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Pier Luigi Farnese (19 November 1503 – 10 September 1547) was the first Duke of Parma, Piacenzamarker and Castro, from 1545 to 1547.

Born in Romemarker, Pier Luigi was the illegitimate son of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (who later became Pope Paul III). He became a soldier and participated in the sack of Rome in 1527.


Pier Luigi Alexander Farnese was born in 1503 from the union between Cardinal Alexander Farnese (future Pope Paul III) and probably Silvia Ruffini - a Roman noblewoman who also gave birth with Alexander to three other children: Constanza, Paul and Ranuccio.

His illegitimacy tormented Pier Luigi all his life, and doubtless contributed to the formation of his character. The nobility of Piacenzamarker was frequently known to insult him as "the bastard son of the Pope". As the eldest and beloved son he was legitimised along with his brother Paul at the age of two in 1505 by Pope Julius II. He was given a famous humanist tutor, Baldassarre Malosso di Casalmaggiore, nicknamed Tranquillus; and quickly developed a love of war and fortifications.

Alexander was, however, keen to make Pier Luigi the true head of the Farnese family and so arranged a favourable marriage alliance with Gerolama Orsini, daughter of Lodovico, Count of Pitiglianomarker. In 1513 the engagement contract was drawn up, and in 1519 the wedding celebrated.

Despite a loveless marriage, Gerolama remained a faithful devoted wife, tolerating Pier Luigi's excesses, brutality, and extravagances with dignity. Delays in the construction at the palace in Gradolimarker, meant the young couple had to lodge in the Castle at Valentanomarker. The following year their first son Alexander was born.

Military career

Pier Luigi quickly became the stereotype of a mercenary soldier - wild, primeval and amoral. He lack neither courage nor daring, and was strong and audacious yet brutal enough to offend many commentators. Nor did he always fight on the traditional side of the papacy; reversing the pro-Guelph sentiments of the Farnese.

In 1520, at the age of seventeen, he and his brother Ranuccio were already employed as mercenaries in the pay of Venicemarker. As a result he served under the standard of Charles V - remaining with the emperor until 1527 and present at the Sack of Rome; in which he himself took part.

While his brother Ranuccio withdrew to Castel Sant'Angelomarker to defend the Pope; Pier Luigi crossed the Tiber and quartered in the family palace, thus saving it from destruction. Critics accused the Farnese of backing both sides, but Pope Clement refused to condemn. Finally when the plague hit the city, the imperial troops decided to withdraw.

Pier Luigi retired to the Roman countryside, taxing it without mercy and permitting a climate of theft and murder. Pope Clement, tired of this behaviour, eventually threatened excommunication, until Cardinal Alexander tried diplomatically to reconcile his son with the pope. In 1528 Pier Luigi, still under imperial pay, fought in Puglia against the French army and distinguished himself in the defence of Manfredoniamarker.

Captain General of the Church

When his father was elevated to the papacy as Paul III in 1534, great festivities were celebrated at Valentano, after which Pier Luigi left for Rome.

Paul's first action was to make Pier Luigi's eldest son, Alessandro Farnese, a cardinal. But Charles V only reluctantly allowed the granting of titles to Pier Luigi over the city of Novaramarker - agreeing an annual pension on the condition that the news was not made public. In the hope of speeding things up, Pier Luigi took direct part in the negotiations while leading troops into the lands occupied by his Farnese relatives. Novara and its surrounding territory was finally established as a marquessate in favour of Pier Luigi, but had to wait until February 1538 until formal investiture could be made.

Basilica of San Gaudenzio, Novara

In the meantime the office of Captain General of the Church had become vacant, and Paul nominated his son on 31 January 1537. Pier Luigi travelled through the Papal States defeating pockets of resistance before arriving in triumph at Piacenza.

His father later went on to make him Duke of Parmamarker and Piacenzamarker, properties that had previously been a part of the Papal Statesmarker. Pier Luigi and his son, Ottavio, declared they would have pay 9,000 golden ducati every year to the Holy See, and, in exchange, they gave back the Duchies of Camerinomarker and Nepimarker. Pier Luigi was also in possession of the Duchy of Castro and the county of Ronciglionemarker, in the Lazio. Pier Luigi took possession of his new states on September 23, 1546.

During his life he had gained a fame on cruelty, ruthlessness and decadence. He was also suspected of being homosexual, with scandal erupting in 1537 when he was accused in what became known as the 'rape of Fanomarker' where he allegedly raped the young bishop of the city, Cosimo Gheri, while marching with his troops (Gheri subsequently died). Letters also exist from his father, Paul III, reproaching him for taking male lovers when on an official mission to the court of the emperor; and another from the chancellor of the Florentine embassy detailing a man-hunt he had mounted in Rome to search for a youth who had refused his advances. The allegations of homosexuality were used in later protestant polemic directed against the papacy.

His firm rule and his taxes gained him the enmities of the cities, which were used to the fair authority of the Popes. The aristocracy, in particular, was supported against him by emperor Charles V, who aimed to unite Parma and Piacenza to the Duchy of Milanmarker.

In 1547 a conspiracy was arranged against him by counts Francesco Anguissola and Agostino Landi and the marquises Giovan Luigi Confalonieri and Girolamo and Alessandro Pallavicini. After Anguissola and others had stabbed him to death, the conspirators hung his body from a window of his palace in Piacenza. Charles V's vicar Ferrante Gonzaga captured the Duchy soon after; although subsequent events led to the return of the duchy to Pier-Luigi's son, Ottavio.

Duke of Castro

View of Castro (1663).
Meanwhile Paul III gradually recovered the family lands around Castro which had been split after the death of Ranuccio the Elder. To this he added the territory of Ronciglionemarker. His son, Pier Luigi, was invested with the titles of Montalto which gave the right to export grain without paying taxes; and Paul accepted feudal rights over Canine, Gradolimarker, Valentanomarker, Lateramarker and Marta. He exchanged the city of Frascatimarker for the fortress at Castro, and at bought Bisenzio from the diocese of Montefiascone. As a final act, Paul created a formal duchy out of the lands and bestowed it upon his son and heirs. The duchy was, however, to come under the direct control of the Holy See.

The Duchy of Castro operated as a functioning State within the Patrimony of Saint Peter. It possessed rich forests full of game, fertile vineyards and fields, and a great number of fortresses. In the concistory of 14 March 1537, the Pope also awarded his son the cities of Nepi and Ronciglione. Pier Luigi was tasked with repairing all the fortresses over which he was now feudal lord. The new Duke commissioned Antonio Sangallo the Younger to create a new capital, which saw the construction of a citadel, ducal palace and mint.

In 1538 his son Ottavio married Margheret of Austria, daughter of Charles V; thus consolidating the friendship between the Farnese and the imperial family. In 1543 another son, Orazio, was sent to the court of the king of France. Finally in 1545 his third son, Ranuccio, was created a cardinal by Paul III.

Family and children

Gerolama Orsini, Pier Luigi's wife.

Pier Luigi Farnese had married Girolama Orsini, daughter of Luigi Orsini and wife and first cousin Giulia Conti and paternal granddaughter of the 6th Counts of Pitiglianomarker. They had four children:

He also had an illegitimate son, Orazio, who married Diane, Duchesse d'Angoulême and daughter of Henry II of France.


  1. Giovanni Drei, I Farnese, Parma, 1950
  2. G. Dall'Orto, 'Un avo poco presentabile', Babilonia, 162, January 1998

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