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Historic Families: Grimaldi
by Luigi Mendola

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Grimaldi arms used in Sicily.The recent wedding of the Prince of Monaco seems like a good occasion to recall the history of the Grimaldi family in Sicily, particularly because it is they - not the princes of Monaco - who descend in the direct male line from the medieval Grimaldis. (Parts of this article were originally published in 1998.)

The Grimaldis could be said to be the only family of Italian origin still reigning today. Rooted in northern Italy, where it sprung from the fertile soil of the Genoese aristocracy, the best-known branch of the House of Grimaldi, which recently celebrated seven centuries of rule, today reigns over a small sovereign state along the French coast just beyond Italy's border. With just under two square kilometres of territory, the Principality of Monaco, though economically prosperous, is actually smaller than New York's Central Park. However, it has become an exemplar for the world's smallest states, and a model of the political independence of these nations.

While its Monegasque princely line constitutes what is undoubtedly the most prominent surviving line of the Grimaldi family, it is but one of three historically important branches of a distinguished house. The original line, and that from which the Princes of Monaco descend, is Genoese, and an important collateral branch established itself in Sicily during the twelfth century, to become, in the seventeenth, the "other" Grimaldi princes. Over the centuries, several lesser-known branches of the family found themselves transplanted to the regions of Piedmont in the North and Campania (Naples) and Calabria in the South.


Grimaldi arms in St Francis Church, Palermo.The early years of the twelfth century found the Italian city-states prospering. Independent of the bordering realms, the coastal cities of Venice, Genoa and Amalfi were centers of maritime trade. While some these cities' nouveaux aristocrats may have had agricultural interests in the fertile inland territories, their wealth and prestige were, in the first instance, based on mercantile activity rather than feudal tenure; in other words, it was rooted in commerce and civic service rather than agriculture and military service. In the unique vernacular of Italian heraldry, these urban aristocrats were not, strictly speaking, "nobili" (noblemen), but "patrizi" (patricians) of the mercantile civic nobility.

So wealthy were many merchants that, with little economic strain on their part, an Amalfitan cartel had even financed the establishment of the Hospital in Jerusalem which became the seat of the Order of Saint John. Sovereigns sometimes turned to such merchants for financing, thus spawning a thriving banking activity in certain city-states. The city-states were governed by councils elected by male citizens of a certain social stature, and with the help of the merchants they established formidable navies to defend their sea-based commerce against pirates.

Nevertheless, even if the military and economic power of the city-states was not to be underestimated, the most important power in Italy was the Normans' Kingdom of Sicily, whose territory included Sicily and most of the peninsula south of Rome. ("Italy" did not exist as a unitary nation state.) At least at first, the merchants were at peace with most sovereigns most of the time. It was good for business.

This was certainly true of Genoa. So prosperous had the city become that it was known to its citizens by the simple nickname La Superba, a phrase which literally means "the superb," but also "the proud."

We know not from whence they came, if they were Ligurians or foreigners, but the family that has come to be known as the Grimaldi appear to have resided in Genoa by the end of the eleventh century. In 1133, a certain Otto Canella was named consul of Genoa. Most consuls were borough mayors or city aldermen, not unlike the giurati of feudal cities. The mayor of the entire city of Genoa was the doge, elected for a two-year term; the Grimaldi were to serve as doges six times. Otto's son, Grimaldo (Grimwald), was nominated consul three times, in 1162, 1170 and 1184. He served as the city's ambassador to Morocco in 1169.

Grimaldo's son, Oberto, was the first of the family known to use the simple patronymic Grimaldi. We know not the reason for this usage, as opposed to Canella, but it should be remembered that surnames themselves were still in an early stage of evolution, and were changed with little bureaucratic difficulty to speak of; most common people did not even make use of them. The nickname Canella (literally cinnamon) simply may have been considered too common or undignified for the family's increasingly important status; perhaps it alluded to a profession with which the family no longer wished to be identified, though in a city of merchants it is difficult to contemplate a spice trader's profession being disparaged. Though prominent, the Canella were not yet one of the most important families of Genoa.

It was during this period that the Grimaldi adopted their elegantly simple coat of arms, lozengy gules and argent; that is to say, a large pattern of red diamonds on a white field. (Some heraldic references specify the number of diamonds.) In Sicily this was "quartered" with an Imperial eagle thought to reflect the historical affiliation of that branch of the family with the Ghibellines.

The Rise to Power

Oberto Grimaldi served as a commissioner (commissario) of Genoa for several years from 1188. He wed Corradina Spinola, whose family was among the most important aristocratic clans of the city. Guidone Spinola served as consul four times between 1102 and 1121, and his family was as distinguished for its military exploits as for its political ones. Oberto died in 1252, survived by his sons, Grimaldo and Ingo. The former served as a member of the council of Genoa in 1237 and 1244. He died some time after 1257, survived by several children of his own, including Antonio (died 1259), Luchetto, and Lanfranco (died 1293).

