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Makers of empire. Patrons of the Renaissance. Masters of political intrigue.

The history of Italy is strewn with their names, from the battlefields of the Crusades to the inner sanctum of the Holy See.

They are the families who shaped a civilization.

The ancestry of each house may be traced on scrolls called stemmata, detailed records of extraction and descent that were first set down in Roman antiquity.

Of all the forebears of the Borgheses, the most mythic in stature is Saint Caterina da Siena, who brought the Holy See back to Rome from Avignon, France, in the fourteenth century. A hundred years later, the Holy Roman Emperor bestowed the title of count on Agostino Borghese. Political rivalries led to the assassination of Niccolo Borghese by the henchmen of Pandolfo Petrucci at the dawn of the sixteenth century. In 1596, Camillo Borghese was elected cardinal, and in 1605 he became pope under the name Paul V. Over the course of the next two hundred years, members of the house of Borghese won the titles of prince of Sulmona and viceroy of Naples. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Napoleon Bonaparte arranged the marriage of his sister to a Borghese and named him viceroy of Piedmont.

The Massimos, perhaps the oldest family in Europe, claim descent from the Fabii, a noble line dating back to the fourth century B.C. The genealogy of these Roman princes encompasses two sanctified popes and many bishops, cardinals, and governors. In one of the few miracles recognized by the church, Paolo Massimo, a nobleman of the sixteenth century, was rescued from near-death by the prayers of Saint Filippo Neri.

In a document from 1116, Marquis Pellavicinus is named in the company of the Emperor Arrigus V. His sons fought in the first Crusade, and later generations of Pallavicinis saw members elected cardinals of the Church. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the family took on the hereditary title of princes and merged with the noble house of Rospigliosi. In Rome today, the Palazzo Pallavicini still rises on historic ground, home in the fourth century B.C. to the thermae of the Emperor Constantine, and its Baroque pavilion displays a famous fresco painted by Guido Reni in 1614.

The Sforzas reach back to the thirteenth century and number among their ancestors seven dukes of Milan. At the end of the fourteenth century, Muzio Sforza waged battle as a condottiere for the Church, the Florentine republic, Milan, the Estes, and the Neapolitan kings. Pope John XXII named him count of Cotignola, and King Ladislaus appointed him the first baron of the kingdom of Naples. In the fifteenth century, the brother of duke Francesco I married a Roman princess and became a count with several territories from the duchy of Milan. Thus was founded the Sforza Cesarini branch of the family. His son married a Farnese princess who was niece to Pope Paul III, and one of his grandsons served the emperor as ambassador. In 1581, a Sforza Cesarini ascended to the rank of prince of the Holy See.

The Gonzagas of Lombardy, whose lineage can be traced back to the twelfth century, created one of Europe's most important courts during the Renaissance. After a fierce political struggle, Luigi Gonzaga defeated his opponents and became governor of Mantua. In 1433, Sigismondus the Emperor appointed Gian Francesco the Marquis of Mantova. One hundred years later, Federico II became duke of Mantua and a patron of the artists Titian and Giulius Romanus.

A document written in 1689 by Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor, notes the ancient German origins of the Odescalchis. Some historians believe that the first Odescalchi came to Italy in 801 A.D. with the Frankish king Charlemagne. Members of the family have distinguished themselves as financiers, bishops, and ambassadors, starting with Cardinal Benedetto Odescalchi, who became Pope Innocenzo XI in 1676 and rescued the debt-ridden Vatican from bankruptcy. Innocenzo personally funded the coalition of Austria, Poland, Venice, and Russia against the Turkish invaders, and a monument in St. Peter's memorializes his role as Europe's defender.

No family has played so large a role in the history of Rome and the Papacy as the Colonnas. History records their first appearance around 1000 A.D., when the family controlled territories near Rome. Over the course of the following millennium, they rose steadily in the echelons of the nobility as marquises, dukes, and princes, and added new honors and lands to their holdings. Five popes, several saints, and numerous cardinals and bishops count among their ancestors. In 1571, a Colonna took charge of the papal galleys in the battle at Lepanto, where the Turkish armies were defeated. The Colonna palazzo in Rome stands as a testament to the power of late Renaissance and Baroque art, with a collection boasting masterpieces by Reni, Tintoretto, Carracci, Bronzino, Guercino, Ghirlandaio, and Veronese.

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