Mobsters of Medieval Rome
Medieval Rome definitely does not get the attention it deserves. Although often depicted as place full of decadence and corruption, the historical reality was much different.
Alleys of the Roman Jewish ghetto near where the Pierleoni family, main enemy of the Frangipane, used to reside. © Adriano Zampolini
While Rome was indeed a very corrupt city, it was also a thriving urban center full of pilgrims (Romei), artisans, soldiers and wealthy clergymen. During most of the Middle Ages, the city of Rome was controlled by powerful aristocratic military families with strong ties to the clergy. One of these powerful families was that of the Frangipane. The origins of the Frangipane are shrouded in mystery, with legend saying that they descended from a rich merchant of the Roman Gens Anicia who distributed bread to the beggars of the city after a famine. The name “Frangipane” (from Latin “to cut bread”) suggests a past that involved supplying the Roman population with grain (formerly the duty of the Prefect of the Annona). By the first half of the 10th century, the Frangipane family were listed as wealthy merchants in the documents of the Abbey of Farfa near the city of Rome. From there, the Frangipane go on a campaign of expansion inside the city, building fortresses on the Circus Maximus, Colosseum, Arch of Titus, Arch of Ianus, Rione Monti and Trastevere. Being great landowners and benefactors, the Frangipane quickly built themselves a powerful military retinue (Masnada/Potentia) made of Pedites (infantrymen), Milites (knights), Scutiferi (squires) and Sgherri (private soldiers payed from the family purse) from the city population.
The Frangipane then inserted themselves into the wider “Investiture Controversy” as hardened supporters of the great reformer Pope Gregory VII, who was feuding with Holy Emperor Henry IV for influence and power. Cencio Frangipane the Elder, Consul of the city of Rome (consuls were still selected from the city elites) protected Pope Gregory inside Castel Sant’Angelo during the Norman sack of Rome in 1084 with the aid of Matilde of Canossa, another great ally of the pope, who supplied both troops and money. After the death of Pope Gregory VII however, the Frangipane changed allegiance and became great allies of the Holy Roman Emperor inside Rome. The powerful Roman family often became responsible for elevating their own candidates to the Throne of Saint Peter, showing an enormous degree of influence inside and outside the walls of the eternal city. Pope Honorius II was a candidate of the Frangipane, while the powerful family was also the protector of Pope Urban II, who famously preached for the First Crusade.
Torre delle Milizie, built by pope Innocent III on top of the old Servian walls. At one point in time, it was a stronghold of the Frangipane. © Adriano Zampolini
Along with other powerful Roman families, the Frangipane quickly became the real power behind the throne of the Patrimonium Sancti Petri (Papal States). Though their downfall was to be as swift as their rise. From great landowners (holding estates around Ardea, San Paolo Fuori le Mura and Porta Ardeatina) and feudal lords (with the castle of Terracina, Ninfa, Circeo, Cecchignola, Caprarola etc.) they fell from power when their main strongholds inside the city of Rome were torn down by Guelph supporters during the reign of Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen (who they were the main ally of inside the city of Rome under Pietro Frangipane). The Frangipane were still present as military commanders and landowners throughout the late middle ages, but their influence was in decline after the Battle of Porta San Lorenzo in 1347.
The Frangipane are a prime example of the great Roman families that represented the actual “military might” behind the popes in the Middle Ages. While the popes are often present in our history books as great international leaders and diplomats, the dynamics behind their temporal and spiritual power are often not explored, and the Frangipane family certainly represent an important “chess piece” in those dynamics.
Cola di Rienzo, “popular tribune” of Rome and main antagonist of the aristocratic power of the Frangipane. © Adriano Zampolini
Able to field private armies and rouse the people in rebellion, the Frangipane were often in contact with high ranking members of the Roman Church, such as Cardinals and ArchChancellors, transforming from local to international players.
They had many urban churches of Rome under their control (including the spectacular church of Santa Prassede), which also meant control over church notaries and lands.
Their fame as “mobsters” of Medieval Rome stems from their often violent methods towards high ranking members of the clergy (including Roman pontiffs) which included imprisonment, torture and blackmail. Rome as a papal city was de facto controlled by these strong “moblike” families such as the Frangipane and the Orsini, who effectively controlled grain shipments, salt imports, meat processing, weapon production (mostly for the urban militia and private soldiers), taxation and fees at the city gates, papal elections, papal chancery (Chartularium), church property and the city defenses. Their violent methods were certainly known throughout the Medieval world, but their more beneficial activities were even more known by the unruly population of medieval Rome and the pontiffs they hosted. The Frangipane are also one of the very first noble families in Medieval Rome to have an actual surname associated with a coat of arms (two rampant lions on a red field ripping apart a piece of bread, as the family name suggests).