Grimaldo Grimaldi's sons were born into the chaotic age of Ghibellines and Guelphs, and it was in free cities like Genoa that the resulting political factionalism was particularly felt. The political philosophy and theological ideology espoused by these contrasting parties were, in reality, fairly complex, and modern analysts have sought to ascribe modern labels to both parties. In practical terms, however, the Ghibellines supported the interests and rights of the Holy Roman Emperor (of the Hohenstaufen dynasty) in Italy, while the Guelphs supported those of the Papacy and its Church. Over time, certain families came to identify strongly with one movement or the other.

The Grimaldi, like the Spinola, were Guelphs. As such, they were opposed to the machinations of the Holy Roman Emperors, and particularly those of Frederick I ("Barbarossa"), who granted the Republic of Genoa suzerainty over the coastal territories of Nice, which included a number of fortified towns allied with the Ghibelline cause.

Lanfranco's son, Ranieri, born circa 1267, became Admiral of France in 1304; he died in 1314. Antonio's son, Guglielmo (William), who died in 1302, led a quieter life managing the family's interests, but his wife, Giacoba, bore him a son whose exploits were to make the family more famous still.

Lords of Monaco

As a civic community, Genoa itself at first sought to be politically neutral (at least officially) in the developing struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines, but in fact most of the important Guelphic families were forced into exile between 1270 and 1276. The Grimaldis and a number of other Guelphic clans had taken refuge in Ventimiglia, Mentone and Roquebrune. In 1295, armed confrontation broke out between the two vehement political parties, not only in Genoa proper but along the Ligurian coast and, to a less bloody extent, in other northern Italian cities (the war known as the Sicilian Vespers was a related development). Some towns found themselves in Guelph hands, others under Ghibelline control. Certain important coastal towns, including Monaco, were occupied by Ghibellines, and the fortunes of Guelphic merchants like the Grimaldis, whose commercial success depended upon ready access and low tariffs at such ports, suffered as a result. The Guelphs considered the situation intolerable.

The castle overlooking the Bay of Hercules was erected by the Genoese, who had possessed it and the nearby town of Spélugues (now Monte Carlo) since 1191, in the early years of the thirteenth century. On a cool moonless night in 1297, Lanfranco (Francis) Grimaldi and a handful of companions approached its gates seeking entry. As Guelphs, they would not normally have been admitted so easily, but this night, disguised as friars, they were readily welcomed. Once inside, the Guelphs overpowered the small garrison, presumably with the assistance of fellow men-at-arms who had been hiding nearby. The occupiers may also have had the assistance of the few local inhabitants.

The two monks that appear as supporters in the coat of arms of the Prince of Monaco allude to this event, which some historians have suggested is a symbolic tale based on the principality's name. Monaco is the Italian for "monk," but the locality was originally known as the "Fortress of Hercules" It is true that the few local chronicles to have survived to the present day mention the fall of "Monte Carlo" in such colorful terms. Despite the lack of extant evidence, however, there is no persuasive basis for challenging the veracity of the story. We know from other records that Lanfranco Grimaldi indeed became the ruler of Monaco, even if he was not universally styled its formal "lord," in 1297, and the family's red and white diamond-patterned flag has flown over the castle almost uninterruptedly for seven centuries since then.

Naturally, Lanfranco's act of municipal conquest could not go unnoticed in his own region. News of the takeover traveled fast, first to Genoa and then to nearby Savoy, whose ruler was a faithful ally of the Emperor. It also drew the attention of the King of Naples, a fellow Guelph.

Though they would remain a distinguished family throughout northern Italy for some generations to come, serving as doges, cardinals and bankers, the House of Grimaldi was to achieve its greatest importance in Monaco. Lanfranco himself soon turned to a rather less dignified, but no less lucrative, activity than that of his immediate ancestors --piracy. It earned him the nickname "The Malicious."

Upon his death in 1309, Lanfranco the Malicious was succeeded as Lord of Monaco by his first cousin one generation removed, Ranieri, today referred to as Ranier I. Born in Genoa in 1267, Ranier was the son of that other Lanfranco (who died in 1293), namely the youngest son of Grimaldo Grimaldi.

Like his eccentric cousin, Ranier also sought his adventures at sea. Unlike him, he did so legitimately, earning the respect of the King of Naples, Charles of Anjou, as well as that of the King of France, Philip IV "the Fair." Ranier became Grand Admiral of France in 1304, and King Robert of Naples, Charles' son, ceded to him the signories of Cagnes and Antibes on the French Coast, and the barony of San Demetrio in the rugged mountains of Calabria. Following the death of his first wife, Selvaggia, Ranier wed Andriola Grillo, fathering several children before his death in 1314. It is from this diplomatic confidant of kings that the present Prince of Monaco descends directly, though not, in the case of every generation, in the male line.

