I came across the term Black Nobility while reading a vintage conspiracy book that liked peppering in ominous names paired with sinister insinuations dastardly geopolitical deeds. There was little explanation of these spooky societies. Coincidentally I was also reading J.M. Roberts’ A History of Europe around the same time and had come across an entry about a near Venetian empire with a quirky political structure. There I found another casual mention of the Black Nobility.
Generally, the term seems to refer to a specific group that supports the Papacy at any time of crisis and whose members have descended from a specific spread of noble families. The most modern-ish application of the term, besides my weirdo book from the 1960s, was used for the aristocratic families of Rome who sided with the Papacy when the Savoys lead an army into Rome in 1870. The Savoys overthrew the Pope and moved into the Quirinal Palace.
This would ultimately be the end of Papal Rule in Rome. By the end of the crisis Rome and all of Italy would come under a secular government.
For fifty years after 1870 Pope Pius IX was confined to the Vatican City. He claimed to have been kept a prisoner in the Vatican. The aristocrats who had been ennobled by the Pope or were subjects of the Papal States kept their palaces closed in mourning for the confinement. This is claimed to be the reason for the term Black Nobility in its modern incarnation on sites like Wikipedia and Britannica.
The families that made up the Black Nobility had settled in Rome to benefit from their connections to the Vatican. All of these families had relatives among the high ranking clergy and some, like the Borgia, had descended from previous Popes. Many of their members held ceremonial positions in the Papal Noble Guard. Notable names include the Colonna, Massimo, Orsini, Pallavicini, Borghese, Odeschalchi and Ludovisi. There were more, but they’re now extinct.
Pius’s confinement ended in 1929 with the Lateran Treaty. A truce between the Italian government, signed for by King Victor Emmanuel III and Prime Minister Benito Mussolini. The treaty granted the families of the Black Nobility duel citizenship in Italy and the Vatican City.
In 1968 Pope Paul VI changed the Papal Court to the Papal Household and abolished most of the positions held by members of the Black Nobility. In his letter he stated, “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 time.”
And this is as recent as the mentions of the Black Nobility get.
I found an older use of the term, and one that wasn’t irrelevant to the topics of Italy and papal strife. At its earliest, the Black Nobility refers to a set of oligarchical families of pre-Roman times. These early dandies were based in Babylon, Persia, Greece, Tyre and Phoenicia. They were the first to gain dominion of maritime trade and commerce. Over time and a series of political marriages these families condensed and many of them set up shop in the strategically located city-state of Venice. For centuries they fortified their trading rights, and then a time of opportunity came to Venice as Rome the city took its last ragged breaths as the seat of empire.
Venice nearly became Rome’s successor. The almost empire. It’s detached location, nestled on a cluster of islands in a shallow lagoon, spared Venice the mainland’s troubles. Their civic model was one of a city-state republic, ruled by a doge who was elected by a council of twelve tribunes who representing the twelve communities of Venice. The small empire was cut short in the 12th century by an uneasy Holy Roman Empire in mainland Italy that viewed the Venetian autonomy with suspicion. A small war was had over it and Venice lost.
A pillar of the Venetian oligarchical system had been the fondo, or the family fortune. This referred to the continuity of said fortunes by their respective enterprises. The largest fondo was the endowment of the Basilica of St. Mark. Closely tied to the city Treasury, the Basilica absorbed the family fortunes of those who died without heirs. This fondo was administered by the procurers of St. Mark and their position was one of the most powerful in the Venetian system. Around this centralized fondo were grouped the individual fortunes of the great families.
When the republic was smashed many of these families migrated to Northern Europe and took their parts of St. Mark’s fondo with them. Their capital was used to open the coinage institutions of the Bank of Amsterdam and the Bank of England. These northern banks prospered until 1255, when Henry III nearly bankrupted them with the English crown’s insolvency. Economic crisis was imminent, and then the Black Plague came, depopulating the continent’s tax base.
Under the next king, Edward III, the former Venetians sought to re-coup their losses by offering the king capital in exchange for the spoils of France. The resulting conflict came to be named the Hundred Years War. A further strategy to regain their northern footing was to ingratiate themselves with the oldest aristocratic tool, political marriages. Many of these were concentrated into two particular families, the House of Hohenstaufen and the Weifs. The Weifs, or as they were called in Italy, the Guelphs, were also known as the Neri, Black Guelphs, or Black Nobility.
The Hohenstaufen was a dynasty of unknown origin. They first ruled the Duchy of Swabia from 1079 and then came into the royal rule of the Holy Roman Empire from 1138 to 1254. In their time the empire reached the peak of its territorial expansion. They are now extinct.
The Guelphs, also known as the House of Weif, was the older branch of the north Italian House of Este. The House came to rule Bavaria by inheritance. An early death in a childless marriage granted the family rights to Tuscany, Ferrara, Modena, Matua, and Reggio. This inheritance would play a major part in the Vatican’s Investiture Controversy. The Weif’s were brought into direct conflict over their unwillingness to aid the Hohenstafens in the Italian War of the 12th century. A war in which their familial Italian counterparts in Italy were also involved, more on that later. The Weifs were stomped and lost their duchies of Bavaria and Saxony. Left with only Brunswick, they still managed to kidnap England’s king Richard I and demand a huge ransom before the end of the century. Such an allotment that it probably helped maintain their survival in their diminished realm.
The Weifs fortified their territory around Brunswick and by 1705 they formalized their lands into the Kingdom of Hanover. This would become the ruling house of Britain one day when the Act of Settlement in 1701 placed the granddaughter of James I in the line of succession rather than suffer a Catholic crown. This granddaughter was the wife of the Duke of Hanover, House of Weif.
Meanwhile, in the moody Mediterranean…
Shown above: the flag of the Ghibellines and flag of the Guelphs.
In Italy, the Weifs are latinized as the Guelphs. The Hohenstaufens become the Ghibellines from the name of their castle, Wibellingen, which they used as a rallying cry in battle. So the Ghibellines are team empire, the Guelphs are team pope. The Guelphs came from wealthy mercantile families whose cities tended to be in places where the emperor posed a territorial threat. The Ghibellines drew their wealth from agriculture and their cities were in places that were threatened by the expansion of the Papal States.
The two families and their associated factions would fight over territories, perceived threats, and the disagreements of church and empire for-seemingly-ever. A pause in the conflict came in 1289 when the Tuscan Guelphs prevailed over the Ghibellines and regained control of the city-state. Almost immediately after this, the Guelphs began in-fighting. The split was defined as the Black Guelphs and the White Guelphs. The Blacks supported the Papacy while the White opposed it. And so the song kept playing. The family overthrew each other for the rule of the same old city for a couple generations. When they grew bored, the arbitrary conflict with the Ghibellines kicked back up and brought new massacres and conspiracies. By 1334, Pope Benedict XII threatened to excommunicate anyone who used the name Guelph or Ghibelline politically.
That’s the synopsis of the Black Nobility. A fun name, a violent and Shakespearean past, and for those who really squint between the lines, a murky cabal of ambiguously powerful entities that twiddle with the common folks lives to this day.
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