Orsini-Odescalchi Castle, Bracciano, Italy

Castello Orsini-Odescalchi is a castle in Bracciano, in the Province of Rome, Lazio, Italy. It is located on the southern shore of Lake Bracciano. It was built in the 15th century, and combines the functions of a military defence structure and a civilian residence of the feudal lords of the period, the Orsini and Borgia, both papal families.

The Bracciano Castle is a 15th century building consisting of three external walls; pentagonal in shape, it has five towers, one for each vertex of the external fortification. The castle was built by Braccio da Montone (of the Fortebracci family) then passed to the Orsini militant in the troops of Braccio, at the request of Pope Martino V (1418). It is owned by the Odescalchi, a family that took over the Signor di Bracciano from the Orsini family at the end of the 17th century.

With over 500 years of history, the castle dominates the beautiful town of Bracciano and its magnificent lake. Begun by Napoleone Orsini around 1475 as an expansion of the Rocca dei Vico, it was completed by his son Gentil Virginio at the end of the 15th century as the fortress of one of the most powerful families of the Renaissance. In this phase the edifice, built simultaneously with the Sistine Chapel (probably by the same architect, Giovannino de Dolci), was decorated by Antoniazzo Romano with possible contributions by Antonio del Pollaiuolo and Francesco di Giorgio Martini.

The castle, opened to the public in 1952 by Livio IV Odescalchi, can be visited and is often used for receptions, to celebrate weddings and for other private and cultural events. As one of the largest and best-maintained castles in Italy, it also houses a museum; as a centre of cultural events, the Castello has hosted several high-profile weddings like the ones of Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes, Eros Ramazzotti/Michelle Hunziker, and Petra Ecclestone/James Stunt.

The well-preserved medieval castle Castello Orsini-Odescalchi is located in the city of Bracciano, 30 km away from Rome. It is located near the western shore of the volcanic lake (Lago di Bracciano or “Sabatino”, the eighth largest lake in Italy). The railway line FR3 connects it with Rome (stations of Ostiense and Valle Aurelia) in about 55 minutes. Close to it lie the two medieval towns of Anguillara Sabazia and Trevignano Romano.

Construction began on the Odescalchi Castle in 1470. Commissioned by Napoleon Orsini and possibly designed by architect Francesco di Giorgio Martini, the Castle was completed in 1485 under the supervision of his son Gentile Virginio.

Over the centuries the mansion has undergone radical changes. Due to its strategic geographical position the most important noble families of Rome (the Colonna and Borgia) often fought bitterly for ownership of the Castle. In 1496 Pope Alexander VI Borgia even went so far as to confiscate it.

The first pictorial
The first important pictorial embellishments in the castle date to those war-torn years. The famous cycle of Late Medieval style paintings portray female members of the family and illustrate life in the palace during the passing of the seasons and over the years.

The rise of the Orsini family
The particularly remarkable fresco is the Triumph of Gentile Virginio Orsini by a well-known fifteenth-century painter, Antoniazzo Romano.

However, it was only after the death of the vengeful Borgia pope that the Castle again passed into the hands of the Orsini family. From that moment on the family devoted itself to enlarging and embellishing this magnificent mansion.

Towards the end of the sixteenth century the architect and sculptor Giacomo del Duca, one of Michelangelo’s students, painted several works of art for the sumptuous wedding of Paolo Giordano Orsini and Isabella de’ Medici.

The French occupation
In 1696 ownership of the castle passed from the Orsini to the Odescalchi. The prestige of this ancient family originally from Como was further enhanced after one of its family members was elected Pope and took the name of Innocence XI (1676-1689). A few years later the Pope’s nephew, Livio, became Prince of the Holy Roman Empire under Emperor Leopold I Hapsburg for services rendered during the war against the Turks. During the French occupation all the precious furnishings in the Castle were plundered; this event prompted its sale, with right of redemption, to the Torlonia family from Rome. Finally in 1848 Prince Livio Odescalchi III was able to redeem it from Duke Marino Torlonia. His son Baldassarre, a well-known figure in nineteenth-century Rome, had it expertly renovated by Raffaello Ojetti, a Roman architect and restorer who returned the Castle to its former glory.

