The Dragon’s Tail: “Branding” the Boncompagni family (Part 1 of 3)

An illustrated essay by Carol Cofone (Rutgers ’17)

[This essay, completed in February 2018, is dedicated to the memory of HSH Prince Nicolo’ Boncompagni Ludovisi (Rome 21 January 1941—Rome 8 March 2018). I am grateful to him, and to HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, for the privilege of contributing to this project. It has given me a deep appreciation for the nobility of his family. Prince Boncompagni Ludovisi will be deeply missed but thanks to his generosity in sharing his family’s history and heritage, he will not be forgotten.]

As followers of this blog know well, the heraldic crest of the Boncompagni Ludovisi—the union of two great Bolognese Papal families—consists of two principal elements. Representing the Ludovisi is a red field, and three bands of gold; and for the Boncompagni, also a red field, and a winged dragon of gold, with a truncated tail. Here and in the next two posts I will explore how the dragon came to be associated with the Boncompagni, and how that symbol was managed during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni (13 May 1572—10 April 1585).

To begin at the beginning, we have to travel way back in history:

HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi explains that the origin of the family traces back to the 10th century CE. “The Boncompagni”, she writes, “came to Italy, in 980, with Emperor Otto II, from whom they descend. They were placed in Spoleto, which was strategically important to the Holy Roman Empire. Their original name is Dragon von Saxon. The Italians could not acclimate to such a Germanic name and thus changed their name to Boncompagni, which means good friend or good companion. References to Dragoni [in the later record] are the Boncompagni’s attempt to honor their true name, Dragon von Saxon.”

So long before the Boncompagni dragon became a symbol, it was a family name. The ancestors of the Boncompagni were from Saxony—after 962, a state of the Holy Roman Empire. Today Saxony corresponds approximately to the modern German states of Lower Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and the Westphalian part of North Rhine-Westphalia.

A genealogical chart, drawn up by the famed Bolognese archivist Giovanni Maria Bonetti in 1712, now found in the Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi at the Villa Aurora, illustrates how the Boncompagni descended from one Luitulfo (or Luitolfo), who (as noted) arrived in Italy with emperor Otto II in 980. We hear of a son Boncompagno and a grandson Ridolfo, but not much is known of them save for their names. For us, the detailed story begins a century later, with Luitulfo’s great-grandsons Paolo and Federico Dragoni, who in 1099 took part in the First Crusade under the leadership of the Frankish knight Godfrey of Bouillon.

Giovanni Maria Bonetti, genealogical chart (detail) of the Boncompagni. Attached to MS Sommario de tutte le scritture attinenti all’ Ecc. Casa Boncompagni ritrovate nello Studio del Sig. Gio. Masini (1712). Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Bonetti in his genealogical chart further indicates that Paolo had five sons—Rinieri, Boncompagno, Giovanni, Dragone, and Ridolfo—three of whom spread out in Umbria to found their own branches of the family, specifically at Arezzo (Rinieri), Visso and Foligno (Boncompagno), and Bologna (Giovanni). Of these, it was Giovanni who is the direct ancestor of Pope Gregory XIII, born Ugo Boncompagni in Bologna on 7 January 1502. And it is Boncompagno, it seems, whose heirs first decisively adopted the surname Boncompagni, later generalized throughout the family. Ridolfo remained at Assisi, and Dragone was without issue.

Bonetti for his genealogical chart cites several late 16th and 17th century sources, most prominently Eugenio Gamurrini, author of Discorso Genealogico della Famiglia Dragona Buoncompagna (1662) and  Istoria genealogica delle famiglie nobili toscane, et vmbre I (1668) [with the Boncompagni discussed at 362-363 and 382-395]. It must be said that by Gamurrini’s time, Boncompagni genealogy had become a crowded field. Following upon the accession of Gregory XIII Boncompagni in 1572, a large number of writers and artists engaged in an investigation into Boncompagni family history—specifically how the Dragon von Saxon became the Boncompagni—and a new interpretation of the family symbol, the dragon.

Two titles by Eugenio Gamurrini on Boncompagni genealogy (1662, 1668). Credit: Google Books.

An exquisite and apparently unique example of the genre has now emerged from the archive of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, a hand-illustrated volume dated to 1619, and titled La vera Genelogia dell’Antichissima Famiglia de Buoncompagni di Bologna, d’Arezzo and di Visso ò Fuligno.

From MS of Angelo Boncompagni, La vera Genelogia dell’Antichissima Famiglia de Buoncompagni di Bologna, d’Arezzo and di Visso ò Fuligno (1619). Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

The book tells the same story of the family’s early progress through Umbria, in rich and lavishly illustrated detail. The compiler of the volume is one Angelo Boncompagni, who dedicates the work to the head of the main branch of the family, Gregorio Boncompagni (1590-1628), Duke of Sora and grandson of Pope Gregory XIII. This Angelo is not a well-known member of the noble family. Bonetti’s genealogical chart of 1712 shows him descended from the founder of the Visso branch of the family, Boncompagno (Dragoni) Boncompagni, and thus a rather distant cousin of his dedicatee.

