The Correspondence of Fulvio Orsini

Primary Contributors:

Jan Machielsen

Fulvio Orsini. c. 1610, copperplate engraving. (Image available on Wikimedia Commons)

Fulvio Orsini (1529–1600)

Fulvio Orsini (11 December 1529–18 May 1600) was born Lucio Settimio Orsini, an illegitimate child from the noble Orsini family. Little is known about his early life, including the precise identity of both of his parents. Disowned by his aristocratic father, Lucio and his mother lived in extreme poverty. Possibly at the intercession of Gentile Delfini (one of the many members of that Venetian aristocratic family with that name) who would act as a replacement father figure, young Lucio obtained a position as choir boy and, from 1554, canon at St John Lateran. Delfini encouraged Lucio’s studies, which focussed on Roman antiquities (especially inscriptions and coins), until his death in 1559.

In 1555, for reasons unknown, Lucio Settimio changed his name to Fulvio. In 1558, Orsini entered the service of the Farnese family, possibly through Delfini’s intercession, serving as librarian first to Cardinal Ranuccio Farnese (until his death in 1565), later to the elder brother Alessandro (until his death in 1589), and finally to their nephew, Cardinal Odoardo, until his own death in 1600. Throughout his long life, Orsini remained firmly based in Rome. A stay in Bologna in 1565 (a notable presence in his correspondence) is the only exception, aside from obligatory summer retreats in the Farnese summer palaces in Capranica and Caprarola. (One particularly interesting letter is an invitation of 1577 from the Polish king for Orsini to come and teach there, which —presumably—was politely refused.)

Orsini’s position in Rome and at the cultured Farnese household put him at the centre of a mid-Cinquecento circle of humanists, which included figures such as Benedetto Egio, Ottavio Pantagato, Pedro Chacón, and Onofrio Panvinio, all of whom he would survive for decades. He was also evidently close to Guglielmo Sirleto, the Vatican Librarian and a formidable Counter-Reformation figure, although Orsini’s surviving correspondence has a decidedly non-religious focus. While Orsini did publish an edition of Arnobius and contributed to the Roman Septuagint edition, his letters focussed on coins (some of which still survive today) and inscriptions. Orsini’s bountiful correspondence with his collaborator Antonio Agustín focussed on these topics even when the Spanish bishop was attending the Council of Trent. (‘Questa lettera sara tutta in materia di medaglie,’ wrote Agustín to Orsini from Venice in 1561.) Beyond the joy of collecting, their scholarly appeal was clear—inscriptions and coins do not lie. As Orsini put it in the dedicatory epistle of his 1577 Familiae Romanae quae reperiuntur in antiquis numismatibus, they were matters of public record: ‘nothing in them could be falsified, no counterfeit added, which is not immediately made clear.’ Orsini’s published reproductions of these coins and inscriptions caused him to be frequently regarded as the father of ancient iconography. Orsini also published a series of Greek and Latin editions (see e.g. his correspondence with Carlo Sigonio and Christophe Plantin about these projects).

Inevitably, as Orsini’s correspondence also makes clear, Orsini himself became a must-see Roman attraction for young students visiting Rome from far afield, including a young Justus Lipsius and the future Bishop of Antwerp Laevinus Torrentius. Yet, he also corresponded with scholars closer to home, such as a Pietro Vettori, Carlo Sigonio, and (rather coolly) Marc-Antoine Muret. Orsini apparently owned a portrait of Sigonio by the Bolognese painter Lavinia Fontana. Also worth mentioning is Orsini’s relationship with Cardinal Granvelle, which continued even when the latter acted as Philip II’s chief minister.

Partners and Additional Contributors

This project was made possible by a British Academy Small Grant and by the hospitality of the British School at Rome. I am grateful to Simon Ditchfield for commenting on the draft application and acting as my referee. I would also like to thank the hospitality of the staff of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, in particular András Németh, and Mateusz Falkowski for the many conversations about Orsini and Agustín in the library’s Cortile. Mateusz also commented on a draft of this frontpage. Thanks are due to EMLO’s volunteers Chelsea Brown and Conrad Flanagan, and to EMLO’s assistant editor Charlotte Marique, for their help to prepare the metadata for upload to the union catalogue.

