment of their Ghibellinism, no scion of the house was admitted into the Sacred College until 1278, when the magnanimous Orsini pope, Nicholas III, the son of that Matteo Rosso who had razed all the Colonna strongholds in Rome, in token of amnesty elevated to the dignity of the purple Giacomo Colonna with the title of Cardinal-Deacon of S. Maria in Via Lata. About ten years later, Honorius IV created Pietro, nephew of Giacomo, Cardinal-Deacon of the Title of S. Eustachio. These were the two cardinals whose bitter quarrel with Boniface VIII ended so disastrously for that pontiff and for the prestige of the medieval papacy. Deposed and degraded in 1297, they were reinstated in their dignities and possessions by Clement V in 1305. Both died at Avignon, Giacomo in 1318, Pietro in 1326. These unruly cardinals continued the deeply religious traditions of their family, founding and endowing the hospital of S. Giacomo for incurables and the Franciscan convent of S. Silvestro in Capite, in which they deposed the remains of the saintly sister of Giacomo, the nun Beata Margarita. Their munificence as patrons of art is attested by many masterpieces in the Roman churches, notably Turrita’s mosaics in S. Maria Maggiore, pronounced by Gregorovius “the finest work of all the mosaic paintings in Rome“. The learned Cardinal Egidio Colonna well deserves a special article (see Egidio Colonna). One year after Pietro’s death, his nephew Giovanni, a son of the noble Senator Stefano, whose immediate family remained faithful to the Holy See during the troublous times of Louis the Bavarian, whilst his kinsman Sciarra, led the schismatical party, was raised to the cardinalate by John XXII, with the title of S. Angelo. He was universally esteemed, especially by men of letters. He wrote the”Lives of the Roman Pontiffs from St. Peter to Boniface VIII”. At his death, 1348, his intimate friend, Petrarch, wrote the beautiful sonnet, “Rotta a l’alta Colonna”. At the beginning of the Great Schism Urban created two Colonna cardinals, Agapito and Stefano, but they both died shortly after. Then followed Odo Colonna, later Pope Martin V (q.v.), who, in 1430 bestowed the purple upon his youthful nephew Prospero. The latter, becoming involved in the rebellion of his family against Eugene IV, was deprived of his benefices and sentenced to perpetual exile, but was reinstated by Nicholas V, and died in 1463, lauded by the Humanists as a Maecenas of arts and letters. In the heated conclave of 1458 it was Prospero Colonna who decided the election of Piccolomini in the famous words, “I also vote for the Cardinal of Siena, and make him pope”.

Prospero’s nephew, Giovanni, was the representative of his family during the pontificates of Sixtus IV, Innocent VIII, Alexander VI, Pius III, and Julius II. Created Cardinal-Deacon of S. Maria in Aquiro in his twenty-fourth year by Pope Sixtus, he was committed to the Castle of Sant’ Angelo two years later, when that pontiff and the Colonna began their bitter feud. After an imprisonment of over a year, he regained his liberty. One cannot feel much sympathy with him in his misfortunes during the pontificate of the Borgia pope, who could not have been elected without his vote. When Alexander VI began his war of extermination against the Roman barons, Colonna, more fortunate than Cardinal Orsini, made his escape and did not return to Rome till the pope had passed away. He himself died in 1508. Although Julius II restored to the Colonna their possessions and dignities, and by the Pax Romana, 1511, put an end to the hereditary feuds of the rival houses, yet, their old-time position of quasi-independence was never again attained. The two secular heads of the family, Prospero and Fabrizio, acquired great fame as generals in the armies of the Church and of Charles V. Fabrizio’s daughter was the highly gifted Vittoria (q.v.). Prospero’s nephew, Pompeo, was chosen to represent the family in the Church. He consented very reluctantly, for the sword was more congenial to him than the Breviary. He received a large accumulation of benefices, was created cardinal by Leo X, in 1517, and vice-chancellor by Clement VII. In return, he took the side of the emperor in his quarrel with the pope. On September 20, 1526, took place the onslaught on Rome, and the desecration of St. Peter’s and the Vatican, which covers his memory with eternal infamy. He also joined with Constable Bourbon in the capture of Rome, May, 1527; but, horrified by the brutality of the sack of his native city, he did his best to shield his unfortunate countrymen within the walls of the Cancellaria. The indulgent Clement absolved and reinstated him three years later. He became viceroy of Naples and died in 1532. The good name of the house was redeemed by the next Colonnese cardinal, Marcantonio, who was carefully trained in piety and learning by the Franciscan friar, Felice Peretti, later Sixtus V. He was created CardinalPriest of SS. XII Apostoli, in 1565, closely imitated St. Charles Borromeo in establishing seminaries and restoring discipline, was librarian of the Vatican, fostered learning, and was extremely charitable to the poor. Before his death, in 1597, his kinsman Ascanio Colonna was elevated to the purple by Sixtus V in 1586. Although he owed his cardinalate largely to the favor of Philip II, yet he did not permit his gratitude to extinguish his pa-triotism. It was his defection from the Spanish ranks at a critical moment during the conclave of 1592 that defeated the aspirations of Philip’s candidate, Cardinal Sanseverina and led to the election of Clement VIII. In his well-known exclamation: “I see that God will not have Sanseverina, neither will Ascanio Colonna”, breathes the haughty spirit of his race. He died in 1608, making the Lateran his heir. Succeeding cardinals of the house of Colonna were Girolamo, created by Urban VIII in 1628, d. 1666; Carlo, treated by Clement XI in 1706, d. 1739; Prospero, created by Clement XII in 1739, d. 1743; Girolamo, created by Benedict XI V 1743, d. 1763; Prospero, of the Sciarra branch, created simultaneously with his kinsman in 1743, d. Prefect of the Propaganda in 1765; finally, Marcantonio, created by Clement XIII in 1759, d. in 1803. Though all were conspicuous for learning and piety and for filling high affices at the Roman court or in the most important dioceses of Italy, they need only a passing notice. The most illustrious lay prince of the Colonna was Marcantonio, who at the great sea-fight of Lepanto, October 7, 1571, commanded the papal galleys and on his return to Rome was awarded a memorable triumph. To cement the friendship between the houses of Colonna and Orsini, Sixtus V married their chiefs to his nieces and ordained that they and their descendants should enjoy the dignity of Assistant Princes at the Pontifical Throne.


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