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Orsini, Fulvio

    Full Name: Orsini, Fulvio

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1529

    Date Died: 1600

    Place Born: Rome, Lazio, Italy

    Place Died: Rome, Lazio, Italy

    Home Country/ies: Italy

    Subject Area(s): Antique, the and iconography

    Career(s): art collectors


    Antiquarian and collector; “father of modern iconography.” Orsini was an illegitimate child of a member of the noble Orsini family in Rome, probably of Maerbale Orsini. Abandoned by his father, he aligned himself with the choir boys of S Giovanni in Laterano and their protector Canon Gentile Delfini (d.1559), himself in the service of Cardinal Ranuccio Farnese (1530-1565). Orsini studied ancient languages, rising in the church until by 1554 he was a cannon. In 1559, at Delfini’s death, he moved into the Farnese patronage where he became secretary and librarian to the Cardinal himself. At Ranuccio Farnese’s death in 1565, his successor, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, kept him on as librarian adding to his duties keeper of the antiques and art work in the villa, Palazzo Farnese. Orsini acquired new works for Farnese collection, including drawings by Michelangelo, Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo and others. He began collecting art personally, owning at least two paintings by El Greco, which may have been payment for steering Farnese commissions to certain artists. He also supplied inscriptions for the Cardinal’s commissions, and most importantly, developed the iconographic programs for the Farnese frescos in the Villa Farnese in Caprarola. As an historian, he published a history of Rome, Familiæ Romanæ ex antiquis numismatibus in 1577. As a linguist, he wrote a new edition of Arnobius of Sicca apologetics in 1583 and the Septuagint in 1587. Cardinal Alessandro died in 1589 and Orsini came into service of his third Farnese master, Cardinal Odoardo Farnese. He continued to oversee Farnese art interests, including composing the iconographic program for Annibale Carracci’s Camerino frescoes in the Palazzo Farnese. At his death, his collection passed to Odoardo Farnese. His collection are still part of the Farnese collection now at Capodimonte and Mus. Archeol. in Naples. Orsini held a deep interest in ancient iconography. In 1570 he published his Imagines et elogia virorum illustrium, a study of portraiture, which laid the groundwork for a new methodology for the study of classical portraiture. Orsini used all media, coins, sculpture, gems and inscriptions in his quest for reliable images. Orsini’s broad scholarship was followed by ever newer iconographies in succeeding generations, including Bellori’s Veterum illustrium philosophorum of 1685.

    Selected Bibliography

    Imagines et elogia virorvm illvstrivm et ervditor ex antiqvis lapidibvs et nomismatib. Rome: Ant. Lafrerij formeis, 1570.


    “Portrait Iconography.” Encyclopedia of the History of Classical Archaeology. Nancy Thomson de Grummond, ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996, vol. 2, pp. 924, mentioned; “Orsini.” The Catholic Encyclopedia ; Robertson, Clare. “Orsini, Fulvio.” Dictionary of Art.


    "Orsini, Fulvio." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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