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ORSINI, the name of a Roman princely family of great antiquity, whose perpetual feuds with the Colonna are one of the dominant features of the history of medieval Rome. According to tradition the popes Paul I. (757) and Eugenius II. (824) were of the Orsini family, but the probable founder of the house was a certain Ursus (the Bear), about whom very little is known, and the first authentic Orsini pope was Giacinto Orsini, son of Petrus Bobo, who assumed the name of Celestin III. (1191). The latter endowed his nephews with church lands and founded the fortunes of the family, which alone of the Guelf houses was able to confront the Ghibelline Colonna. "Orsini for the Church" was their war-cry in opposition to "Colonna for the people." In the 13th century the "Sons of the Bear" were already powerful and rich, and under Innocent III. they waged incessant war against other families, including that of the pope himself (Conti). In 1241 Matteo Orsini was elected senator of Rome, and sided with Pope Gregory IX. against the Colonna and the Emperor Frederick II., saving Rome for the Guelfic cause. In 1266 the family acquired Marino, and in 1277 Giovanni Orsini was elected pope as Nicholas III. When Boniface VIII. proclaimed a crusade against the Colonna in 1297, the Orsini played a conspicuous part in the expedition and captured Nepi, which the pope granted them as a fief. On the death of Benedict XI. (1304) fierce civil warfare broke out in Rome and the Campagna for the election of his successor, and Cardinal Napoleone Orsini appears as the leader of the French faction at the conclave. The Campagna was laid waste by the feuds of the Orsinis, the Colonnas and the Caetanis. At this time the Orsini held the castle of S. Angelo, and a number of palaces on the Monte Giordano, which formed a fortified and walled quarter. In 1332, during the absence of the popes at Avignon, the feuds between Orsini and Colonna, in which even Giovanni Orsini, although cardinal legate, took part, reduced Rome to a state of complete anarchy. We find the Orsini again at war with the Colonna at the time of Rienzi. In 1435 Francesco Orsini was appointed prefect of Rome, and created duke of Gravina by Pope Eugenius IV. In 1484 war between the Orsini and the Colonna broke out once more, the former supporting the pope (Sixtus IV.). Virginio Orsini led his faction against the rival house's strongholds, which were stormed, the Colonna being thereby completely defeated. The Orsini fortunes waxed and waned many times, and their property was often confiscated, but they always remained a powerful family and gave many soldiers, statesmen and prelates to the church. The title of prince of Solofra was conferred on them in 1620, and that of prince of the Holy Roman Empire in 1629. In 1724 Vincenzo Maria Orsini was elected pope (Benedict XIII.) and gave his family the title of Roman princes.
Authorities.-F. Sansovino, Storia di casa Orsina (Venice, 1565); F. Gregorovius, Geschichte der Stadt Rom (Stuttgart, 1872); A. von Reumont, Geschichte der Stadt Rom (Berlin, 1868); Almanach de Gotha.
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