The Papal Court: Prince Assistants to the Papal Throne (Principe Assistente al Soglio Pontificio)


The man in the impressive uniform here is Principe Aspreno II Colonna (1916-1987), Prince of Paliano (a town east of Rome) and First Prince Assistant to the Papal Throne. He was the last of two Princes who held the hereditary role of "Prince Assistant to the Papal Throne" (Stator Proximus a Solio Pontificis Maximi). This role traced its history back to the early sixteenth century, when it was instituted in the year 1511 by Pope Julius II. It was a very important role and the most conspicuous of the Papal Court, always standing next to the papal throne for solemn occasions. 


In fact, the title of 
Prince Assistant was the highest honor available to a layman in the Court, parallel with the Prelate Assistants to the Papal Throne, reserved for clergy. As the senior-most of the Gentlemen of His Holiness, the Assistants were given seats of the highest precedence during all papal liturgies and ceremonies, ceremonially ranking just below the College of Cardinals.  


The title of Prince Assistants was granted by hereditary right to the heads of two of the most important noble families of Rome, the Colonnas and the Orsinis, families at the top of the papal nobility, the aristocracy of the Holy See. 
It was Pope Benedict XIII who established this precedent for the two families to share this role, in order to end to jealous disputes and controversies between the heads of the two families. He declared the title should alternate between the two heads of the Colonna and Orsini families and that it could also be granted ad personam, to individuals without hereditary effect. Over the centuries various branches of the Colonna family held the title as did members of the Orsini family, from 1735 until 1958. Below is an image of Domenico Napoleone Orsini, who held the role from 1925-1947. 


The Orsini tradition ended in January 1958 when Pius XII had to relieve the very unstable Filippo Orsini of the title after his extramarital affair with another married woman (Belinda Lee) that began the previous year and was made public. Both the woman and Prince attempted suicide -- a scandal of immense proportions that some say was catalyst for the abolition of the Court. In 1962, Pope John XXIII tried to make things better when he appointed Prince Alessandro Torlonia (1925-2017), the V Prince of Fucino. He is the younger man seen below in the photo on the right as the new Prince Assistant, in a gesture to return to normalcy and the complement of two to serve as custodians at his throne for the Vatican Council. He died at age 92 and his son Carlo is his heir.  


The Assistants offered their services to the Prefect of the Apostolic Palace and it was their duty to show up to perform the honors of the house on the most solemn occasions, including official state visits and the presentation of credentials by ambassadors and government ministers accredited to the Holy See. They therefore collaborated on a high level for the smooth running of the papal household.  


Men who held this role can sometimes be seen in photos of papal liturgies all through the twentieth century, always standing on the right of the Holy Father. Although Prince Aspreno is seen in the last photos from the 1960s, his father
 Marcantonio VII who lived from 1881-1947 (seen below) was also widely photographed. He had the role from 1923-1947. Marcantonio VI (1844-1912) can also be seen in older photos. Aspreno's eldest son Marcantonio is still living today, age 75. Aspreno was named after St. Aspren, Bishop of Naples, who was cured by an infirmity by St. Peter the Apostle and baptized by him. 




Below is the abito cerimoniale uniform, decorations, and family sword of Prince Aspreno, today on display at the Palazzo Colonna's Galleria Collona, open every Saturday morning. 
The orders in the impressive photo include the Supreme Order of Christ, the Order of Pius IX, the Grand Cross of the Order of Charles III, the Grand Officer star of the Légion d'Honneur, the Grand Cross of the Order pro Merito Melitense, the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, the Grand Cross star of the Order of the Cedar and the Bailiff Cross of the Order of Malta. 



Unfortunately, this inspirational role and its cherished privileges were done away in haste amidst a storm of change in the turbulent 1960s, that included the reform of the Pontifical Household in 1968. At that time the two Prince Assistants, Asprenno Colonna and Alessandro Torlonia were allowed to retain their titles personally until their deaths. Prince Colonna passed away at age 71 in 1987 and Prince Torlonia passed in 2018. The Palazzo Colonna, which is open every Friday and Saturday for tours of its piano nobile, called the Galleria Colonna, is seen below. This 450-room palace was by Pope Martin V, a member of the Colonna family. The family has also produced more than 20 cardinals.  

The 1960s was a difficult time as the rate of social change approached the exponential. It was a decade scarred by upheaval and a spirit of rebellion. The reform of the Papal Court piggybacked on the reception and implementation of the "spirit" of Vatican II. Change was in the air as established order everywhere began to unravel. The clamor for societal revolution also infiltrated Catholic thought. 


When the Pope issued his apostolic letter motu proprio to abolish the Papal Court and reform it into something different, there was nothing that could be done to stop the tidal wave of change. Nearly all titles of nobility and hereditary charm were abolished and their subsequent roles were suppressed, severing ties with centuries of social mores that served a valid purpose for generations. Meanwhile the Court of St. James's kept their traditions in London. Even the subdiaconate for the Latin Church was not spared, when a few years later it was also abolished in a fit of modernization. I pray this noble role will be revived and once again embraced after a long hiatus.  


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