The particularly remarkable fresco is the Triumph of Gentile Virginio Orsini by a well-known fifteenth-century painter, Antoniazzo Romano. However, it was only after the death of the vengeful Borgia pope that the Castle again passed into the hands of the Orsini family. From that moment on the family devoted itself to enlarging and embellishing this magnificent mansion. Towards the end of the sixteenth century the architect and sculptor Giacomo del Duca, one of Michelangelo’s students, painted several works of art for the sumptuous wedding of Paolo Giordano Orsini and Isabella de’ Medici. The brothers Taddeo and Federico Zuccari, distinguished interpreters of Late Renaissance art, painted several frescoes for the event including the couple’s horoscope and the emblems of the two famous families. They also decorated several rooms, in particular the room in which Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere sojourned in 1481 when he fled Rome to avoid the plague.

The Castello Orsini-Odescalchi is one of the most noteworthy examples of Renaissance military architecture in Italy and is the main monument in Bracciano. The castle underwent many renovations since its inception. In the castle, richly frescoed friezes and ceilings were created. Richly coloured tapestries were made when the lords of Bracciano were in residence. The important late 15th-century frieze showing the labours of Hercales is still visible.

The entrance to the castle
The arch above the castle’s entrance is the work of Jacopo del Duca to whom Paolo Giordano Orsini commissioned it after the construction of the castle gardens in the last half of the sixteenth century. Orsini roses alternate with the protruding ashlar, dominated by the family crest.

The barn
It is the first room you meet when going up to the castle: the large rectangular building had a double function: the stable on the ground floor and the place for storing wheat in the highest part. It is a later construction which testifies to the fundamental role of the castle in organizing the economic life of the fiefdom.

The armory
Topped by a sturdy arch supported by stone pillars, there is the door that leads to a series of rooms, partly excavated in the cliff and illuminated by windows, intended for the guardhouse and the garrison of the castle, with a deposit of weapons and ammunition. From the last of these rooms there is access to a drainage tunnel intended to collect rainwater that fell in the courtyard.

The Papalina room
Built inside the north tower, the Papalina room is also remembered for having hosted Pope Sixtus IV Della Rovere in 1481, who fled the plague that plagued Rome. The ceiling was frescoed by the Zuccari brothers in 1560 on the occasion of the wedding between Paolo Giordano Orsini and Isabella de ‘Medici with the wedding horoscope inserted in a splendid grotesque decoration on a gold background.

The Umberto room
Umberto I lived there in 1900. The decoration of the coffered ceiling is attributed to the school of Antoniazzo Romano and was probably made at the end of the castle construction works around 1491. The furnishings and in particular the bed have original sixteenth-century elements on the original fronts.

The Triptych room
So named after the triptych composition of an interesting altarpiece from the first half of the sixteenth century with two organ doors by Antoniazzo Romano depicting an Annunciation. Alongside these works, other paintings from the collection of fifteenth-century works are collected in this room, probably placed by Baldassarre Odescalchi on the occasion of the castle’s refurbishment.

The Pisanello room
It is called del Pisanello for the style of the frescoes of the frieze, which deliberately refer to that school as a tribute to Gentil Virginio Orsini’s relations with the house of Aragon. On the walls next to the portraits of the Flemish School of members of the Odescalchi family of the mid-seventeenth century, we find the portrait of Pope Innocent XI. A part of the precious collection of ceramics from the most significant Italian production centers is also kept in this room: the typologies are different and the epochs represented range from the mid-fifteenth century to the eighteenth.

