Publication Date

September 1, 1999



In Rome, a city where foreign scholars are sometimes treated as a nuisance and given very little assistance, the Sacchetti Archives (owned by the Sacchetti family and managed as efficiently as an American library or document collection) provides welcome relief.

Housed in the Sacchetti Palace on the Via Giulia, in the Florentine district of Rome, these archives are made readily available to anyone interested in exploring the wealth of information they offer. The visiting scholar is aided by an assistant. Marchese Giulio Sacchetti, fluent in English, well acquainted with the documents, and always interested in promoting his family, eagerly answers any questions posed by the researcher. He also answers questions by mail.

These archives are available year round, unusual in a city that almost completely shuts down during the month of August. When I visited in 1992, not only were the archives readily put at my disposal, but also a photocopier, at no charge. Documents in this collection that are in poor condition have been transcribed in recent years, and the transcriptions may be photocopied. As an added bonus, they are also easier to read than the often illegible handwriting and endless abbreviations used in the originals. An index of the collection sits on a desk by the entrance, facilitating the finding of specific information.

These archives are particularly useful for the scholar of humanities who deals with the early modern period, when the Sacchetti achieved their greatest moments in history.

Historical Background

The Sacchetti were originally from Tuscany and were a part of the Florentine ruling class since the 12th century. In fact, Dante in the Paradiso (XVI: 99–105) had included them among the most illustrious families of his era. Giovanni Battista Sacchetti (1540–1620) initiated the Roman branch of the family when he moved from Florence to Rome at the end of the 16th century in search of financial opportunity. He took up residence in the Ponte region of the Florentine district, the city’s financial center, where he established a bank in 1573. He soon befriended the powerful Altoviti, resulting in his marriage to Francesca di Alessandro (?–1597), the great-granddaughter of the famous banker and papal administrator Bindo Altoviti.1

When Giovanni Battista died, his oldest son Marcello (1586–1629) succeeded him as the new leader of the family. Marcello, his biographer Erythraeus tells us, was well traveled and had a passion for learning and poetry—interests that drew him to Maffeo Barberini who was also dedicated to the study of these subjects. In spite of their age difference the two developed a very close friendship. As a result, when Maffeo ascended the papal throne as Pope Urban VIII in 1623, he acted with generous patronage toward the Sacchetti. He immediately appointed Marcello Depositary General and Secret Treasurer of the Camera Apostolica, and his brother Giulio bishop of Gravina. Other Sacchetti brothers also received important posts in the service of the papacy. Alessandro (1589–1648) became the commander of the papal army in the Valtellina, and Giovanni Francesco (1595–1637) his lieutenant general. Then, in 1626 Urban made Giulio a cardinal and gave Marcello the lucrative monopoly of the alum mines of Tolfa, substantially increasing the family's income.2

Due to these favors, the Sacchetti became one of the wealthiest and most powerful families of Rome. Their power was also determined by the fact that in the conclaves of 1644 and 1655, Cardinal Giulio Sacchetti was a strong candidate to the papacy. However, his association to the Barberini, which had been so fruitful in the past, now worked against him, as did his pro-French inclinations. In spite of these setbacks, Giulio and his family continued to be highly respected by the Romans. In fact, Giulio's career as prelate continued to thrive during the reigns of popes Innocent X and Alexander VII.

Contents of the Archives

Due to their high standing in society and position of power, the Sacchetti were instrumental in shaping the history of Rome, if not Europe, in the 17th century. Their close affiliation with and service to the papacy gave them key roles in the political, economic, and social arenas. As a result, the Sacchetti archives provides a lavish source of historical documentation—much of which has not been fully examined—not only on the family, but on specific events in history.

For example, their association with the Barberini and pro-French inclinations resulted in their friendship with Cardinal Jules Mazarin (1602–61), first minister of France, and letters of a political nature from Mazarin to the Sacchetti are in the archives. Information is also available on Cardinal Giulio Sacchetti's key role in the resolution of the conflict between France and Spain over control of the passage of the Valtellina in the Lombard region. This was a strategic strip of land linking Spanish north Italy with the Hapsburg lands and the Spanish Netherlands. It was also used by the French to send troops onto Italian territory to support their allies.