Giovanni Maria Bonetti, genealogical chart (detail) of the Boncompagni. Attached to MS Sommario de tutte le scritture attinenti all’ Ecc. Casa Boncompagni ritrovate nello Studio del Sig. Gio. Masini (1712). Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome. The red circle at right shows Ugo Boncompagni (= Pope Gregory XIII) and those at lower left the uncle and nephew Pietro Paolo and Angelo Boncompagni.

The historical detail in this 1619 book comes in the transcription of two letters said to be written by Pietro Buonamici (or Bonamici). Buonamici apparently is to be identified with a nobleman, physician, antiquary and artist who made frescoes of churches in Arezzo, and lived 1540-1615. Buonamici elsewhere wrote of Boncompagni family history in a work titled Annotazioni all’Istoria della Città di Arezzo.

Excerpt of letter of Pietro Buonamici, in MS of Angelo Boncompagni, La vera Genelogia dell’Antichissima Famiglia de Buoncompagni di Bologna, d’Arezzo and di Visso ò Fuligno (1619). Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Buonamici addressed both of his letters transcribed here to Pietro Boncompagni, Canon of the Cathedral of Arezzo, and uncle of the book’s editor Angelo Boncompagni. Buonamici has nothing to say about Spoleto. Indeed, he seems most concerned to enhance the importance of the Arezzo branch of the family. In a letter dated 30 July 1577, Buonamici writes “…the House of Boncompagni of Bologna, of Arezzo, and of Visso or Foligno are all three descended from the House de Draconibus of Assisi, a most noble, ancient house, and from the leaders of that city, as a cemetery in St. Francis in Assisi shows, and as several authors write of the House.”

From MS of Angelo Boncompagni, La vera Genelogia dell’Antichissima Famiglia de Buoncompagni di Bologna, d’Arezzo and di Visso ò Fuligno (1619). Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

He continues: “a Boncompagno de Draconibus, leaving Assisi for the cities mentioned, and forced to remain in Visso, had a couple of sons there, one called Rinieri, the other Giovanni—one went to Bologna, got married there, and dropping the surname Draconibus, called himself Rinieri di Boncompagno, making his father’s surname his proper name. Giovanni, who also came from Arezzo, from whom [Pope Gregory’s family] descended, the one who remained in Visso did the same. In buying a title he made himself great, and from his branch, many have come. They still display today their ancient grants and imperial honors, in writings and crests.”

More detail follows, focused on the evolution of the family arms. “Cataldino from Visso, the great legal expert”—the reference is to Cataldino Boncompagni, born 1370 and later governor of the barony of Taverna in Calabria—“was one of those who then changed the crest in the Holy Land, where Godfrey of Bouillon gave them the yellow bars in the red field, and the lion.”

From MS of Angelo Boncompagni, La vera Genelogia dell’Antichissima Famiglia de Buoncompagni di Bologna, d’Arezzo and di Visso ò Fuligno (1619). Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

“And [Pope Gregory’s family] changed theirs in the time of Gregory X‘s Council of Lyons [i.e., in the year 1272] … [to include] the four stars above in the sky, with the black bar, with the centered letters Timete Deum (‘fear ye God’).”

From MS of Angelo Boncompagni, La vera Genelogia dell’Antichissima Famiglia de Buoncompagni di Bologna, d’Arezzo and di Visso ò Fuligno (1619). Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

“By this time,” says Buonamici, “the crest of the half dragon is what was left, and it brings us to what [Pope Gregory’s family] has today. His house still has on its crest a valiant Captain, whom one speculates is Gherardo Boncompagni of Arezzo, who served here under Alberico di Cunio [died 1448] with the other famous warriors who came out of that school. Only the house of the Boncompagni of Bologna retained a part of the ancient crest that the house of Draconibus had in Assisi, that is, they had only one of three half dragons that they carried in the red field.”

From MS of Angelo Boncompagni, La vera Genelogia dell’Antichissima Famiglia de Buoncompagni di Bologna, d’Arezzo and di Visso ò Fuligno (1619). Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Buonamici then names his sources for the history of the Boncompagni family and its heraldry. “And all these things are described in writing by several authors who were following M. Alfonso Ceccharelli of Bevagna, a man of great literary ability, great interpretation, and rich with a library (not that of a doctor, being the gentleman that he is, but of a king.) Among others, those who deal with it are Fanusio Campano in his book De familiis Illustribus Italiae, ac de earum origine, which covers the better part of 200 years.”

So we see Buonamici citing Fanusio Campano and Alfonso Ceccarelli. In 1712, when the archivist Giovanni Maria Bonetti drew up the Boncompagni family tree, he used Gamurrini but eschewed those sources.

Giovanni Maria Bonetti, genealogical chart (detail) of the Boncompagni, with citation of his sources. Attached to MS Sommario de tutte le scritture attinenti all’ Ecc. Casa Boncompagni ritrovate nello Studio del Sig. Gio. Masini (1712). Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Who are these authors? Ceccarelli was born in 1532 in Umbria at Bevagna (Perugia). A physician by training, he also specialized in writing local histories, highlighting the prominence of any family that paid him to do so. When sources were lacking, he made them up. It was he, who under the pseudonym of Fanusio Campano, he also wrote De familiis illustribus Italiæ ac de earum origine, dated it to 1443, and then cited it in his own writings.

