The Hunt for the King 17) The meteoric decline of the House of Fieschi

Readers by now will be wondering why, given that the Fieschi Family was so powerful and so influential for several hundred years, it is not well-known to the history-loving public today. Fair question. If we compare this family with, say, the House of Borgia, one really does have to wonder. The Borgias, too, could boast two popes. The Borgias, too, commanded incredible wealth and influence, both inside the Catholic church and in terms of land ownership and business affairs. The House of Borgia remained influential for a shorter period of time, from about 1400 through to about 1650, while the House of Fieschi rose to prominence with Ugo Fieschi, around the year 1200, and remained influential at the highest level of European politics until 1547, the year of their catastrophic decline from power.  So why are the Borgias the subject of so many books, films and TV series, while the Fieschis remain relatively unknown?

No doubt, the Borgias’ reputation for flamboyant corruption and poisoning adversaries plays a part. But let’s be honest, all of the powerful families in the Middle Ages and Renaissance practiced blatant, large-scale nepotism and corruption. That’s how they stayed powerful. The Fieschis certainly did. Perhaps they were more discreet about activity that could be considered criminal. Certainly, no reports have come to us of Fieschis poisoning their adversaries, though I personally would be very surprised if that didn’t happen at least once or twice. And as for outright corruption, one need only look at Cardinal Niccolò Fieschi (1456-1524) to see that the Fieschis were just as capable of it as the Borgias. Niccolò was made Cardinal by the second Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, and over the course of his career accumulated dozens upon dozens of church benefices – in other words, incomes from church property – the length and breadth of Europe. This made him a man of extraordinary wealth and influence. It’s a sobering thought that this cardinal twice came close to being annointed pope. The first time was in the 1513 conclave, when instead Giovanni de Medici became Pope Leo X, The second time, in the 1523 conclave, Niccolò Fieschi actually received the highest number of votes in the first, sixth, seventh and ninth ballots. If he had been elected he would have been the third Fieschi pope, and who knows when, if at all, the power of the Fieschis would have declined.

The heraldic emblem of the Fieschi Family. The seated cat at the top, sports the Fieschis’ ambiguous motto ‘sedens ago’ – ‘seated I act’.

And yet, decline it did, in the year 1547, with the Fieschi Conspiracy. Gian Luigi Fieschi, an ambitious young member of the family, plotted to take control of the city of Genoa from the great Andrea Doria, one of the most successful admirals of the 16th century. GianLuigi and his conspirators, during the night of January 2, 1547, managed to surprise the Doria ships unarmed in the port of Genoa, and post their men-at-arms in key points around the city. Early on the morning of January 3, they raised the cry ‘rally to the Cat, and freedom!’ The ‘Cat’ referred to the heraldic emblem of the Fieschi Family, the seated cat. However, just as they were attempting to persuade the people to flock to their banner, the word got around that Gian Luigi, their leader, was dead. During the night-time assault on the Doria ships, he had been crossing from his own galley onto one of the Doria galleys using a wooden gangway. The gangway had fallen into the sea, and with it Gian Luigi – wearing full armour. He had drowned immediately, leaving the conspiracy without its leader.

A bust of GianLuigi Fieschi, the last charismatic Fieschi, and the cause of the family’s downfall

The revenge against the Fieschis was immediate and effective: their lands, wealth and privileges were taken from them and divided among their enemies. No other fate could so completely have ruined the family. With their power-base gone, the Fieschis disappeared from European politics, literally overnight. However, though they cannot compete with the Borgias or Medicis in terms of modern-day stardom, in 1782 Schiller wrote a play on the Fieschi Conspiracy, which has ensured a certain notoriety for the family in the German-speaking world, and a silent film was based on this play in 1921 by Paul Leni. In 1856 Giuseppe Verdi composed the opera Simon Boccanegra, based on a Spanish play by Antonio Garcìa Gutiérrez, in which one of the main characters is a Fieschi, one of Verdi’s complex and sympathetic bass roles, and a fore-runner of his greatest bass character, King Phillip II in Don Carlos.

Today, the only descendents of the House of Fieschi who can claim any sort of eminence are the Princes of Belmonte. In fact, this family derives its very claim to nobility and their estates directly from the Fieschi Family itself.