Key Bibliographic Source(s)

Unlike the Sirleto correspondence, another of this project’s outputs, considerable parts of Orsini’s correspondence have already been published, although in a decidedly fragmented fashion. As most of these letters were published between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, they can be found on-line. Every effort has been made to link to the printed versions where they exist.

Antonio Agustín, Opera Omnia, 8 vols (Lucca, 1765–74), vol. 7 [correspondence with Agustín].
Pierre de Nolhac, ‘Piero Vettori et Carlo Sigonio: Correspondance avec Fulvio Orsini’, Studi e Documenti di Storia e Diritto, 10 (1889), pp. 91–152.
–––, La bibliothèque de Fulvio Orsini (Paris, 1887), pp. 402–45 [letters from Torquato Bembo, Gian Vincenzo Pinelli, Carolus Langius, and others].
–––, ‘Lettere inedite del cardinale de Granvelle a Fulvio Orsini e al cardinale Sirleto’, Studi e Documenti di Storia e Diritto (1884), vol. 5, pp. 247–76.


This catalogue is the second of three emerging from a British Academy Small Grant project entitled ‘Making a Church Ever the Same: Catholicism between Rome and the Borderlands, c.1550–1620’. It comes, as all catalogues should do, with a health warning in the form of an account of its origins. I had looked at Fulvio Orsini’s correspondence during the final stages of writing my first monograph on the Flemish-Spanish Jesuit Martin Delrio. I was struck, then, by the presence of letters of Netherlandish scholars such as Laevinus Torrentius, Christophe Plantin, Carolus Langius, and Justus Lipsius.

The British Academy Small Grant enabled a two-and-a-half-month stay to work systematically through correspondence of Guglielmo Sirleto (already published as a calendar in EMLO), Roberto Bellarmino (still in progress), and Fulvio Orsini, essentially in search for correspondence from beyond the Italian peninsula. As the British Academy Small Grant scheme requires a concrete output, the idea emerged to create an inventory as an intermediate output, a stopping place if you will, on the road to the eventual book manuscript. As already suggested, Fulvio Orsini’s correspondence turned out to be lighter on Counter-Reformation scholarship than suspected. In fact, among other things, it revealed how Roman coins could transcend even confessional boundaries. (See, for instance, the letter of the otherwise devout Laevinus Torrentius to Orsini reporting a conversation with the Protestant English ambassador about a recent hoard of coins found in England. Dated 12 April 1577, it is set at a particularly perilous time for Netherlandish Catholicism.)

The letters collected here—as with Sirleto’s—are all incoming correspondence. They are contained in three Vatican Library manuscripts:,, and The last two have been digitized recently by the Library, although a complete inventory was lacking. A fourth manuscript, a register of outgoing correspondence, although clearly belonging to Orsini and sometimes taken to be written by him, proved to be a contemporary, Giulio Poggiano, known for his exceptional Latinity. And indeed, Orsini was also a collector of letters. also contains letters (not catalogued here) to the Greek scholar Scipione Forteguerri (also known as Carteromaco), whose correspondence Orsini had purchased (letters about the sale are included).

It should be noted that plenty of Orsini’s letters survive in other collections, notably in the Ambrosiana. As has been stressed before, the aim of this project was never to do a full inventory—or edition—of Orsini’s correspondence, but it is hoped that this inventory of three manuscripts, containing 260 letters, will be an aid to other scholars.

Finally, anyone studying these letters will be struck by their incompleteness. Most of the letters date to the 1560s and 1570s. There are very few for the 1590s, and these cluster around the purchase of a particular coin in 1598 (which proved to be an unhappy experience for Orsini). The letters are also not organized in any systematic way, although clusters around dates or people do emerge. In other words, for a collector, Orsini did not seem to be particularly interested in organizing his own letters.

Further resources

Federica Matteini, ‘ORSINI, Fulvio‘, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. 79 (2013).

Pierre Nolhac’s La bibliothèque de Fulvio Orsini (Paris, 1887) remains a marvel of nineteenth-century scholarship.

The main source for Orsini’s youth remains:
Giuseppe Castiglione, Fulvii Ursini Vita (Rome, 1657).

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