In Rome last week, we made a project out of exploring the palaces of the great papal families, guided in large part by Anthony Majanlahti's instructive and entertaining The Families Who Made Rome (2006). We visited Palazzi of the Colonna, the Barberini and the Doria-Pamphilj clan (in a previous trip, we'd done the Villa Borghese and the Villa Farnese).
It was good fun and may even have offered a bit of insight into how the world works. The Colonna, for example: "their" Pope, Martin V, born Odo Colonna, is the earliest of the lot; his incumbency extended from 1417 to 1431, effectively ending the great schism. But as a monument, the Palazzo is the latest of the lot, completed only about 1703, i.e., after 170 years of consolidating wealth and power. Its showcase is a grand ballroom designed by Bernini on the inspiration of the Versailles Hall of Mirrors, though for my money it works better than the Hall of Mirrors--better scaled, more adventurous and playful. Still the showcase of the piece are two different renderings of an "apotheosis"--Colonna grandees being welcomed into heaven, with an ease and assurance that makes you think of nothing so much as Mel Brooks saying "it's good to be the king." And it gets better: there is also a smaller painting, on the wall, of the Resurrection with assorted Colonnae arising from their graves, presumably so that God can sit at their right hand (the men are naked, the women fully clothed--a burial custom?).
But the really interesting stuff for me was what you might call the 17th-Century series: Borghese, Barberini and Pamphilj who do so much to consolidate wealth and power in the 17th Centuries. Apparently all three of the relevant Popes saw themselves as sincere Christians, and not one saw the slightest inconsistency between professed piety and the campaigns of loot and pillage they deployed to line the pockets of their nearest and dearest.
The more interesting question that emerged for me as the week went on, however, was: just exactly where the hell did they find all these riches? Rome was, after all, at this point a relatively second-rate power, drained by the counter-reformation and beleaguered by foreign enemies (it was Cardinal Mazarin in Paris who virtually dictated the election of the Barberini pope). Majanlahti makes passing reference to the evils of oppressive taxation and that's all very well but you would think there must be some limit to how much you can squeeze out of the abused Roman poor.
The other point that came home to me is the notion of just how persistent this kind of wealth can be. I'm shaky on details and I gather some of the grandee families (Orsini?) have indeed dribbled away into the delta of history. But there seem to be any number with documented survivors still functioning today (Colonna, Borghese,Barberini, Doria-Pamphilj). A visible contemporary Colonna bears the grand old family name of "Prospero," which strikes me as a nice touch (meanwhile, next door at the Colonna church, there is a (cardboard) placard soliciting "pane per i poveri"--"bread for the poor"--another nice touch) . Back across the Corso, the most visible current Paphilj is a certain Jonathan, who narrates the audio guide to the Doria-Pamphilj Gallery with one of those British accents that makes it sound like is upper lip is stapled to his teeth. Notably, Jonathan and his sister aren't even Pamphilj DNA--they were plucked out of an orphanage. That hasn't prevented them from engaging in an acrimonious public conflict over which of their children will inherit the Doria Pamphilj wealth.
All of which is a bracing reminder that there is nothing like picking the right parents or, in this case, great-great-great-great (etc.) grandparents (Arno J. Mayer wrote a pretty good book on this point a while back). Shakespeare laments that neither "brass, nor stone, nor earth nor boundless sea" may resist the depredations of the "sad mortality." If the "stone" takes the form of a Roman palazzo, then I'd say his theory remains to be tested.
Tourist Footnote: Aside from the Villa Farnese, there is the Palazzo Farnese, long deployed as the French Embassy. It has long been mostly closed to the public. I learned too late that the Ambassador in his unfathomable generosity agreed to allow minimal touring. You have to call and reserve and pay a guide fee, currently five Euros--pretty much of a bargain by the standards of Rome tour sites today.