The room of the Caesars
It is the largest room in the north wing; originally the ceiling rose to double height but was lowered in the second half of the nineteenth century, creating a second room. The large fresco by Antoniazzo Romano was placed on the back wall in 1960 which celebrates two important moments in the history of Gentil Virginio Orsini: the ride at the head of the Aragonese troops towards Bracciano and the meeting with Piero de ‘Medici. The busts of the Cesari placed around the walls are in white and peperino marble from the 17th century.

The Orsini room
Said of the Orsini because originally the portraits of the family were placed there, lost. On the walls are the portraits of Paolo Giordano and Isabella de Medici: the coat of arms framed by precious stuccos celebrates their marriage with the union of the emblems of the noble families of the Orsini and Medici.

Isabella’s room
Also called the Red room for the color of the tapestries that originally adorned the walls, this room is the last of the first noble floor. In the room there is a 16th century Venetian school bed and two paintings on the walls from the Odescalchi collection. The room is traditionally called Isabella’s room wanting to locate in this representative environment, the apartment of the Bride of Paolo Giordano Orsini. The fresco decorations at the base of the ceiling is made up of putti supporting festoons, from the school of Antoniazzo Romano.

The Gothic room
It is said that on the basis of an original piece of German school of the late fifteenth century, Baldassarre Odescalchi had all the furnishings of the room built in a neo-Gothic style in a very short time. The neo-Gothic taste is common and widespread throughout Europe during the nineteenth century and highly appreciated by Baldassarre himself. A connoisseur of the arts, he certainly did not want to refer to the style of the room at the time of construction of the castle but more likely he also wanted to equip these rooms with a style room, as usual in the palaces of the eclectic intellectuals of his time.

The Hall of Arms and the Hall of Hercules
This room was created by creating a new ceiling in the Sala dei Cesari. The portraits of the illustrious men and women who adorn the walls at the base of the ceiling were therefore the decoration of the Cesari room. The room houses the richest part of the Odescalchi family’s collection of weapons, in particular weapons and armor from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, spears, halberds and swords. Interesting an equestrian armor from the fifteenth century Milanese factory tournament and two German tournament armor from the sixteenth century. The Sala d’Ercole is so called for the frieze that flows under the ceiling depicting episodes from the life of the classic hero. It is no coincidence that the first part of the collection of weapons started by Prince Ladislao Odescalchi in the 19th century and completed by Prince Innocent before the last war is located in this room.

The towers and walkways
Connected by the walkway, the five cylindrical towers plus a sixth section, belonging to the oldest part of the Rocca dei Prefetti di Vico, alternate stairs, passages, covered and uncovered loggias where the soldiers ensured the defense of the entire castle.

The kitchens
Fulcrum of the service area of the castle, the old kitchens still retain the huge 4 fireplaces where the receptions of the Renaissance court were set up. The copper pans with their inventory number and the censer symbol of the Odescalchi family used to mark the property are displayed.

Inside the kitchens there are some hunting trophies of the Odescalchi (stuffed animals).

The gardens
The large entrance arch leads to the large courtyard of the castle, in the shape of an irregular triangle. The loggia on the west wall and the access portal to the Cesari room perhaps owe their appearance to Francesco di Giorgio Martini. A hanging garden overlooking Lake Bracciano, in the past full of fountains and structured like a classic Italian garden, is dominated by two imposing ancient cedars of Lebanon. At the base of the castle walls, there are hunting scenes carved in the rock while the partition of the surrounding wall consisting of pilasters and brick arches is still visible.

The historical museum within the castle premises has valuable artwork from the Middle Ages of over six centuries rule of Popes and Kings, consisting of ancient weapons, furniture and paintings, books and manuscripts, frescoes and decorations. It was opened in 1952 by Prince Livio Odescalchi IV. Administrative and representative center of the important families who owned it, the castle narrates its six centuries of history through ancient weapons, furnishings and paintings, books and manuscripts, decorations and frescoes.