From MS of Angelo Boncompagni, La vera Genelogia dell’Antichissima Famiglia de Buoncompagni di Bologna, d’Arezzo and di Visso ò Fuligno (1619). Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome. Ceccarelli is quoted here as citing two sources on the Boncompagni of Arezzo, Ioannes Selinus and Ioannes de Virgilio (allegedly a contemporary of Dante). Both seem to be fabrications.

Ceccarelli’s deceptions grew ever more ambitious over time. He went from fake family histories, to fake wills, commissions, and transfers of property, and ultimately created a fake diploma with which Emperor Theodosius I confirmed the supposed “Constitution of Constantine”, a document which validated the temporal power of the Catholic Church. For this, he was jailed. He pled guilty, and during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni, was sentenced to death. He was beheaded on 9 July 1583 at Ponte Sant’Angelo. One notes that the Castellan in charge of Castel Sant’ Angelo at this point was the Pope’s son, Giacomo Boncompagni.

Though the facts are unclear, there is reason to believe that Ceccarelli’s punishment was quite literally overkill. According to Sari Kivistö in a recent articleit is possible that before execution he had his hand cut off, then he was suffocated, then he was burned at the stake. As Kivistö states, “the severe punishment came from the fact that Ceccarelli had cheated many important families and fabricated official documents, testaments and privileges, not just literary texts.” When he was condemned, his writings, letters and documents were confiscated.

From Alfonso Ceccarelli, Dell’historia di Casa Monaldesca (1580). Credit: Google Books

As Armando Petrucci details in the Treccani biographical dictionary, Ceccarelli’s “archive, containing part of the correspondence, manuscripts of his works, falsified documents and genuine documents, a diary, horoscopes for himself, relatives and third persons…was seized…today it constitutes the manuscripts Vat. lat. 12487 and 12488 of the Vatican Apostolic Library…but many of his works, autograph or copy, are contained in other manuscripts of the Vatican Apostolic Library and other libraries and archives of Italy.”

Kivistö explains that “some men who recognised the forgeries tried to have Ceccarelli’s books destroyed, but the texts were too popular, too widely read and stored in too many libraries; in a word, they were too successful to be destroyed. Thus, libraries preserved fake manuscripts along with genuine documents.”

Screenshot of one of Ceccarelli’s horoscopes (in this case, for his contemporary Michelangelo) at https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.lat.14926

Other sources contribute more stories about Ceccarelli. He may—or may not—have been an astrologer to Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni, and he may—or may not—have been the author of the Prophecies of St. Malachy, 112 short profiles that predicted the succession of the popes from Pope Celestine in the 12th century until the end of time. (Notably, the last pope covered by the prophecies has been identified with our current Pope Francis.) However, it is suggested Ceccarelli wrote all the prophecies in the hopes of influencing the papal conclave that would appoint the successor to Gregory XIII in favor of Cardinal Girolamo Simoncelli. It didn’t work then, but it has a lot of people now anticipating Armaggedon at any moment.

But back to our present document. Pietro Buonamici is writing in praise of Alfonso Ceccarelli in 1577, some years before that forger’s disgrace and execution. The two also seem to have had a strong personal link. In the Vatican manuscript copy of Ceccarelli’s treatise La serenissima nobiltà dell’alma città di Roma (Vat.Lat.4909), dated to June 1582, Buonamici contributes one of the three verse prefaces (called “Sonnets”).

Screenshot of Ceccarelli MS La Serenissima Nobiltà dell’Alma Città di Roma at https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.lat.4909

To sum up. What we seem to have here in the 1619 La vera Genelogia dell’Antichissima Famiglia de Buoncompagni is an attempt by an outlier of the 17th century Boncompagni, Angelo Boncompagni, to both flatter the head of family, Gregorio Boncompagni, Duke of Sora, and also make the Arezzo branch seem highly relevant to the ancestry of the Duke’s grandfather, Pope Gregory XIII.

To make his case, Angelo Boncompagni did not hesitate to use discredited sources. Chief among them was Alfonso Ceccarelli (a.k.a. “Fanusio Campano”), glossing over the fact that in the reign of Gregory XIII he had been punished for his forgeries with a brutal execution. Angelo also transcribed two personal letters that a close associate of Ceccarelli, Pietro Buoncompagni, had written to his uncle Pietro Boncompagni.

Those letters contain many mysteries that, as of this writing, remain unsolved. In this telling, we have only touched on the relationship between Buonamici and Ceccarelli, and how they interpreted the historical record of the Boncompagni Ludovisi.

In Parts 2 and 3 of this post, we will turn our attention to others who delved into Boncompagni family history and sought to re-interpret the family symbol, the dragon. However, still future posts will re-visit these letters, in order to shed more light on the Buonamici/Ceccarelli connection and its relevance today for the Boncompagni Ludovisi.

Detail of cover of Angelo Boncompagni, La vera Genelogia dell’Antichissima Famiglia de Buoncompagni di Bologna, d’Arezzo and di Visso ò Fuligno (1619). Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

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