In 1195, Giovanni was the first of many members of the Colonna family to become a Cardinal. His life was one of intense activity. A crusader, he was freed from a Saracen prison with the intervention of St. Francis of Assisi, of whom he was both friend and supporter, having been instrumental in the recognition of his monastic order. He also acted as mediator on behalf of Popes Honorius III and Gregory IX with Emperor Federick II. Becoming disillusioned with the Pope, he later took sides with the Emperor in the internecine strife which then wracked Italy and founded the Ospedale di San Giovanni on the Caelian Hill, which remains Rome’s largest hospital.
At this time a rivalry began with the pro-papal Orsini family, leaders of the Guelph faction. This reinforced the pro-Emperor Ghibelline course that the Colonna family followed throughout the period of conflict between the Papacy and the Holy n Empire. Family enmity with Pope Boniface VIII led to destruction of the fortress at Palestrina and to the seizure of the Pope at Anagni by Sciarra Colonna in 1303. It was he who, in old age, crowned Louis IV as Emperor in 1328. In honor of this event, the Colonna family was granted the privilege of using the imperial pointed crown on top of their coat of arms.
The family remained at the centre of civic and religious life throughout the late Middle Ages. In 1248, after having dedicated her entire life to serving God and the poor, Margherita Colonna died. A member of the Franciscan Order, she was beatified by Pope Pius IX in 1848.
In 1314, Cardinal Egidio Colonna died at Avignon, where the Popes had withdrawn. An Augustinian, he had studied theology in Paris under St. Thomas of Aquinas to become one of the most authoritative thinkers of his time, and tutor to French king Philip the Fair. The celebrated poet Petrarca was a great friend of the family often living in Rome as Stefano Colonna’s guest. He composed a number of sonnets for special occasions within the Colonna family, including
“Colonna the Glorious, the great Latin name upon which all our hopes rest”.
The election of Oddone Colonna as Pope Martin V in 1417 ushered in a new period of prosperity for the family. He put an end to the Great Schism of the West. A man of great integrity, modesty and learning, it was Martin V who brought the seat of the Papacy back to Rome from Avignon, establishing his residence in the Colonna Palace in Rome. The family’s exploits continued. Numerous members distinguished themselves in Spanish service.
In 1502, at the famous “Challenge of Barletta”, thirteen Italian soldiers chosen from among the men of Prospero and Fabrizio Colonna and captained by Hector Fieramosca, representing Spain, proved victorious against thirteen French soldiers, captained by M. De La Motte, representing France. Fabrizio Colonna fought honorably at Ravenna in 1512 and was appointed by King Ferdinand of Spain as Grand Constable of the Kingdom of Naples. His daughter Vittoria, wife of Francesco d’Avalos, was a poet of distinction, and a highly cultured woman of great moral integrity. Following the death of her much loved husband, she took the veil. From her convent, however, she continued to cultivate her friendship with the greatest minds of her age, such as Bembo, Castiglione and Ariosto, and especially with Michelangelo Buonarroti, who loved her passionately, and whose love she repaid with deep, yet chaste, affection.
Cardinal Pompeo Colonna masterminded the raid on the Vatican of 1526 and was deprived of his cardinalate by Pope Clement VII. However, following the Sack of Rome a year later by Imperial troops, it was Pompeo who saved the Pope. The latter, in thanks, reinstated him in both his official positions and his estates. He was later nominated Viceroy of Naples by the Emperor Charles V of Spain, a dignity he exercised with austerity and rigor until his death in 1532.
The great military leader Marcantonio Colonna, son of Ascanio and Joan of Aragon, distinguished himself in a number of battles in the service of Charles V and of the Duke of Alba, Viceroy of Naples. He was persecuted by Pope Paul IV, who expropriated a large number of his lands and against whom he fought valiantly at the side of the Duke of Alba. Regaining his prestigious position, rights and properties when Pius IV became Pope, he was awarded the Order of the Golden Fleece and title of Grand Constable of the Kingdom of Naples by a grateful Philip II of Spain. Marcantonio was then appointed Captain General of the Papal Galleys by Pope Pius V. With his help, the Holy League, the alliance between the Pope, the King of Spain and the Doge of Venice against the Ottoman Empire, under Don John of Austria defeated the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
The appointment of Marcantonio III, grandson of the great Marcantonio and son of Fabrizio and Anna, niece of Cardinals Federico and Carlo Borromeo, as Prince Attendant to the Papal Throne dates to Pope Sixtus V(1598). A few decades later, Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna was without doubt one of the most influential art patrons of his time “more feared and more loved than a king”. He married Maria Mancini, niece of Cardinal Mazzarino and close friend of King Louis XIV of France. Lorenzo Onofrio rendered the magnificent Colonna Gallery even more splendid by placing alongside works of art collected over centuries, a collection of war trophies, emphasizing the family’s fortune in battle, its strength, determination, discipline and sacrifice.
Each century has seen the Colonna’s loyal servants of the Church. As befits the rank of prince, they have continued to play a conspicuous part in the ecclesiastical, cultural, political, military and civil life of Rome, of Italy and indeed of Europe across the centuries. In the twentieth century, Prospero Colonna was thrice Mayor of Rome and a Senator of the Kingdom of Italy. His son, Piero Colonna, was Governor of Rome.
Francesco Colonna, son of Piero, dedicated his life to the reorganization and modernization of the family estate in the hills of Molise, now run by his daughter, donna Marina.