After popes and kings, weddings and sieges, Prince Baldassarre Odescalchi and the architect Raffaello Ojetti opened a new chapter in its history: in the early twentieth century a long campaign of restorations restored beauty to the ancient stones, pomp to the rooms, quiet and elegance to the gardens.

As already mentioned before, the castle was opened to the public from 1952 by the will of Prince Livio IV Odescalchi, in the twenty-first century the castle of Bracciano constitutes a dynamic reality, which reconciles its museum vocation with an intense activity within the organization events useful for the enhancement of the Good and capable of giving life to a virtuous circle that allows not to neglect a wise and constant work of protection and restoration.

The collections
The halls of the Odescalchi castle in Bracciano preserve a rich collection of works of art collected by Prince Baldassarre Odescalchi from the second half of the nineteenth century. Art lover and refined connoisseur, he was close to the international and progressive cultural environment that animated post-unitary Rome. The interest in the decorative arts, which had led the prince to promote and support the foundation of the Industrial Art Museum of Rome, also profuse in the massive campaign of purchases aimed at restoring the furniture lost during the French domination.

The busts of the twelve Cesari, the rare hourglass of the sixteenth century, the Sicilian wrought iron bed of the eighteenth century, together with many other objects, complete the collections of the castle collected by Prince Baldassarre with the desire to make their historic home a real museum, in the which objects are able to dialogue with the architecture that hosts them, recalling for the visitor the taste, the uses and the glories of a 15th century castle.

The precious collection of ceramics testifies to the attention paid to Italian majolica, in particular that of the sixteenth century, offering a representative panorama of the main production centers, through types of use and sumptuous pump or devotional specimens.

The furnishings chosen for the rooms reveal a particular taste for the fifteenth and sixteenth century furniture of Northern Europe, represented by the wedding chests in carved wood or pastille, although there are also examples of Italian manufacture, such as the fine wooden throne of the late fifteenth century. The suggestive Gothic Room, on the other hand, testifies to the historicist taste of the second half of the nineteenth century, lavished in the severe furnishings preserved here, made according to the style that gave the room its name.

The weapons
The rich collection of weapons, which occupies a large part of the second floor, for the importance of the pieces that compose it, places the Orsini Odescalchi castle with the prestigious Italian public collections, such as those of the Stibbert Museum in Florence and the National Museum of Palazzo Venezia in Rome, also of Odescalchi origin.

The paintings
The picture gallery offers a selection of early Renaissance paintings, mostly from central Italy, which includes the beautiful Crucifixion, the Sant’Antonio da Padova and the Maddalena which, attributed to the Crivelli school, looks instead at Venetian art of the fifteenth century.

In popular culture
The castle was often the site of particularly famous and noble wedding ceremonies: Eros Ramazzotti and Michelle Hunziker (in 1998 ), Laura Freddi and Claudio Casavecchia (in 2006 ), Tyrone Power and Linda Christian (in 1949 ), Martin Scorsese and Isabella Rossellini (in 1979 ), Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (in 2006). Curiously, most of these couples did not have a happy marriage and they all separated, creating the legend that the castle brings bad luck to the stars who decide to get married here.

A number of films, TV series, and TV programs have been set in the castle:

2012 – The advent of evil, Once upon a time (1967), The chastity belt, The heart elsewhere, Imperial Venus, The torment and the ecstasy, Sexy comedy, Oggi sposi (1969), Othello.

TV Series
Edda, Luisa Sanfelice, Coco Chanel, Medici: Masters of Florence.

TV Programs
Superquark, Ulysses – The pleasure of discovery.

The castle has hosted a number of events, especially weddings of wealthy actors and singers. Hollywood actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were married at the castle.

The Castle of Bracciano is located about 35 km north of Rome. It is easily reachable by car (through the Braccianese or Cassia bis), by train (see Trenitalia from Tiburtina, Ostiense, Trastevere, San Pietro, Valle Aurelia and many other stations), by bus (see Cotral from Saxa Rubra, Cornelia and Cipro).