Ranier was succeeded by his son, Charles I. He likewise attained fame for his diplomacy and military prowess which, as it turned out, were more astute abroad than at home. He served as an Admiral of France, in which tenure one of his better-known exploits was a raid of Southampton in 1339. He fought with distinction at the Battle of Crécy but was driven from Monaco by the Doge of Genoa. Before his death in 1357, Charles fathered several children, including Ranier II, his heir; it would fall to Charles' grandsons to retake Monaco.

Ranier II, who added the signory of Menton to the Grimaldi holdings, was competent in military matters, perhaps less so in financial ones. This led to his ceding certain holdings to his cousins. He died in 1407. In 1419, with Genoa again in Guelph hands, his three sons, Ambroise, Antoine and Jean, reoccupied Monaco as co-regnant lords.

Southern Cousins

As we shall see, the male line of the Grimaldis of Monaco became extinct with the death of Anthony I in 1731 - though his son-in-law assumed the Grimaldi name. Yet the Sicilian Grimaldi family survives in the direct male line of descent from their medieval ancestors.

Of the branches of the Grimaldi family outside Genoa and Monaco, the most important was established in Sicily, where it became one of the most prominent feudal families of the realm. Through commercial trade, it was not unusual for Genoese, Pisan and Venetian families to establish "branches" in Palermo and Messina. At the end of the fourteenth century, Enrico Grimaldi arrived in Palermo, where he was appointed High Counselor to King Martin. He was named captain of justice of Castrogiovanni (now Enna), the most important city of the mountainous Sicilian interior, in 1397, obtaining the castle and fief of Buzzetta the same year. He thus became a feudatory of the King of Sicily. Considering his family's civic, mercantile and maritime history, this infeudization was, with the exception of a few holdings (notably San Demetrio), something of a departure from tradition.

Enrico's descendant, Pietro, who also resided at Castrogiovanni, acquired the barony of Pasquasia through purchase in 1416.

In keeping with what had become a family tradition among the Sicilian Grimaldis, Giovanni Vito Grimaldi was named captain of justice at Castrogiovanni in 1556.

His kinsman, Pietro Andrea Grimaldi, acquired the fief and barony of Risichilla, with permission to colonize it, in 1572. It was raised to a princedom as Santa Caterina in 1626. Unlike his Monegasque cousins, however, Pietro Andrea Grimaldi was not a sovereign prince, but a holder of the highest Sicilian title of nobility.

Giuseppe Grimaldi acquired the fief of Randello (San Giovanni) in 1609. He served as a judge in Castrogiovanni in 1643 and 1644. Antonino Grimaldi became Baron of Caropepe in 1622, and later served as a judge himself.

By 1731, Giovanni Grimaldi was recognized simply as "Prince Grimaldi." This was a highly exceptional instance in the Kingdom of Sicily, where noble princely titles were usually feudal in nature, and therefore attached to place names. Normally, a younger son or other male descendant of a prince through a cadet line would be a "nobile dei principi" of the princedom held by the head of the family. This creation, however, was not connected to the princedom of Santa Caterina mentioned earlier.

In 1758, Prince Enrico Maria Grimaldi was named Prefect of Mineo, then an important demesnial town. Over the centuries, the Grimaldi acquired, among other titles and holdings, the marquisate of Torresena (sometimes Terresana), the county of San Carlo, the barony of Bosco, the barony of Calamensana and the barony of Nixima. The marquisate or Torresana passed to a female line in 1908. Vincenzo Grimaldi was recognised as Baron of Nixima, and a Nobile dei Principi Grimaldi in 1907. This title was transmitted to his son, Enrico, who had issue. The barony of Nixima became a princedom.

Several members of the family are buried in the family chapel, located in the beautiful Romanesque Gothic basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in the center of Palermo.

Among minor branches of the family, the Alfazio Grimaldi of Asti, in Piedmont, is fairly well known, as are several more recent collateral lines in Nice and even Belgium. Farther south, the Grimaldi of Naples are believed to descend from a Giovanni Grimaldi who lived in Genoa around 1550; however, certain feudal properties near Naples were held not by this branch of the family, but by the Prince of Monaco. From Angevin times, the barony of San Demetrio, in Calabria, appertained directly to the Monegasque branch of the Grimaldis, who also had holdings at Rosarno by the sixteenth century. The fief of San Demetrio eventually passed to the stewardship of a cousin who lived in nearby Crotone, on Calabria's Ionian coast. Descendants of this line settled in Catanzaro.

