Bees in Rome

Barberini-bee
A Barberini bee. One of the many still buzzing around Rome on buildings & monuments. This is in Palazzo Barberini.

In the early eleventh century, the Barberini family settled in Florentine territory of Val d’Elsa (Elsa Valley). Their family named derived their surname from the Castel of Barbarino. Before they were known as the Barberinis, their surname was Tafani, which literally translates into “the Horsefly.” This insect graced their family crest until Pope Urban VIII’s (Maffeo Barberini) changed it to the bee, which was a much more honorable choice because it was believed to represent wisdom. Early in the family’s history they gained wealth and prominence through the sale of textiles and intermarriage with other noble merchant families in Florence.

One of the first prominent members of the Barberini family was Francesco di Antonio Barberini. He was responsible for building the family’s Florentine palace at Santa Croce. Francesco di Antonio did a particularly astute job at building up the family textile business. He organized trade with the eastern cities of Rangusa (also known of Dubrovnik, located in southern Croatia) and Ancona (located on the north-eastern coast of the Italian peninsula). Francesco di Antonio even opened a branch of the family business near Istanbul, in the town of Pera.

The early political years of the Barberini were marked with conflict with another famously powerful Italian family, the Medicis. In the 16th century the Medicis were the most powerful family in Florence. This was the result of the Medicis overthrowing the Republic of Florence and installing themselves as rulers in 1530. The Barberini’s helped in the defense of the city, putting them in bad favor with the Medicis. As a result of this, Francesco’s two sons were forced to leave the city. Nicolo went to Ancona, while Antonio fled to Rome. However, this quarrel would follow Antonio to Rome as he was stabbed at the hands of the Medici in the streets of Rome in 1559.

Triton fountain with bees in the shield
Triton fountain with bees in the shield

Before Antonio’s death however, he summoned his nephew Francesco di Carlo Barberini (1528-1600) to Rome in 1555. Francesco di Carlo quickly associated himself with the church and rose in prominence at similar speed. He was given the clerical rank of monsignor (one below a cardinal) and the titles of papal treasurer and the apostolic protonary, an important legal position. He used these titles to accumulate huge sums of wealth for his family. He was also active in promoting the clerical career of his nephew Maffeo Barberini, to whom he would bequeath his wealth through circumventing traditional church processes. Maffeo would then use this wealth and status to his advantage, eventually being elected as Pope, taking the title of Urban VIII.Barberini bee. One of the many still buzzing around Rome on buildings & monuments. This is in Palazzo Barberini.

To trace the bees, start at the hive, Palazzo Barberini. The family palace has part of the collection of the National Museum of Ancient Art. Highlights are Raphael’s 1518 portrait of his lover, La Fornarina (the baker’s daughter), Carvaggio’s Judith Slaying Holofernes (1599) and Henry VIII by Holbein (1536).

Heading back down the slope to Piazza Barberini is Fontana del Tritone (1643), by Gianlorenzo Bernini, who had many commissions from the Barberini pope: the papal crest hides under the merman. In the north corner of Piazza Barberini is the Fontana delle Api, the Fountain of Bees, a marble clam shell with three bees at its basin, designed by Bernini in 1644 as a gift from Urban VIII to the people.

Bees appear throughout the Vatican Museums, in particular on the frescoed walls of the Gallery of Maps. There are also bees in St Peter’s Basilica on the baldacchino above the main altar and on Urban VIII’s tomb in the apse to the right.

Stained-glass windows with bees illuminate the church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli on the Capitoline Hill, and bees decorate the Borromini-designed church of Sant’Ivo by Piazza Navona.

The swirly dome of Rome's Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza church, designed by Francesco Borromini.
The swirly dome of Rome’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza church, designed by Francesco Borromini.

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