The Orsini, one of Italy's most ancient and illustrious families, used the orso—the bear—as their heraldic device. Coincidentally, the bear is also the mascot of UCLA, which houses the Orsini Family Papers. The papers have been in Los Angeles since 1964, when they were sold by the family and bought by the Department of Special Collections of the Charles E. Young Research Library. The 540 boxes of documents, dating from circa 1300 to 1950, constitute a significant portion of the family's private archive.
Based in Rome, the Orsini have been one of Italy's leading families since the Middle Ages when they acquired much land across central and southern Italy. Over the following centuries, their private armies and enormous wealth made them crucial players in the complicated power-game of Italian politics. The family cultivated close ties with the Medici, and so formidable were the Orsini that Lorenzo il Magnifico considered taking an Orsini bride to be a step up in the world. His son Piero also married into the Orsini family, as did Isabella de' Medici several generations later. The Orsini eventually boasted three popes and thirty cardinals, and kinship ties with the royal houses of France, Spain, England, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Poland.
The Orsini Family Papers are a window into the public and private lives of the Orsini over the centuries, and especially from 1500 to 1800. Much of the material concerns the administration of property. The papers include measured maps and registers of rural lands, and plans and inventories of houses and palaces in town. There are records of grain yields, appointments of personnel, reports from estate managers, and a great number of rentals and concessions. Dowries and wills, disputes and settlements, both of Orsini family members and of their subjects, attest to the complicated business of administering such a vast and powerful family, as well as the life-and-death concerns of ordinary people living on their properties. Legal papers record quarrels over successions and patrimony, and testimonies from provincial courthouses in the Orsini family's lands preserve tales of marauding soldiers, lecherous vicars, thefts of livestock, nighttime brawls, and village murders.
Until 2005, the papers remained largely uncataloged. Thanks to a gift from the Steinmetz Family Foundation, Special Collections was able to undertake a two-year project to create a digital finding aid for the papers. In addition, selected items from the collection were digitized and linked to the online finding aid. Now the archive is not only widely accessible to scholars, but it has also been reunited—in a virtual manner—with the remainder of the Orsini archive housed in the Archivio Storico Capitolino in Rome.
In early 2007, the Department of Special Collections mounted an exhibition of material from the collection and organized and hosted a major international conference on the family. UCLA Library's Department of Special Collections has not only made an important and hitherto hidden collection available, but has also actively promoted new scholarship on these unique materials.
Collection Profile and Overview: Victoria Steele
Illustrations: Luna Imaging Inc.