Property and Power

The life of a renaissance woman: The extraordinary case of Barbara Pallavicino, marchioness of Zibello

Rolando (II) Pallavicino, marquees of Zibello and Roccabianca (1463–1529), with his daughter Barbara and his second spouse Domitilla Gambara (d. 1545) painted by Francesco Zaganelli da Cotignola in 1519 for an altarpiece in the Franciscan abbey of Ss. Gervasio and Protasio at Parma (Photograph by Peter Liljenstolpe, Galleria Nazionale, Parma).

Barbara Pallavicino (1512–1539) was an heiress and feudal pretendent in early 16th century Lom-bardia (present Emilia-Romagna). She is an illuminating example of how women during the early modern period, although not fully entitled to inheritance and the legal status bestowed upon men, were capable of pursuing their own – as well as their children’s - rights to landholdings and investiture. In her quest, Barbara sought the aid of powerful relatives with connections to dukes, cardinals and popes. In so doing, her interests sometimes came into conflict with those of her own husband, the condottiere Ludovico Rangoni.

By applying a microhistorical approach on the events of Barbara Pallavicino’s life, the objective of this project is to shed further light on macrohistorical sequences of events and contribute to our understanding of rationality and the behaviour of people in proto modern Lombard society,

Fig. 2. Castello di Roccabianca constituted the bulk of Barbara’s patrimony and her main holding (Photograph by Peter Liljenstolpe).Firstly, we propose that from the events of Barbara’s we may conclude on the everyday life of women at the princely courts of the period – their childhood, education, marriage, childcare, expected duties and death. 

Secondly, we may get a better understanding of women’s relation to property. Barbara lived in a time when families were all about property and power. Since Barbara had no brother, Barbara’s father expected her to defend her own and her children’s rights to patrimony, and so she did using both law as tool and the support of influential relatives and friends. What can Barbara’s situation tell us about proto modern conceptions of ownership (dominium, the right of owner-ship), possessio (the detention of property), patrimony, fideicommissum and testament, and to what extent is it possible to connect her actions to both prevalent law (Canon law, city statutes and the so-called Statuta Pallavicinia) and to circumstances such as current power ratios. Although her father had obtained permission from pope Clemente VII to pass his fiefs to Barbara and her future children, this was contested by her male cousins. The case, which has come to be known as the Causa Parmensis Status, was not finally solved until 1648.

Fig. 3. Barbara Pallavicino (identified as), by Alessandro Araldi. Presumably painted in 1523 when Barbara was twelve as a gift to her prospective spouse Ippolito de’ Medici, by Parmesian painter Alessandro Araldi (Galleria degli Uffizi, Firenze).Thirdly, the decline of the Pallavicini as princes over independent states is clearly discernible during Barbara’s lifetime. The Pallavicino family had, since the 10th century, been important vassals of the emperor and leading figures of the Ghibelline fraction. The might of the Pallavicini was at its height from 1250 to 1450, a key figure being Rolando (I) Pallavicino (1384–1457), Barbara’s great grandfather. When he became marquess of Busseto, he turned the dominion with which he had been invested, togther with further conquered territory, into an independent state, the Stato Pallavicino, with direct dependence on Imperial power. Consisting of c. 288 mi² within a triangle between Parma, Piacenza and Cremona and with Busseto as its capital, the state had an estimaed population of 28.500 in the 16th century by late medieval standards a fairly densely populated area. Rolando entirely reorganized the administration of the state by issuing the Statuta Pallavicinia, a legal codex which regulated the institutions and jurisdiction of the state. The Statuta reflected Rolando’s conception of lordship and show similarities with the laws of a modern unitary state. It displays a clear focal point in a jurisdictional way – reminding everyone subject to the Statuta that they had to comply strictly to the law of their lord. By the mid 15th century, the Pallavicini had been in a position much similar to that of the Gonzaga family of Mantova, with which the Pallavicini had frequently intermarried. We believe that the events of Barbara’s life illustrate and may shed light on why the Pallavicini instead of remaining heads of sovereign states, became vassals to the Duke of Milan (later to the Dukes of Parma). Meanwhile, the Gonzagas went on to become dukes themselves, marrying Imperial princesses and thus becoming stake holders on a Pan European level. The study takes off in both primary sources, such as letters, legal documents, inventories and tes-taments and in recent research, which has focused increasingly on the importance of historic-sociological and economic perspectives on family, but also on issues such as female patronage and law as formative element in family life.

Fig. 4. Cover of the 1582 edition of the Statuta Palivicinia, a legal codex compiled on the orders by Rolando ‘il Magnifico’ Pallavicino, marquess of Busseto, which regulated the institutions and jurisdiction of the Pallavicino state (Photograph by Peter Liljenstolpe).


Peter Liljenstolpe, PhD, Managing Director, Royal College of Music in Stockholm;  Bo Wennström, LL.D., Professor Emeritus of Legal Sciences, Uppsala university.