It is worth mentioning that a supposed "branch" of the Grimaldi family in the Naples area claims descent from the Genoese family but - in fact - is not actually related to it.

Princes of Monaco

Following some further vicissitudes over the next century, Monaco's sovereignty was recognized by the neighboring Duchy of Savoy in 1489 during the reign of Claudine, the first heiress to head the dynasty (as Lady of Monaco). Claudine wed her cousin Lambert Grimaldi, a descendant of Ranier I, and was succeeded, in turn, by three sons.

One of these sons, Lucien, was recognized as sovereign Lord of Monaco by the King of France, in 1512. The Emperor Charles V recognised the sovereignty of the small state in 1525, conceding to it his military protection. Honoré I, Lucien's son and heir, wed a Grimaldi cousin. He fought with distinction alongside the Knights of Malta during the long siege of their island, and at the Battle of Lepanto.

His grandson, Honoré II, assumed the title Prince of Monaco in 1612. This was first recognised internationally some two decades later by Spain, under whose protection the tiny state had found itself since 1524, but with the Treaty of Peronne (1641) Monaco planted itself firmly in the French orbit. Over the years, the Princes of Monaco acquired various titles, often through marriage to heiresses. More often than not, the titles brought with them actual estates, mostly in France.

Honoré's grandson, Louis I, was recognised as a sovereign prince by King Louis XIV and named French Ambassador to the Holy See. Louise-Hippolite, a granddaughter of Louis I, succeeded her father, Antoine (Anthony), in 1731, but died the same year. Honoré III, her young son by Jacques de Goyen de Matignon (briefly Prince of Monaco as Jacques I "Grimaldi" from 1731 until 1733, but in actuality a regent), succeeded her.

It was at this point that the branch of the family in Monaco became extinct in the male line, for while Jacques Matignon assumed the surname Grimaldi he was, in fact, not of that family but ruled by right of his wife. Though he (and his heirs) bore the surname "Grimaldi," Honoré III was not actually descended from the Grimaldis patrilineally. It was his mother who was a Grimaldi, not his father.

The French Revolution found the Grimaldis exiled from Monaco in 1793. The Principality was assigned its ancient name, the Fort d'Hercule, as a French town. Honoré III died in Paris in 1795. Its rights recognised by the Treaty of Paris, the dynasty returned to Monaco in 1815 with Honoré IV. In the spirit of he Congress of Vienna, the Treaty of Racconigi (1817) established the terms under which the Kingdom of Sardinia was to protect the Principality of Monaco.

Mentone and Roquebrune were lost to France in the revolutionary year of 1848, during the reign of Florestan I, who did not formally sanction the loss of these localities. Florestan was succeeded by his son, Charles III, in 1856.

Sovereignty and Succession

Looking toward Italy and its unification, rather than to a continued presence in a region that was culturally French, the House of Savoy ceded Savoie and Nice to France with the Treaty of Racconigi in 1860. The following year, Charles III signed a treaty recognising France's rights to Mentone and Roquebrune. With this accord, France recognised the full independence of the Principality of Monaco, with which it signed a customs treaty in 1865, despite its lack of enthusiasm regarding Charles' establishment of a casino a few years earlier.

Charles III was succeeded by his son, Albert I, in 1889. Albert's wife, Mary Victoria Douglass-Hamilton, bore him a son, Louis II, in 1880. A distinguished sailor and marine biologist, Albert promulgated a Constitution in 1911. Though progressive, it retained overwhelming power for the Crown.

Louis, who served with the French Army during the First World War, succeeded his father in 1922. The lack of legitimate heirs was an obvious source of concern. According to the treaty in force at that time, the Principality would become part of France upon extinction of the dynasty (in strictest terms, upon extinction of the male line). Nevertheless, Charlotte, a natural daughter of Louis II born in 1898, was legitimized in 1919 shortly before her marriage to Comte Pierre de Polignac, an event marking the second instance of inheritance through a female line. Polignac, like Jacques de Matignon two centuries earlier, assumed the surname Grimaldi. Charlotte bore two children, Antoinette in 1920 and Ranier in 1923.

The late Ranier Louis Henri Maxence Bertrand Grimaldi succeeded his grandfather, Louis II, as Prince of Monaco (as Ranier III) in 1949, having served with the French army during the Second World War. One of his first official acts was negotiation of a convention for mutual administrative assistance with the French Republic in 1951. A new Constitution was promulgated in 1962.

A series of constitutional changes effected after 2000 have widened the line of succession to include females along collateral lines (i.e. the children of the two sisters of Prince Albert now reigning), though with preference given to males.

About the Author: Luigi Mendola writes about historical topics, including heraldry.

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