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Bracciano Castle, Lazio, Italy.	Source: franco lucato/Adobe Stock /Adobe Stock

Unearthing Italy's Hidden Renaissance Castles: Bracciano Castle, the Orsini HQ


The current castle at Bracciano - Orsini-Odescalchi Castle - was built by Napoleone Orsini and his son Virginio starting in 1470. It is one the best maintained castles in Italy and host to numerous celebrity weddings such as Tom Cruise and Katy Holmes.

Continuing his hunt around Vejano for Renaissance castles, Marcello visits the Orsini family’s Bracciano stronghold, and two of their other lesser castles hidden nearby. This article explains more of the history of the feud and contains the video of Marcello’s visit to Bracciano Castle, and the visit to Tolfa to spy the distant Santacroce Rota Castle.

Location 1: The Orsini Castle at Bracciano

The magnificent Orsini built castle was the headquarters of the Orsini family’s Bracciano branch. The Orsini had, at the time of Pope Borgia, the best Condottieri (the captains of the mercenary armies) of the time. In all the Orsini branches, there were six top Orsini Condottieri . Three were in favor of Pope Borgia and three were against him.

The Feud of Viano went from the hills above the Port Civitavecchia all the way across the Bracciano lake, and because of this, Viano controlled the two military axis, East-West and North-South. It was a crucial military ground.

Bracciano Castle, Lazio, Italy. (franco lucato/Adobe Stock)

Bracciano Castle, Lazio, Italy. (franco lucato/Adobe Stock)

The war between the Borgia and the Orsini at Bracciano in 1496 was a war between two factions of the Orsini, with the three Orsini condottieri fighting on behalf of Cesare Borgia.

In Bracciano Castle on the 12th of September 1493, Virginio Orsini, head of the Bracciano Orsini family branch, donated the Feud (or Fiefdom) of Viano to his brother-in-law, Giorgio Santacroce, who had married his sister.

The donation sparked a huge diplomatic international controversy. Pope Borgia stopped it from going through by requiring that 35,000 gold ducats were to be paid to the Vatican.

Pope Borgia stopped the Donation on the basis of two reasons:

1. Only the Pope could grant a Feud or Fiefdom. The Donation occurred without Papal approval therefore challenging the Papal authority.

2. The lands of the Feud of Viano were bought from the son of the Cibo Pope. Pope Borgia wanted a Papal court to approve the Donation as Pope Borgia believed that these estates and castle belonged originally to the Vatican and therefore it was the Vatican or the Pope’s authority that had to be compensated.

Pope Borgia managed to keep some castles for four years before eventually giving them back to the Orsini.

Roles of Santacroce

The Santacroce in Viano were Orsini vassals both economically and militarily. They eventually rose in the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church.

Napoleon Orsini, Count of Albe and Tagliacozzo. Baron of Corbara and Paterno. Lord of Bracciano, Vicovaro, Larino, Castelpagano, Roccaguglielma, San Felice del Molise (Condottieri di Ventura/Public Domain)

Napoleon Orsini, Count of Albe and Tagliacozzo. Baron of Corbara and Paterno. Lord of Bracciano, Vicovaro, Larino, Castelpagano, Roccaguglielma, San Felice del Molise (Condottieri di Ventura/Public Domain)

The father of Virginio Orsini, who was poisoned in Naples, was Napoleone Orsini who had established a military academy in the castle of Bracciano. There they studied geometry and the battles of the famous generals of antiquity.

They followed lessons from Luca Pacioli about geometry and how to calculate the trajectory of a bullet or cannon ball. It is now that Military Architecture becomes a sub-branch of geometry.

Unsung Heroine in the Borgia-Orsini Feud

The daughter of Napoleone Orsini was Bartolomea Orsini. She is remembered as the Gentil Donna Guirriera (Gentil Warrior Lady). She died defending the castle of Bracciano. I have looked for a portrait of her but could not find it in the castle. I wish I could have!

Historians have not always been fair with women. In this instance, the famous Italian historian, Guicciardini does not mention Bartolomea Orsini, but only her husband the famous Condottiero Bartolomeo d’Alviano as the battle hero.

In Soriano, near Vejano, on the hills of the Cimini mountains, the Orsini forces ambushed the Borgia forces as they slept. It was January, and it was cold. 

I believe that the victory of Soriano should be attributed to Bartolomea Orsini, la Gentil Donna Guerriera, for the following reasons:

  1. The husband of Bartolomea Orsini, Bartolomeo d’Alviano had adopted a guerilla strategy. He chose to leave all minor castles because he considered them not defendable. That is why we find some of them destroyed in the forest like Alteto, Torre d’Ischia and Galeria Antica - lost castles in the forest that you will see in these videos and articles.
  2. Bartolomeo d’Alviano chose to concentrate the defense in two castles: Bracciano and Viano.

Therefore, it is unlikely that Bartolomeo d’Alviano arranged for the surprise attack. The Orsini knew that Juan Borgia was left alone in command of the Papal army. He was not as experienced as the general that Pope Borgia Alexander VI had asked to accompany his son. He fell ill and could not direct operations.