When Giovanni Battista Sacchetti arrived in Rome, he found a bustling city offering many financial opportunities. He, like other bankers, moved to Rome in the hopes of obtaining employment as managers of the church's money. These individuals soon became key figures in Rome's economy, as papal finances came to be totally dependent upon them. They acted as the main lenders and depositaries of the Camera Apostolica, managed the sale of curial offices and the papal mint, and contracted to provide Rome with grain. They also farmed the alum and salt mines, and administered the Roman customs.

These banking families also supplied the church with bishops, cardinals, soldiers, tax collectors, treasurers, and governors. With the substantial incomes obtained from these sources, these individuals, like the Sacchetti, were able to purchase lands with titles of nobility and to accumulate attractive dowries that permitted their marriage into the old Roman patriciate. Under these circumstances, the immigrant bankers eventually established a new Roman aristocracy.3

Studying the Sacchetti family's history through the archives provides great insight into the tactics used by the immigrant families in climbing the social, political, and financial ladders to attain their goals, an important historical phenomenon of the early modern period.4

Tallies on the Sacchetti farming of the Tolfa alum mines shed light on Italy's economic history. Previously it was believed that when the Sacchetti received the monopoly of the mines, the extraction of alum had decreased considerably, creating a less lucrative enterprise than in the years of the Renaissance. However, the records of profits in the archives suggest quite the opposite.

In the area of agriculture, it seems that the Sacchetti had great concern for the poor agrarian conditions in the Roman territory, which they shared with Pope Urban VIII. Consequently, they established a farm on their estate at Castelfusano on the outskirts of Rome, thus playing an important role in the pope's efforts to ameliorate the agrarian problems in the papal states. The archives reveal that the Sacchetti used this land not only for cultivation of produce, but also as a tree farm, both of which provided them with a fairly substantial income.

The archives also possesses rich resources for social history such as the letters relating to marriage negotiations between the Sacchetti and other important families. Letters from Caterina Forni Tassoni Estense of Ferrarese nobility to Giulio Sacchetti contain information on arrangements for the wedding of Giovanni Francesco Sacchetti and Beatrice Tassoni Estense, Caterina's daughter. Also, specifications on dowry amounts contributed by other brides married into the family are included. All of these are invaluable to our understanding of the mechanics of arranged marriages in the early modern period, such as the considerations in choosing an appropriate bride and the economics involved in such arrangements.

In my own field of interest—art history—the Sacchetti have been recognized as important patrons and collectors of the arts, but an in-depth study of their activities as such has not yet been offered. Many details on whom they patronized and how also have not surfaced. I am currently working on a book on the Sacchetti's art patronage and collecting activities, and I hope to fill this lacuna in art historical scholarship. To accomplish this, I am relying heavily on the sources in the Sacchetti Archives. These indicate that the Sacchetti had a pivotal role in the shaping of the arts in baroque Rome, especially during the first half of the 17th scentury as they discovered some of the most important artists of the period, including Pietro da Cortona, who revolutionized the field of ceiling fresco painting, and Nicolas Poussin, whose philosophies determined standards utilized at the Academy of Painting in France.

Moreover, the Sacchetti seem to have had some involvement in the choice of artists for the interior decoration of St. Peter's in Rome because those who contributed altarpieces were all part of their circle, a fact not yet acknowledged in current scholarship. When Gianlorenzo Bernini was given the charge of coordinating the decoration of the interior of St. Peter's, Marcello Sacchetti used his influence, it seems, to ensure that the artists under his protection received commissions for the large altarpieces. Giovanni Lanfranco, who earlier decorated the Sacchetti chapel at S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, painted St. Peter Rescued from the Waters, only a fragment of which has survived. Poussin contributed the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, a commission originally given to Cortona. But when the latter was asked to paint the Holy Trinity for the Sacrament Chapel, the St. Erasmus was passed on to Poussin.

Other artists from the Sacchetti circle involved in the St. Peter's commission were Andrea Sacchi, Andrea Camassei, Simon Vouet, and Valentin de Boulogne. Sacchi contributed the St. Gregory and the Miracle of the Corporal for the chapter house, Camassei Sts. Processus and Martinian for the Capella del Crocifisso, Vouet a now lost Christ, the Virgin, and Sts. Francis and Anthony of Padua, and Valentin the Martyrdom of Sts. Processus and Martinian.

