Upon entering St. Peter’s square in Vatican City , you’re greeted with crowds of humans and statues alike. It’s one of the most recognizable squares in the world because it faces St. Peter’s Basilica, crowned with Maderno’s facade and Michelangelo’s dome. The inscription across the front of the building beneath the stone Apostles, on the other hand, is less-known.
Translated, it reads: “in honor of the prince of Apostles; Paul V Borghese, Supreme Pontiff, in the year 1612 and the seventh year of his pontificate.” Here, Pope Paul V gives himself credit for the basilica and a lot of extra titles; he was neither a prince, nor an Apostle—he was not even Roman, seeing as his family famously came from Siena.
Our tour guide taught us to recognize the constant self-promotion practiced throughout the city, especially by rich families, like the Borghese family of Pope Paul V. “When you go to a church,” our guide said, “count all the family shields you see, then count all the crosses. You’ll be surprised by the numbers.”
Once we knew what we were looking for, we kept seeing traces of these families everywhere! Here are four family shields to look out for on your next visit:
House of Borghese
What to look for: Eagle and Dragon
This family originated in Siena where they came into wealth via success in wool. Their son Pope Paul V (Camillo Borghese) was known for his nepotism and self-promotion, hence the inscription on St. Peter’s Basilica. You can learn more about the Borghese at the Galleria Borghese and its surrounding English garden, which overlook the Piazza del Popolo.
What to look for: Six Mountains and a Star
The Chigi are known as a princely family. One of their members was also elected Pope (Alexander VII). These symbols are dotted throughout the Vatican Museum. Notably, when you enter the city gates into the Piazza del Popolo, you’ll see their shield emblazoned on the main gate (see above) and atop the Egyptian obelisk in the plaza’s center. These obelisks were stolen by the Romans to—in essence—take the Egyptian gods “hostage,” as a means of preventing outside attacks from the people they plundered. They were preserved by the Catholic church, like many pagan structures, by putting a cross on it. In this case, the Chigi symbol is just under the cross, positioning themselves in this place of dominance and societal respect.
What to look for: Dove Carrying an Olive Branch
The Pamphili were another papal family (with Pope Innocent X and many cardinals created under him). They adopted the dove to represent them to emphasize their friendliness. What made them stand out from other wealthy Italian families was their interest in real estate. They were big on creating palaces and principalities of which family members could control with princely titles. Pretty bourgeois if you ask me. You can spot a lot of doves around the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (in Piazza Navona). The fountain was designed by Bernini for Pope Innocent X and is surrounded by the family palace and the Sant’Agnese in Agone, a church which he sponsored.
What to look for: Three Bumble Bees
The Barberini’s hailed from Florence. Once their member Pope Urban VIII came into power, a contemporary wrote, “his kindred flew from Florence to Rome like so many bees to suck the honey of the Church, which they did excessively.” Our guide summed it up by saying that they were known for stealing. Pope Urban VIII famously took the ancient beams from the portico of the Pantheon to use for the baldachin (bronze canopy) in St. Peter’s Basilica. A critic said at the time, “what the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did.” As you see in the above photo, their coat-of-arms is proudly displayed at the base of the baldachin.
Whereas a lot of these placements are obvious acts self-promotion and attempts at buying ones’ place in heaven, the fact remains that if it were not for these wealthy families, these artifacts, structures, and works of art would not have been preserved for us to see today. Have fun searching!