At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

27 August 2019

Alessandro Farnese – Duke of Parma, Piacenza and Castro

Duke was a brilliant strategist and diplomat


Otto van Veen's 16th century portrait of Alessandro Farnese
Otto van Veen's 16th century
portrait of Alessandro Farnese
The outstanding military leader, Alessandro Farnese, was born on this day in 1545 in Rome.

As regent of the Netherlands on behalf of Philip II of Spain between 1578 and 1592, Alessandro restored Spanish rule and ensured the continuation of Roman Catholicism there, a great achievement and testimony to his skill as a strategist and diplomat.

However, his brilliant military career gave him no time to rule Parma, Piacenza and Castro when he succeeded to the Dukedom.

Alessandro was the son of Duke Ottavio Farnese of Parma and Margaret, the illegitimate daughter of the King of Spain and Hapsburg Emperor, Charles V.

Ottavio, was the grandson of Pope Paul III, a Farnese who had set up the papal states of Parma, Piacenza and Castro as a duchy in order to award them to his illegitimate son, Pier Luigi. Ottavio became Duke in 1551 after his father, Pier Luigi,was murdered.

Alessandro had a twin brother, Charles, who died after one month. He was sent to live in the court of Philip II as a young child as a guarantee of Ottavio’s loyalty to the Habsburgs. He lived with Philip II first in the Netherlands and then in Madrid.

Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli's 1556 painting entitled Parma embraces Alessandro Farnese
Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli's 1556 painting
entitled Parma embraces Alessandro Farnese
In 1565 he returned to the Netherlands, where his mother, Margaret had been regent for six years. In 1565, at the age of 20, he was married to Infanta Maria of Portugal.

Alessandro was sent to help his cousin, Don John, who was trying to deal with the revolt against Spanish rule in the Netherlands, in 1577.

Because of Alessandro’s decisive strategy they won the Battle of Gembloux in 1578. After Don John’s death, Philip II appointed Alessandro to take his place as Captain General of the Army and Governor General of the Netherlands.

By exploiting the divisions between Protestants and Catholics, Alessandro regained the allegiance of part of the Netherlands to the King of Spain. The towns in the north pledged to fight on but Alessandro laid siege to them one by one, offering generous terms for surrender rather than carrying out massacres and looting, and gradually brought them back to the Catholic Church.

He won back Antwerp with an act of military genius by constructing a bridge of boats to cut off all access to the seaport. He gave Protestants four years to leave the city and defeated the English troops sent over to fight against him by Elizabeth I.

In 1586 when his father died, Alessandro became Duke of Parma but he named his son, Ranuccio, as his regent to rule on his behalf. Philip II could not even spare him to visit his Duchy.

Ranuccio - pictured here by Titian as a 12-year-old boy - was sent to rule Parma on his father's behalf
Ranuccio - pictured here by Titian as a 12-year-old
boy - was sent to rule Parma on his father's behalf
Alessandro wanted to use his army to invade England and stir up a Catholic insurrection against Elizabeth but Philip would not sanction this and made plans to send over the Spanish Armada instead.

The plan was for Alessandro’s troops to cross the channel in barges protected by the Armada, but the English attack on the Armada in 1588 made this impossible.

In 1589 Henry III of France was assassinated and Alessandro was ordered into France to support Catholic opposition to the Protestant Henry IV. He was wounded in the hand during the siege of Caudebec and had to withdraw to Flanders.

With his health declining, Alessandro sent for his son Ranuccio to take over command of his troops. He died in Arras in 1592, aged 47.

Prosciutto di Parma is one of a number of food items for which the city in Emilia-Romagna is famous
Prosciutto di Parma is one of a number of food items for
which the city in Emilia-Romagna is famous
Travel tip:

Parma is an historic city in the Emilia-Romagna region, famous for its ham (Prosciutto di Parma) and cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano), the true ‘parmesan’. The city was given as a duchy to Pier Luigi Farnese, the illegitimate son of Pope Paul III, and his descendants ruled Parma till 1731. The composer, Verdi, was born near Parma at Bussetto and the city has a prestigious opera house, the Teatro Regia.

Francesco Mochi's bronze statute of  Alessandro Farnese in Piacenza
Francesco Mochi's bronze statute of
Alessandro Farnese in Piacenza
Travel tip:

Piacenza is about 75 km (46 miles) to the north east of Parma in Emilia-Romagna.  The main square in Piacenza is named Piazza Cavalli because of its two bronze equestrian monuments featuring Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma and his son Ranuccio I Farnese, Duke of Parma, who succeeded him. The statues are masterpieces by the sculptor Francesco Mochi. Castro is a fortified city on a cliff, near the border between Tuscany and Lazio and was also given to Pier Luigi Farnese by Pope Paul III. The Duchy stretched from the Tyrrhenian Sea to Lago di Bolsena. Ranuccio II Farnese, the last Duke of Castro, was forced to cede the land back to Pope Innocent X. The present day comune, Ischia di Castro, in the province of Viterbo, takes its name from the ancient city of Castro destroyed by papal forces. Ischia di Castro still has a Ducal Palace, where members of the Farnese family used to live.

More reading:

How Ranuccio II's feuding with the Popes led to the downfall of a city

The Royal jeweller descended from the Farnese dynasty

The musician encouraged by a Farnese duke

Also on this day:

410: Rome is sacked by the Visigoths

1576: The death of Renaissance master Titian

1707: The birth of Zanetta Farussi, the actress and mother of Casanova


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