There is also the misconception that the Sacchetti family's patronage activities ended with the death of Marcello in 1629. This could not be further from the truth as the documents reveal that Cardinal Giulio also commissioned works of art from progressive artists, among them the painters Guercino and Guido Reni and the sculptors Alessandro Algardi and Giuliano Finelli. Members of the family's next generation also engaged in patronage, like Ottavia Sacchetti who along with her husband Orazio Falconieri commissioned their tombs from the sculptor Domenico Guidi to be displayed at S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini.

Organization of the Documents

The documents in the Sacchetti archives are organized in buste, or filing boxes, by subject. These provide, among other things, information on family genealogy and history, letters of a political nature, correspondence relating to marriage negotiations, information on family properties, and papal briefs and bulls granting titles of nobility and other favors to the family.

The archives also contain Libri Mastri, account books kept by the Sacchetti from their arrival in Rome in the latter part of the 16th century to the present. These tally expenditures and incomes, and provide information on their business activities, farming of the Tolfa alum mines, purchase of properties, agricultural enterprises, and expenditures relating to their art patronage and collecting activities.


Anyone interested in researching the Sacchetti Archives is advised to make an appointment by letter with the family prior to traveling to Rome. Although I have heard of scholars who have simply knocked on the door and were allowed in, making arrangements by mail would be better.5 Prior to my visit in 1992, I corresponded with Marchese Sacchetti, sending him a list of the information I was seeking. The Marchese responded to my letter with detailed instructions on where to look for this information in the archives (that is, buste numbers and specific Libri Mastri). I had extremely limited time to spend in Rome, and I found that his assistance, first by mail and later in person, coupled with the efficient management of the documents, facilitated my finding the answers to all of my questions. The copy machine put at my disposal was also a major asset. I returned home with two large folders filled with photocopies crucial to my work. As an added bonus, I also found material then unrelated to my research, but which I have since used for other projects. These two folders have kept me busy for the past six years, and I have not yet fully exhausted them.

There are no major requirements to gaining access to the Sacchetti Archives. In other Italian archival collections, scholars are required to hold a doctorate, or a masters working on a dissertation, and are asked to bring letters of introduction from the institution with which they are affiliated, making it difficult for independent scholars to gain entry. The Sacchetti Archives are, however, accessible to anyone interested in exploring their contents. The only request from the Sacchetti is that scholars send them their publications relating to the archives' contents so that they can be made available to other researchers.

Those of us who have conducted research at various archival collections and libraries in Rome are familiar with the difficulties, not to mention frustrations, involved in such activities. Scholars face obstacles at every step of the way, so that more time is spent trying to gain access to documents and finding them than in the actual research. In contrast, the Sacchetti make every effort to facilitate examination of documents in their possession and are eager to assist scholars in promoting their family's deeds and history.


1. Giuseppe Ceccarelli, I Sacchetti (Rome, 1946), 10; Luigi Salerno, et al., Via Giulia: Una Utopia Urbanistica del 500 (Rome, 1973), 312.

2. Jorg Martin Merz and Anthony Blunt, "The Villa del Pigneto Sacchetti," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 49 (1990), 392–393; Jorg Martin Merz, Pietro da Cortona: Der Aufstieg zum führenden Maler im barocken Rom (Tübingen: E. Wasmuth, 1991), 78; Francis Haskell, Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations between Italian Art and Society in the Age of Baroque (London, 1963), 39; Ludwig von Pastor, The History of the Popes, Vol. 29, (London, 1886–1936), 158; Cecarelli, I Sacchetti, 12.

3. Ernanno PontiIl Banco di Santo Spirito e la sua funzione economica in Roma Papale, Rome, 1951, p. 7; Barbara McClung Hallman, Italian Cardinals, Reform, and the Church as Property, Berkeley, 1985, p. 135; William E. Lunt, Papal Revenues in the Middle Ages, (New York, 1934), 54-56; Peter Partner, Renaissance Rome, 1500–1559: A Portrait of Society (Berkeley, 1976), 49–50, 79.

4. For a thorough study of the Sacchetti's history see my "Climbing the Social, Political, and Financial Ladders: The Rise of the Sacchetti in Seventeenth-Century Rome," The Seventeenth Century 12: 2 (1997), 151–71.

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