Left; Juan Borgia. Right; Bartolomeo d’Alviano (Public Domain)

Left; Juan Borgia. Right; Bartolomeo d’Alviano (Public Domain)

The surprise attack had to come from Bracciano Castle, where Bartolomea Orsini was in charge. After the surprise attack, the Borgia was force weakened, and Bracciano Castle withstood their attack.

The walk up to the mighty Bracciano Castle, Bracciano, Italy. (Marcello Assandri)

The walk up to the mighty Bracciano Castle, Bracciano, Italy. (Marcello Assandri)

Conversely, Viano was destroyed by Cesare Borgia in 1496. Two Orsini generals were his field officers fighting against their Orsini cousins in Bracciano. Giorgio Santacroce was a General of the Artillery and had served in this function for a long time for different lords of the several Italian states of the time.

The Borgia Were Not the Forgiving Type!

The Borgia killed Virginio Orsini, Giorgio Santacroce, his brother Giacomo Santacroce, and a third Santacroce, the Marchese Jacopo Santacroce in 1503. His head was kept hanging for days on the Ponte Sant’Angelo, which is near the Santacroce Palazzo, Rome.

The Borgia did not forgive the tradimento (treason) of the Santacroce who had supported the invasion of the French King in 1498. The French attack was very effective.

I found documents in the Florence archive that Piero de Medici and Franceschetto Cibo, the son of Pope Cibo, was not paid the 40.000 gold ducats of the sale of the Viano estates by Virginio Orsini. There are two letters in which Pope Cibo complains to Piero de Medici about not having received the money. Franceschetto Cibo had married the daughter of Piero de Medici. What this shows is that the invasion of the French King in 1494 had been prepared by the Medici, the Orsini and the Santacroce beforehand.

The French invasion took only 3 months and was a land and sea military campaign that had been prepared well in advance. So, the Feud of Viano was the epicenter of a huge controversy for military and economic reasons.

The troops landed in the Port of Civitavecchia and, with the aid of the cavalry of the Bracciano Castle, were soon in control of the entire northeast defensive sector. The French king entered Rome in December 1498 at the Piazza del Popolo with the aid of the Orsini and the Medici.

Bracciano Castle (Marcello Assandri)

Bracciano Castle (Marcello Assandri)

Interestingly, during WWII the Allied Forces landed in Civitavecchia and south of Rome at Anzio, next to Nettuno. Both Civitavecchia and Nettuno were part of the Borgia defensive system of Rome. The defensive triangle that Pope Borgia Alexander VI created was given to the Sangallo School of Architects.  The same school of Leonardo da Vinci; all of them from Florence.

Day 2, Location 2: A View of Santacroce Rota Castle From Tolfa Castle

Notary documents of the 15th century indicate that Rota Castle was part of the Feud of Viano in 1493. Its strategic location sparked the controversy between Pope Borgia Alexander VI, the French King, the king of the Kingdom of Naples. Pope Borgia considered the creation of the Feud of Viano a bone in his throat, ‘ un osso nella gola’.

The Feud of Viano had been created with the support of the Medici in Florence, the Orsini in Rome and in Bracciano, and of the King of Naples, Giorgio Santacroce and his brother (both military generals) and the King of France.

The Rota Castle controls the hills above the port of Civitavecchia. The area is called the Tolfa. Here, in 1461, alum (sulphate of aluminum and potassium) was discovered. Prior to 1461, alum had been imported from the Ottoman Empire. Having conquered Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman obtained the monopoly of alum from the mines in Turkey, Egypt and Syria. Alum served as a fixative for the textile industry, for the cosmetic industry, for treatment of leather, and to create powerful gunpowder.

The Tolfa was contested territory between the Papal States and Siena during the times of Pope Borgia. Both the Rota and the Tolfa castles were involved in this war. 

Several wars were fought on this ground. For almost three centuries 70% of the Papacy income was derived from the extraction of alum in the Tolfa mountains.

In the video, Marcello visits the Tolfa Castle ruins, which has views across the valley to the Rota Castle complex.

The Astroarchaeology of Rota Castle: The Pleiades

The Castle of Rota is attributed to Fabio Santacroce who was the Captain of the Papal Fleet in the port of Civitavecchia. His main mission was to combat piracy. Towers along the coast and inland served to alarm the local population in case of a raid. That is why several of them are found in the Feud of Viano. Rota Castle is designed like The Pleiades constellation.

The Rota Castle Layout compared with The Pleiades constellation. (Marcello Assandri)

The Rota Castle Layout compared with The Pleiades constellation. (Marcello Assandri)


Here is the full Hidden Renaissance Castles series:

Top image: Bracciano Castle, Lazio, Italy.Source: franco lucato/Adobe Stock /Adobe Stock

All video courtesy of Marcello Assandri.

For more details of the informative and adventurous history tours Marcello provides, contact him at: [email protected]

By Marcello Assandri

Marcello Assandri's picture


I was born in Milan, Italy, and I lost my father at the tender age of six. He was a famous Tenor, the Tenor Virginio Assandri who had recorded with the iconic Maestro Arturo Toscanini in 1956 in New York... Read More

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